I thought long and hard about sharing this, but I feel we need to have some different conversations about the issue of keeping woman safe, and if I want to see change, I have to be part of that conversation and explain why I feel the way I do. I have shared other people’s words and articles, but these are my thoughts and my own experience.
I am so very angry.
I am so very sad.
Another young woman has lost her life.
I can’t stop thinking about Sarah. About what she might have gone through in those days before she died, what her family and friends are going through now and will have to live through going forward. My heart breaks for them.
I worked at the same place as Sarah did, years ago. I know people who knew her really well. That doesn’t really even matter, though I guess it’s made this all feel closer and more personal. As does the fact I lived in London as a young woman – from aged 21 to 31. I spent a lot of time in the area that Sarah lived in, I walked those streets in the dark. I walked home alone, maybe after work, maybe after a drink. I took night buses – I couldn’t always afford a taxi. Sometimes I was drunk, sometimes I was sober. I went clubbing in skimpy clothes. I went to parties at people’s houses I had just met.
And somehow, I think of myself as lucky, because I know I have been in situations where I was vulnerable, but I am still here, alive. Unlike Sarah and countless woman. And it’s scary to think it could so easily have been otherwise.
As well as the horrific-ness of Sarah’s disappearance and murder, the narrative around Sarah’s disappearance has angered me. The call for women to not go out alone, the advice rehashed about how to keep yourself safe. The criticism, victim shaming and blaming of Sarah – what was she doing out? Why was she alone, wearing headphones? The speculation that alcohol was involved. And subsequently the heavy-handed police dealing with the vigil last night – markedly different from their handling of the anti-mask protesters and football fans recently. (There are many amazing coppers, this is a policy criticism.)
Every woman I know has stories to tell – from the day-to-day causal comments or touches to the rape or nearly raped stories, and every woman I know can talk about the countless techniques they have employed to keep themselves from harm – but we still come to harm.
My dad told me to scream fire instead of help, as people were more likely to come running.
Act as if you are a mad person, he said, not scared – it’ll maybe drive them away rather than making you seem vulnerable – I used to actually practice this at home, so I could do it more convincingly if I needed to. And I did need to.
I did martial arts classes – which taught me techniques I have actually used.
I carried a letter opener with me, and cans of hairspray - as they weren’t technically weapons but I could still use for self-defence. I still sleep with the letter opener next to my bed.
I always had a pair of trainers in my bag, so I could wear them when walking home in case I needed to run away.
I wouldn’t wear my hair in a ponytail when walking home because it’s easier to grab.
I carry my keys in my fist.
Even when getting a cab home, I wouldn’t always feel safe. I would have a fake conversation with a fake boyfriend, when the taxi driver was too interested in “who was waiting up for me when I got home”
I’ve asked to be dropped off at a friend’s house where there were men, rather than at home, as I didn’t want the cab driver to know where I lived and asked someone to walk me home.
I have not gone places if I wasn’t sure how I would get home safely.
I have avoided going out in the dark.
I have taken the long way home to avoid walking through alley ways or dark areas.
Not listening to music/podcasts when I am walking in the dark or in a lightly populated areas so I can keep alert to what is happening around me.
Being constantly alert when walking in the dark, of the men around me, stopping to let them pass, waiting until someone has walked on or is not looking before taking a turn so they can't see where I have gone.
Avoided getting in empty carriages, or ones with single or groups of men, on the train or tube or seek out couples or other women to sit near to.
I would be careful about when I unlocked my car in a multi-story car park- maybe even turn of the central locking, just in case someone would be ready to jump in.
I would lock my car doors when driving to avoid anyone getting in when I stopped or slowed down.
Texting friends and sharing locations so that some knew where I was.
Following up on friends who haven’t texted back.
Feeling safe when home alone was a consideration when I got a dog.
All of these things I still do.
Even with all of these precautions I have:
Had a man sit next to me on an empty tube carriage and start to masturbate whilst looking at me in the eyes.
Been grabbed outside a pub toilet, whilst my then boyfriend queued at the bar, by a man who told me he was going to rape me – I managed to push him off, and ran to the bar staff for help (they did nothing and let him go).
Had to fight off a stranger who tried to take me from a club, telling the bouncers ( who did nothing to help) that I was his girlfriend, I was drunk and we had had a fight – none of which was true. I had to fight him off myself.
Been at a hospital appointment where, after leaving me semi naked in a room on my own for 45mins, a male doctor did an intimate exam, with no one else presence. To this day I am still not sure whether I was examined or assaulted.
Been trapped in a room for a night by an ex-boyfriend trying to convince me to get back with him.
Had a work colleague try to kiss me in a hotel corridor on a work trip.
