Content warning: mentions of sexual assault and harassment
All my group chats today have been talking about one thing: the case of Sarah Everard. If you don’t know about Sarah, she’s a young woman who went missing in London last week, on her way home from meeting a friend. Her disappearance is both shocking and harrowing, but it’s also a case that many women will see some of their own experiences reflected in.
Women are told from a young age to not walk home alone, to keep to busy roads, and to ‘text me when you get home’. We’re told if we do need to walk home alone, especially at night, then to make sure we’re hyper-aware of our surroundings. This means no earphones, avoid calling people, and make sure your keys are firmly clenched in your hand. Even with Sarah’s disappearance, the police have told women these exact same things, pushing a victim-blaming narrative, as if any of the things we do can actually stop us from being harassed or assaulted.
I still remember the time I was followed home like it was yesterday. It was a few years ago, when I was living in Manchester, and I’d just got off the bus from meeting a friend. It was a route I knew like the back of my hand. But on this day, the bus wasn’t going to my usual stop, so I had to get off early and walk the rest of the way home. It was dark, so the earphones came out and the music stopped. The keys were ready, firmly in hand. And I started walking home as quickly as possible.
Not soon after, I was extremely aware of a car slowly following me down the road. Before I even looked over my shoulder, I knew it would be a group of men. They didn’t say anything, but they followed me in their car until I turned into a different road. They then sped off, and I ran the rest of the way home.
“Women are told from a young age to not walk home alone, to keep to busy roads, and to ‘text me when you get home’.”
The fear and dread you feel when something like this happens consumes you completely. I don’t know if those men were dangerous, were planning on doing something, or if they thought following me home was some sort of joke. But the reaction and feelings I had were visceral and very real. And they are feelings that have stayed with me many years later. Sadly, this isn’t a unique experience. I know many women who have had similar experiences, or worse.
UN Women UK have today released survey results that have added even more depth to the conversations currently being had about women’s safety. Among women aged 18-24, 97% said they’d been sexually harassed, and 80% of women, of all ages, said they’d experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. And most women reading these statistics will probably think: yes, that sounds about right.
“Either men are covering up other men’s behaviour, or they simply don’t see or recognise it. And both of those situations are extremely worrying and dangerous.”
But, when you ask men if they know of anyone who’s behaved or harassed women in this way, they tell you they don’t know anyone. It doesn’t add up. Either men are covering up other men’s behaviour, or they simply don’t see or recognise it. And both of those situations are extremely worrying and dangerous. It’s indicative of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture, where women being assaulted is normalised, and something we’ve all just got to live with.
What’s noticeable about the conversations being had today, amongst family and friends, and online, is that it’s mostly women talking about it. It’s women sharing their own thoughts and experiences of feeling unsafe or experiencing harassment. It’s women telling men what to do in public spaces to make sure we feel safer. Keep your distance when walking behind a woman on the street, or even better, cross over to the other side of the street. Make some noise so she’s aware of your presence. But where are the men in these conversations? Why aren’t they talking about it, and especially with each other?
“But where are the men in these conversations? Why aren’t they talking about it?”
The onus isn’t and shouldn’t be on women. It isn’t up to us to talk about it and push for change, especially in a patriarchal system that is geared against us. Men need to speak up. And not just speak up around women to prove they’re a ‘nice guy’, but privately with each other. Women don’t need performative ally ship. I don’t believe for a second that men just don’t know other men who’ve harassed or assaulted a woman.
And if you’re a man reading this and still don’t believe you know anyone, then it’s probably because it’s behaviour you don’t recognise as problematic and dangerous. But it’s behaviour that you need to recognise, so that you can then call it out. Even calling out ‘casual’ sexist remarks or jokes is a step in the right direction in getting other men to be aware of the effects their comments and behaviour can have on women. It’s a culture that needs to be dismantled.
If anything is going to change for women and our safety, it has to start with men actively joining the conversation and making an effort to engage. We need you to have those hard conversations with each other, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. Because, as women, all we do is talk about it. And women, like Sarah Everard, still go missing.
Shahed Ezaydi is the Deputy Editor of Aurelia. @shahedezaydi
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