CN: This article contains discussion of sexual violence and murder
A week ago, few people knew who Sarah Everard was. Now, in the most tragic of circumstances, we all do. Sarah Everard disappeared on 3rd March whilst walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham at around 9:30 pm. She has not been seen since. On 9th March, a serving police officer was arrested on suspicion of her kidnapping, as well as on a separate count of indecent exposure, and has since been arrested on suspicion of murder. A woman was also arrested on suspicion of assisting him, although her role is not yet clear. On 10th March, human remains were discovered that are believed to be those of Sarah, but this has still not been confirmed. Sarah disappeared whilst walking in a highly-populated area of London. But the details of her case are insignificant. It doesn’t matter what she was wearing, what time it was, whether she called her partner or not. What is significant is that she was not safe walking alone. Despite the fact we are in 2021, despite the efforts and achievements of the #MeToo movement, despite the increased awareness around misogyny and violence against women, women are still not safe walking alone.
Following Sarah’s case, there has been the predictable tirade of men on Twitter explaining how she should have known that walking alone at night was dangerous. That she should not have had the audacity to presume that she would be valued as an actual human being by any men who crossed her path. That somehow, her abduction (and presumed murder) was her fault.
How is it that we are still hearing these same narratives of victim blaming? Walking alone at any time of the day or night should not be a privilege. The problem is not women presuming that they will be safe, it is those men out there who are determined to commit horrendous crimes against us. Those who, when they see a woman, see a target.
Besides this sickening blame game, there has also been an outpouring of support on social media. Sarah’s story strikes a chord with many of us, and a cascade of women have shared their own stories of facing men’s violence. To that end, we have seen men condemning this gut-wrenching example of violence against women. But what we have often heard is simply not good enough. Amidst a torrent of reactionary discourse, two words have stuck out. Two words that women have heard over and over, words that have been overused to the point of vacuousness. Shocked and saddened. These were the words uttered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson upon hearing of the discovery of human remains in a Kent woodland. Men telling us they are shocked and saddened is not, and has never been, enough.
Is male violence against women still shocking? Ask any woman you know whether she feels safe walking down a dark alley, or walking past a group of men alone. I can almost guarantee the answer will be “no”.
Society needs to stop simply expressing its shock and sadness. We must express our unabated anger. We must demand the equal rights and respect that women deserve. The time has come (and it is long overdue) to demand that the onus of this change be put on men. Let us teach men and boys that women (cis and trans) are of equal value to other humans, and therefore equally deserving of respect and safety. That women still cannot walk home alone at night without being attacked is a stain on our society.
It is not the responsibility of women to be on constant alert, to clutch their keys between their fingers for protection, to always be on the phone with a friend when walking at night. It is the responsibility of men to not attack us. It is the responsibility of men to call out their male friend who makes lewd sexual comments about female passers-by. It is the responsibility of men to call out that friend who boasts about having felt up a woman in a club. We cannot continue to allow a dangerous minority of men to control the way all women live. And men, changing this reality is on you.
The fact that it is a police officer who has been arrested for Sarah’s kidnapping and presumed murder makes her tragedy even more disturbing. It shows that even those charged with protecting us, and with bringing criminals to justice, cannot always be trusted. Those who arrest shoplifters, drug dealers, rapists and killers for a living are not exempt from carrying out those very crimes themselves. It is a wake-up call that we, as women, are never safe. We are not safe in the streets. We are not safe in public spaces. We are not even safe in our own homes.
It goes without saying that not all men are sexist, or a threat to women. However, crucially, a loud minority are. And frighteningly for women, there is no way for us to tell who belongs to this minority until it is too late. I defy you to find a woman who has not had to think about or face men’s violence in some form. Of course, some of us have more devastating stories than others. But every woman I know has a story, and that is the problem.
Sarah was 33 years old. She had a loving family, friends, and boyfriend. She was a marketing executive. She brought joy to people’s lives. She was a woman walking home from a friend’s house after a day at work. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and probably paid with her life. We may not yet know the full details of this horrific crime but, as women, we do know that what has happened to Sarah could have happened to any one of us. How many more women just like her, just like me, will have to pay the ultimate price for the unfettered violence of a cohort of men?
Men, we are not objects. We are not here for your sexual gratification. We are not here to be wolf-whistled at. To be honked at. To be stalked. To be raped. To be murdered. We are human beings. We deserve better. Sarah deserved better. Men, do better.