Victoria Parrett shares her story as she reflects on the tragedy of Sarah Everard's murder and we need men to step up in the fight to end violence against women.
*Warning: contains a description of sexual assault
Men are far more likely than women to be killed by a stranger on the street. Women are far more likely than men to be killed by a partner or ex-partner in their own home. In England and Wales, 93% of murder suspects in 2020 were men. Despite this, women are taught to fear walking alone through a misogynistic culture and a reality of sexualised public abuse. As women, we get sent safety tips, are called stupid for walking in dark or ‘rough’ areas and get told our outfits will be the death of us. Why?
This year I plucked up the courage to start running in the dark. I picked a route busy with other runners and a regular flow of traffic. I accepted that the air pollution once or twice a week would be a worthy sacrifice for the stress relief it gave me. I’ve felt perfectly safe every time until last week when Sarah Everard disappeared on the same busy A road I’d selected as part of my ‘safe run’. As the likely story of what happened to Sarah has emerged in the press, it’s been difficult to think of much else. We don’t know exactly what happened, but every possibility we imagine reignites our worst fears and reminds us how unsafe it feels to be a woman.
In May 2016 I was sexually assaulted seconds from my home. I left a party assuring my friends I was fine to walk home. It was midnight on a Saturday, pubs were still open, and all I needed to do was walk down the busy high street until I got to my road just beyond. I hadn’t had a drink since 10 and I felt confident I would get home safely.
Twenty minutes later I was being chased down my road by a boy (he seemed young) who wouldn’t take no for an answer. He caught up to me, grabbed me from behind, groped me everywhere he could and wouldn’t let go. As I tried to fight him, screaming and swearing, he laughed. I kept fighting and eventually he ran away. I managed to get to my door and let myself in, checking he wasn’t watching to see where I lived. The police were good, if bewildered at why I’d rung 101 instead of 999. They investigated as they could, but my attacker was never found.
The assault itself lasted less than a minute, but the fear persisted for months and years. For a while I didn’t go out as much, I still never take a short cut and I generally plan my outfits for nights out based on whether I’ll feel safe walking home in them. Often I’ll plan to stay at a friend’s if I can’t afford the taxi home. I’m also very aware that most people will ignore a screaming woman outside their house so there’s not much safety to be found in residential areas. That’s my ‘scary’ story. The others are more common – on packed trains, at parties, in bars, on busy roads walking home from school. Every woman has stories of public assaults and harassments by strangers or men they know.
The police are urgent to assure women that random attacks resulting in murder are rare – I think we already know and believe this, but the fear has already built up in us all. We are taught as girls about stranger danger because we know how predators take advantage of a trusting child. Then we grow up and realise the danger hasn’t gone away, because in their eyes you are equally as weak. Different men are after us now. They might not want to kill us, but they want to touch us and hold power over us. In the light of day and surrounded by people, we are assaulted and harassed. We know what these men are willing to do to us in public, so we live in fear of what they’ll do when we’re alone.
I’m a fairly rational person, but fear can overtake any rationality or justification of risk. We’re directed in the name of feminism to achieve economic equality by being a leader and working hard to achieve career success. But even women who have the luxury of economic power don’t automatically have the freedom to feel safe on the streets or often even their homes. Even when a woman can afford the luxury of a taxi home, the safety of this feels overstated. We’re still often entering a car with a random man. Everywhere we go there are men we don’t know the intentions of. We’re told to avoid this danger, but you can’t ask women to escape the dangers of being a woman unless you ask them to avoid men entirely. I doubt many would argue that’s a reasonable or desirable ask.
There’s no one way to fix the legitimate fear of assault and murder. You can cross the street so we don’t think you’re a stalker, walk us home from the pub, get us in a taxi after a night out, even help us out of abusive relationships - you’ll still only be plastering the wound of pervasive misogyny that is entrenched in every single system of society, placing women under the power of men.
Britain has definitely embraced the name of feminism in the past few years, making it mainstream in a way it hasn’t been before. We can argue extensively in so far as the impact of this in terms of real change, but unarguably feminism of a certain kind has become ‘cool’. International Women’s Day is a reason for many companies and organisations to celebrate the success and often unexpected power that some women have gained. I don’t want to overly criticise this because I think for the most part this is fine and often inspiring. However, much of the girl boss/successful woman trope is based entirely on women achieving the kind of economic success typically reserved for men by changing their behaviour. Often this is by acting up to masculine ideals and rejecting the perceived restrictions of womanhood. What can sometimes be ignored in this particular path to empowering women is that those same ideals of typical masculinity and rejection of fragility are fundamental to why men attack and kill women.
I could go far further into the solutions, nuances, and complications that inevitably arise from a conversation about gender relations. I’ve applied the term ‘we’, ‘woman’ and ‘men’ in a broader way than is reasonable and possible to be universally applied. Just as the broad safety guidance issued to women won’t cover all eventualities, even broad analysis of gender and power can’t cover all circumstances or explain every situation. Every power dynamic there is entails more complexity than can be detailed in this post – this is this why intersectionality is integral to all feminist critique and why there can be no one solution to any problem as pervasive as violence against women.
As women in Britain the likelihood of being killed on the street, as seems to have happened to Sarah, is low. But every time we are insulted, harassed, attacked or raped just for being women, our response can only be an increasingly ingrained fear. We are the forced through this to change and adapt, reducing our movements and guarding our bodies against further attack. In reality, I’m not sure we’ll have much influence over this fear until the wider systems of gendered and institutional power change around us. And for that, men must start to use their power for good.
Victoria Parrett is the Young Fabians Social Officer and Vice-chair of the Young Fabians Arts and Culture Network. She has an MSc in Gender, Policy and Inequalities from LSE and tweets @VictoriaParrett.