Been at an award ceremony and had a client run his hand under my top up my back.
Been followed by a man in a car – too many times to count – many times with them shouting sexual comments at me.
I have been grabbed at whilst jogging in the street.
Had someone I knew walk me home after being out with friends, then try to kiss me and get into my home.
Had taxi drivers try to question me as to “who was waiting home for me”, “did I have a boyfriend?”.
Had to fight off a man who tried to push me back into a pub toilet.
Had countless men touch me inappropriately – at work, on the tube, in a pub, in a club, passing on the street, in the gym.
Had groups of men comment on my appearance as I passed them.
Been shouted at by men in passing cars.
Been leered at.
Had my body parts been commented upon by strangers.
And this is just in the physical world – I haven’t even started on the online world.
Writing this as a list shocked me. But what’s even more shocking is that it’s certainly not unusual. And that I mostly dismissed it as part of life, or more accurately, part of a woman’s life.
ALL of my female friends have similar stories to tell. And we have ALL been told in so many ways, that this is just the world we live in, it’s the way it is. That’s life. Do all of these things, and more, to keep yourself safe. The onus is on you.
But it’s not working. We are not safe.
And there is still the pervading viewpoint something happens to you it’s your fault for putting yourself in harm’s way. What were you wearing? What signs were you giving off? Were you drunk?
It might be unusual for a woman to be snatched from the streets and murdered, but insidious violence and aggressive and demeaning behaviour towards women is an everyday event. Think about the recent campaigns to make up-skirting a crime.
And it’s exhausting, living in this state of constant threat that we, as women, feel in public and it’s exhausting maintaining the constant vigilance required to stay safe.
I don’t want this for my nieces, my god-daughters or any of the beautiful young women I know, care about and love.
I also don’t want my son to be part of the problem.
I know it’s not “all men”. I have many, many wonderful men in my life. I love them, I am friends with them, I work with them and I see them in my community. I know it’s not every man.
But EVERY WOMAN I know has stories like mine. Many, many stories in which they have felt scared, vulnerable, threatened, dirty, shameful, hurt because of an action of a man.
So, I have to treat all men as a threat, until I know otherwise. This is not me being dramatic, this is how it is for me.
And the everyday things that happen that make us feel uncomfortable or threatened are all indications of a systemic problem which says: “men are men, and women need to protect themselves against their nature.” This is untrue and unfair to the majority of men.
I am aware that more women are killed by people they know rather than strangers. This doesn’t change the situation. And I am also aware that far too many men die on the street also, killed, in an overwhelming majority, by other men. This doesn’t change the situation.
It’s not a competition.
The way women and girls are killed is very different from the circumstances in which men are killed, and if we want to address this problem we need to recognise and explore what is at the root of this violence.
When you see media stories and research about violence against men and boys, these stories are never accompanied by, “why aren’t you focusing on women and girls?”. Ignoring the gender nuances of these issues isn’t going to help anyone. Men included.
Violence against women is unique, and entrenched in our society, and our social structures perpetuate and maintain gender inequalities.
I am also very aware that this issue is also nuanced. Women from the BAME community, Blessing Olusegun, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, for example, have not received the press coverage that poor Sarah has. Why does the death of a BAME woman warrant less of an outrage? It shouldn’t.
It is exhausting to live like this.
So many women have died in fear.
And so many more of us continue to live with more fear than we should have to.
And that is why I am as angry as I am sad.
So, what can we all do?
Email your MP – find out who and how here: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/
Send tweets to the PM, other people in government. Let them know #enoughisenough
Ask for more education to teach men and boys about consent and boundaries
Call for an overhaul of the criminal justice system – only 1.4% of reported rapes end in conviction – why is this?
Ask the government to approach this differently:
As them to count female victims – we need centrally held data on women and girls killed by men – including demographics and social factors.
Ask them to collect data and fund studies on the perpetrators - we need to understand who are committing these crimes and why.
Ask the government to make any form of harassment a crime.
Ask them to increase sentences for violent and sexual crimes towards women.
And to my darling male friends and family you can help us every day. Firstly, by not dismissing or undermining how strongly we feel about this. Then by asking questions and seeking to understand why we feel this way and asking how you can help us, rather than jumping into defence mode or diverting the conversation to male on male violence.
By calling out every-day misogyny/ casual sexism – if you see it call it out. It’s a constant erosion of the way women are seen as “other” in our society and supports the objectifying of us and our bodies.
If you see a woman being talked over or undermined in a conversation, call it out. If you see a man catcall or heckle, call it out.
Consider the media you consume – how do they represent women and girls?
And above all please remember this is not about men v women. We love you. We need your help and understanding.
If you got this far, thank you for reading.