Around the age of twenty, I worked briefly as an estate agent. And, I think this was the first time, I realised that I was more vulnerable than my male counterparts.
It’s not that this information isn’t bred into us as we grow up, we know to text our friends when we’re home. To tell our boyfriend when we’re getting in the taxi. But almost all of us have experienced *that* shift: the catcall, the man on the tube, the letchy boss, the thing that reminds us that no matter how powerful we feel, how many glass ceilings incredible female CEO’s crash through, that same female CEO would feel unsafe, simply walking home from a friend’s house.
The estate agency frequently reminded us to bring flat shoes, let the man into the property first, don’t let someone block your exit. It was second nature to predial 999 if you got a ‘funny vibe’ from someone. And when they left, we’d go back to the office and laugh at how ‘ridiculous’ we were being. A week later, a girl from another branch was sexually assaulted. Rape alarms were thrust into shanking palms and we were told to continue. One male colleague lamented that she ‘should have worn more practical shoes’.
The second time I felt the sharp reality of my own vulnerability was 2017, just before my twenty-fifth birthday. My walk to my South London house share was only fifteen minutes, but, in the cold November air, it was far darker than it seemed it should be. I emerged from the tube and after a few minutes, I was aware someone was following me. I paused, fiddling with a lace. He hovered, just a few feet behind. Heart racing, I blamed my stupid shoes (chunky heeled boots) and my stupid self for not texting anyone, telling them where I was. I briefly considered the fact that I was wearing my worst underwear. That if they found my body in a ditch, the person who found me would think ‘didn’t she have nicer knickers’. I tried to remember if you’re supposed to run. Or maybe, if I smiled at him, he would think I was just so bloody polite that he would decide that I would be far too nice to target?
I walked on. He matched my pace and as I went to turn the corner, he asked me for the time. I ignored him, palms drenched in sweat. “Stuck-up bitch.” He called at me. The useless thoughts melted away and I ran. Clutching my bag of paperwork, my other hand clutching my phone, I could feel my fringe glued to my forehead. As my headphones tumbled out of my pocket lost forever to the streets of London.
At home, my male housemate rationalised. “Maybe he did just wanted the time?”
And, maybe he did.
But, when the news of Sarah Everard began appearing on my timeline, I felt something shift. Something that felt like fear. A reminder that all the times I’ve felt stupid for my caution, I needed to be. Because, Sarah, so easily could have been any of us.
Aside from the above, I’d always felt safe in London. The streets were rarely quiet, there was always a gaggle of boys perched in the park or someone in a too-tight suit rushing past me. By its very nature, being alone in London was rare. I’d walked the route that Sarah took home on several occasions. Through Clapham Common and onto Cavendish Road, I’d walked alone. And, her story is yet another reminder of our vulnerability.
Sarah did the ‘right things’. She contacted her partner, she walked in sensible shoes, made for running. She walked in leggings, designed for the sturdy journey. She walked past CCTV in bright, memorable clothing. And, her family and friends still await her arrival home.
So, if sensible shoes can’t protect us? What can?
The news of Sarah’s disappearance, and with tonight’s news that they believe they’ve found her body, comes as a new study reveals that 97% of women have been sexually harassed. I’d argue that while plenty of mainstream cis-male media commentators are both ‘shocked and saddened’, most women found this to be fairly unsurprising. That despite the fact that 50% of the population identify as female, we cannot leave a friend’s house on a Wednesday night and feel certain that we’ll make it home. And, that’s not even accounting for fact that our streets, the ones we so easily call home are even more dangerous for trans women.
Even if we do call the police. The people who exist solely to ‘protect and serve’, we can’t guarantee that the officer we get we believe us in the first place. That as a white woman, I still stand a better chance of seeing any justice than a Black woman in the same postion.
I’m not someone that prays. But, before I went to bed, I mumbled to whoever could be listening that she’s safe. That I’ll watch her family embrace her, scolding her for worrying them. Because the idea that Sarah, a woman, who in this moment is all of us, won’t open the front door and take off her shoes, is too much to bear.
Yes, it is horrific. And yes, it is men who need to change. The thing I hate most about it is that we are living increasingly in a culture of fear. The police and the media are constantly reminding women that they need to be aware of the dangers. This happens to such an extent that I find myself wondering if this is a strategy designed to keep women ‘in their place’, rather than seriously trying to solve the problems. This world is in a mess and we all need to think about how to make it better and safer. Sometimes I feel ashamed to be a man but, regrettably, I doubt if the men who prey on women ever feel ashamed of themselves. They think that women are to blame for ‘tempting’ them, or for wearing sexy clothes, or lipstick or …. well … you name it. Anything a woman does can be blamed for arousing men’s passions. It’s absolutely normal for men and women to be sexually attracted to each other, but it is utterly wrong for anyone to force their attentions on someone who is not interested in them. I suspect that for a lot of such men what excites them is fear even more than sex. If women are made to be afraid then such men feel powerful, and power is what they want. And tragically, as stated above, our society, our institutions and and our media often contribute to creating the fear that such men thrive on.