Content Warning: sexual assault, harassment, gender-based violence
In the wake of Sarah Everard’s disappearance, Rachel Campbell reflects on the culture which teaches women to walk with their keys between their fingers whilst men laugh about it.
A police officer has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of Sarah Everard, a woman who went missing on her way home from her friend’s house in South London. In the wake of this news, much of the online response centred around (male) claims that she should have taken more precautions to prevent this from happening. This blatant victim-blaming is unacceptable. For one thing, Sarah Everard took precautions. She contacted her partner, wore sensible shoes, and walked in an area with CCTV cameras, wearing memorable clothing. This case hits home with so many women, each who take their own precautions, and their own realisation that no matter how much care they take, the same could happen to them.
After every shift at my job at a bar in the West End, I woke up my boyfriend or my dad to call them as I walked the long way home because it had more street lamps. Soon my boyfriend came to pick me up instead, despite the drive taking longer than the walk. After we heard about the sexual assaults around campus last year, my friend and I went to get personal alarms from the Students' Representative Council, but the hundreds of other female students aware of the real danger we all faced had gotten there before us. Instead, our hands hovered over the emergency SOS alert on our phones whenever we walked home from the library after 4pm in winter. We walk with keys between our knuckles, even when they’re numb from the cold. We share our locations with our friends. We share taxis even if it’ll cost more. We do all this without thinking twice about how we shouldn’t have to. Even if Sarah Everard hadn’t taken any precautions when she travelled home from her friend’s that night, she wouldn’t be to blame. We should be questioning why we’re conditioned to think it’s normal to live in constant fear of gender-based violence, rather than questioning whether the victims did enough to prevent it.
My experiences have made me expect male violence. From when I was seven in a bookshop and a boy grabbed my chest. I didn’t understand, and it made me feel sick, but the adult with me told me not to make a scene, so I didn’t. I still remember his face. When I was 15, my friend and I were catcalled and followed when walking down Buchanan Street. We ran, and then laughed it off. It seemed like a rite of passage. When I first went clubbing, I realised that saying I was waiting for my boyfriend was a much easier way to avoid being cornered or groped than saying “No”. I learned that men respected other men more than they do women. From the point I turned 18, I increasingly found myself feeling unsafe around men. I once had a short walk back from my car in the dark after struggling to park nearer my flat, and I heard footsteps behind me. As I sped up, they seemed to as well, and all I could think was “I can’t outrun him”. I didn’t tell anyone, they’d just worry. When a man got in my way and looked down at me with a smile the next day, I wondered if it was the same man and if he now knew where I lived. I convinced myself there were too many flats in the block for that to be true. A year later, my well-meaning boyfriend tried to surprise me with a visit and didn’t understand the paralysing fear that struck me when he tapped my shoulder from behind outside my flat at night.
But why would men know? We don’t raise men in this same culture. We don’t raise men to know that women have to take precautions, to live in fear. We raise men on rape jokes and slapping arses in nightclubs. The media is full of the “he’s mean to you because he likes you” trope. You’ve got your Barney Stinson’s who make objectifying women into a fun game and your Ted Mosby’s who think they can persuade that one woman to be with them with enough hard work. A joke is a joke until it’s a cultural norm, until it starts to affect how you view women, and what you deem is OK. It’s a joke until your friend who always said the odd dodgy thing sexually assaults a woman. I’ve often heard men describe one of their friends as being “a really good guy, except when it comes to girls”. This needs to end: we need to see men calling out their friends in the first instance, not standing for so-called jokes which create a culture where gender-based violence is an inevitability.
I’m not saying most men will attack women, but most men play into harmful tropes about women, under the guise of a joke, which ultimately adds to the culture where 97% of young women have been sexually harassed. This is a problem in which everyone is complicit. Recently I supported a local business during lockdown, buying something from them over Instagram. I went to pick it up, we had a chat, his daughter was there. Days later he messaged me out of the blue, which I found strange but went along with to be polite, until the conversation turned to a statement about his trousers being too tight, at which point I still felt too awkward to ignore him, plumping for “haha”. I had to ask my friends if I was overreacting. After all, I can take a joke. In light of recent events, he’s shared infographics on how not to make women feel uncomfortable, and how to call out your friends on their troubling behaviours. It’s not always being catcalled, grabbed, or chased. If you don’t realise that a message about your tight trousers, to a female customer who is half your age, is inappropriate, you’re adding to the culture that says women should accept whatever treatment men give them.
Don’t just share the infographic. Take a look back at how your own behaviour may be contributing to this culture. Realise how much media you consume is degrading to women. Realise your privilege of not having to take preventative measures not to be harassed or attacked. Don’t expect a smile back. Call out your friends. Don’t laugh at their “jokes”. This can’t be allowed to slip back into our collective subconsciousness until another woman is killed just for existing.
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