When will women ever feel safe to walk anywhere alone?

CW: gender-based violence, sexual harassment

If you identify as female, then I know I speak for us all when I say that Sarah Everard’s tragic case has devastated me. I have felt a whole cocktail of emotions – from anger to fear and despair – but, sadly, I didn’t feel surprised by the news. Because I, along with all other women and girls, have my own gender-based traumas that I carry with me wherever I go. The only surprise I felt was when a survey conducted by UN Women UK revealed that 97% of women aged 18-24 said they had been sexually harassed; I thought it would be 100%. I don’t know a single female who doesn’t have her own story of sexual harassment or abuse to tell.

After Sarah’s disappearance, the MET police told local female residents to stay at home after dark. And although many women already avoid going out alone after dark, this curfew highlighted how much work must still be done. Because, yet again, the issue is being deflected by men on to women. Yet again, the victims are being asked to change their behaviour to prevent further incidents from happening. As if women are the problem?

This victim-blaming tendency that is at the heart of all gender-based traumas was further crystallised in the trending #NotAllMen hashtag which, at one point, surpassed Sarah Everard’s own name. It reminded me of the #AllLivesMatter trend when the BLM movement was gaining momentum last summer. Yes, not all men sexually harass women – but all women have been sexually harassed by men. Stating that not all men abuse women is counterproductive and simply detracts from the main issue here: that women have never felt safe walking alone, and a fundamental systemic overhaul is needed for that to change.

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A week after Sarah’s killer was discovered, I was walking alone in broad daylight on a busy street. A man spat at me. He was big, imposing, and knew exactly what he was doing; he locked eyes with me after spitting on me, a challenge in his eyes. Daring me to say something. I wanted to, but knew I wouldn’t, and he knew that too. So, I just walked on. I felt shaken but knew that I was never truly unsafe because there were people around. Had it been dark, had it been an empty street… it would have been a different story. 

In and of itself, it’s not a particularly harrowing tale. I’ve had worse, and I know too many girls who have had far more traumatic experiences. Women who have stopped running outdoors for fear of catcalling, girls who have stopped clubbing for fear of being groped – or worse – and others who no longer wear skirts, shorts, or any item of clothing that could be perceived as “provocative”. All women have changed their habits in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from a similar fate to Sarah Everard and countless other victims. In the past year alone, 118 women have been killed by men in the UK. No matter the precautions we take, we continue to be unsafe in the streets that we call home.

Over the past days, some men have taken to social media to ask what they can do to make women feel safer and not contribute to the street culture of sexual harassment. Responses have included: not walking too closely behind women, especially if they’re alone; crossing to the other side of the street to prevent a woman from feeling threatened; keeping faces visible; and calling out other men for sexist behaviour, attitudes, or comments. It’s been encouraging to see, but a part of me is resentful. Why are they only just learning about it now? How have they never had to feel the fear we women feel on a daily basis? When will I be able to walk alone at night without sharing my location with my friends, facetiming them, planning multiple routes in my head or looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being followed?

I remember a year ago asking my brother what he would do if one of his mates didn’t get into the club on a night out (pre-Covid, of course). He said he’d just go in and enjoy his night with his remaining friend group. I then told him, had it been my (female) friend group, it would have been a completely different scenario. We’d have all gone home with her, or someone would have volunteered to get an Uber home with her – but leaving her to make her way home alone would never have crossed any of our minds. Because, for us girls, that simply isn’t an option. It might be a cliché, but we (almost) always travel in groups. We simply don’t feel safe otherwise. And, if Sarah’s case is anything to go by, we clearly aren’t safe otherwise.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t even question the fact that my friends and I always tell each other to “text when you get home xx”. It’s second nature, a reflex, the natural ending to a night. And now, the natural ending to anything – be it in broad daylight or pitch black. I now share my location with all my close female friends, and vice versa, just in case. Because better safe than sorry, right? 

Unfortunately, it’s the sad reality of the world we currently inhabit. These stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence aren’t fiction – they’re fact. They are the lived reality of every woman I know and every other woman that I don’t know. Sarah Everard was 33 years old. She was no child, no student caught off-guard because she was unaware that this world isn’t safe for women. She “did everything right”, and it still came to the worst ending imaginable; the type of ending that all women have had nightmares about – and will continue to have.

This culture of sexual harassment has become so ingrained in our society that we don’t often think about the extra time, money, and energy women spend to try to ensure their safety. The money spent on taxis – which can be a source of danger in and of themselves – on rape alarms, on phone bills. The energy spent worrying about past and future traumas. The time spent planning and taking a longer, safer route home. It’s exhausting…but we don’t have any other choice. This is an insidious form of trauma that is so commonplace, it has seeped into our daily lives and become “the norm” for 50% of the population.

Sadly, I don’t know when it will stop. But, if you’re a male reading this, you have to fight with us. Even if you are a feminist, if you would never dream of sexually harassing women – you can help. Call out your mates for sexist comments, for so-called “locker-room talk”. Stand up for women if you see them being denigrated by men. Change your street behaviour and be aware that the smallest of things to you can feel like the scariest of things to a woman. A shout, a beep, a whistle, a laugh, a look… sometimes, they’re all it takes for us to feel scared. 

Yes, we want to reclaim the streets. To feel empowered and powerful. But we also can’t achieve this without you. We’re not damsels in distress, but we are victims of gender-based traumas. Traumas that start and end with men.

Image: Michelle Ding via Unsplash