“Send me a text when you’re home.”
It’s a message that’s been instilled in women since our youngest teenage years – albeit for many of us, it initially took the form of three rings on a landline.
We’ve never questioned it, simply taking it as part of the routine that, when followed, will ensure we stay safe, along with keys between our fingers, walking against the flow of traffic and calling friends on our journey. The walk home has never been simple for women. What is becoming increasingly, shockingly clear, is that many men did not know that, or did not care to know.
While Sarah Everard’s murder is far from the first – make no mistake, the conversation about how we centre cis white victims of crime is coming and it’s long overdue – there’s something about this case that has stirred the public consciousness like rarely before, sparking a collective rage that reached a pinnacle on Saturday night as mourners on Clapham Common were manhandled, cuffed, arrested by police officers trusted to protect us.
The outpouring of anger, grief and disbelief that followed those shocking scenes from the Reclaim These Streets vigil looks different to those that have gone before. The anger is coming from every part of the political establishment, from people of all races, ages, genders and beliefs.
The subject of walking home has never typically been discussed at length, but the past seven days have seen it debated more than ever and, suddenly, it feels we could be on the brink of huge change. The question is why?
While the fact that the accused is a police officer is surely a factor in the public outcry, there’s more to it than that. Sarah Everard’s walk home from a friend’s house should have been simple, but it wasn’t. Her journey through London’s Clapham should have taken less than an hour, she wore bright clothes and trainers on her feet, followed the most well-lit path and called her partner on the way. She followed the routine and yet still, she didn’t make it home.
As a reaction, women have opened up around their experiences like never before, the common theme being that they often don’t feel safe while travelling home. From uncomfortable conversations right through to acts of aggression and assault on bright, sunny days, the stories make it clear: this doesn’t just happen at night and it doesn’t just happen in dark alleyways. It’s everywhere.
One side effect of all of this is that, increasingly, we’re seeing women sharing new and advanced defence tactics. For iPhone users, there’s been the hack of pressing your lock button five times so your phone can emit an alarm and warning signal. On WhatsApp, we’ve highlighted the sharing of locations that can last up to eight hours, and we’ve even learnt that you can now set up messaging so you can text the police if you’re in danger instead of needing to call. Yet all of these measures still place the emphasis on women keeping ourselves safe, as though harassment, aggression, rape and death lie in our hands as potential victims, and not in those of our attackers.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is a charity that knows this narrative all too well. Set up 35 years ago after 25-year-old Suzy Lamplugh went missing, the charity has lobbied heavily for change and aims to reduce the risk of violence and aggression through campaigning, education and support. Its CEO, Suky Bhaker, says: “Being subject to violence is never a victims’ fault. Everyone has the right to be safe. It is clear that far more needs to be done to ensure that there is deep-rooted systemic change across society as a whole.
“Suzy Lamplugh’s parents set up the trust because they wanted to prevent anyone going through what they did when Suzy disappeared 35 years ago. Sarah’s case sadly clearly demonstrates that not enough has changed to reduce the prevalence of violence against women and girls in society.”
Not enough has changed is an understatement. When a study by UN Women UK last week revealed that 97 per cent of young women in the UK have experienced harassment, few of us were surprised. The picture is of violence being done to women, rather than caused by them, and as a result it’s a statistic that women have limited power to change. That power lies in the hand of the perpetrators, and more often than not that is men.
Not all men, but all women
Inevitably, there has been a lot of conversation about all men being tarred with the same brush, about the fact that many of them are good people who wouldn’t dream of hurting or harassing others. We know that. But when the conversation should be focusing on solutions, it feels like the defensive argument from men has crowded the spotlight and it isn’t helpful. As author Emma Kennedy tweeted: “When #notallmen is trending higher than #saraheverard, do you see the problem?”
And yet, for possibly the first time in many of our lifetimes, it feels as though the sands are shifting. For the first time, could men be coming to join us on the frontline?
As one writer who shared his disgust at men taking over the narrative pointed out: “How we railed at the implication that we may bear some collective responsibility for the perpetual fear women face just going about their daily lives. How we demanded that those speaking out about their experiences give us, the ‘good guys’, a pat on the head for managing not to rape them. How we persisted, so bravely, to once again make women’s trauma all about us.”
Yes, it’s not all men at fault for crimes against women – but the small number that are committing these acts lead women to be wary of all men. After all, it’s not obvious from first impressions if the man walking behind you is following you or coincidentally on the same route home. We can’t tell if the man behind us has a sinister motive, or is blissfully unaware that his footsteps make fear rise in our stomachs. Increasingly, though, it seems men are beginning to cotton on to that reality.
How can I help?
Over recent days, an increasing army of men have been taking to social media to try to educate themselves, and their friends, on what they can do to change the picture. Tweets like the one from actor Jay Perry have asked women for advice to help them avoid presenting as a threat: “I am super conscious as a man when walking behind lone women at night, often I cross the street to alleviate as much anxiety as possible. What other advice can you offer to me to be a better ally in this situation?!”
A friend from university, Tom, opened up on his social media: “A police officer should be a beacon of safety for women not a source of fear. What ways could us men help to alleviate the anxieties women feel when walking alone? What specific actions make you feel uncomfortable?”
The question, he admitted, was prompted by an eye-opening conversation with his girlfriend. “I never really understood or grasped the fear. I’m ashamed to admit that at times I’ve laughed it off, undermined it, and even told her she was being ridiculous. Men must do better.”
Another male friend, Oliver, disclosed: “It’s just crazy that as a man I’ve never felt scared heading home from a night out, from work or even walking down the street.
“I hate the idea that I’ve potentially made someone feel scared just because I’ve been walking behind her. I wish I’d known so I could have been more aware and even crossed the street or slowed down or just done something to try and make it clear I’m not someone to be scared of.”
So what is the answer? Unfortunately, it’s not simple, even though it should be. Yet if men can be the allies that women need them to be – calling out other men being a key part of the responsibility – then hopefully there is a chance that the war stories of being followed, harassed and attacked become rarer, no longer accepted as the everyday price of womanhood that we all simply put up with.
We can all do better. We need to. Because the alternative, seeing more headlines like Sarah’s in the news, just isn’t an option.