I was ten years old, the first time I was shown how to hold my keys as I walked home alone. Ten.
I asked my parents about it last night on WhatsApp, as I watched my Twitter feed fill, over and over, with women typing in terror, in mourning. Turns out, they didn’t really remember that police roadshow in a random field in Scarborough in 1992. Their memories are of a happy camping holiday – of visiting Flamingo Land and York and The Shambles. But I’ve never forgotten the police roadshow, because it was there I learned the importance of the keys and, even at ten, it seemed like a crucial piece of the puzzle that was adult womanhood.
I was 18 when I moved to London to study, and started working in a pub just a block from my halls. I didn’t need a sharp key for my building, so I carried the set for my parents’ house 400 miles away as I walked home in the dark, just so I had some to hand. I remember wondering once, as a man walked too closely behind me, whether I’d actually be able to do anything with them. Was I strong enough to stop a grown man with two inches of metal? I pushed the doubt to the back of my mind.
I also had a rape alarm, of course. In the nineties, we all did. My mum forced mine on me the moment I started going into town without an adult, and I hated carrying it, constantly worried that the pin would come out in the pub and I’d deafen any boy within a twenty-metre radius. That would have been humiliating, of course – an undeniable acknowledgment of the fear we preferred not to voice. The keys were easier.
I never thought to ask the boys if they carried an alarm, or held keys between their fingers. We all knew the answer.
The ‘Not all men’ defence
I was thinking about that police roadshow, and the keys, and the rape alarm once again last night, as I watched news come in about the horrific disappearance of Sarah Everard. That it is a serving Metropolitan police officer who has been arrested on suspicion of the 33-year-old’s murder hit me like a body blow. I wasn’t the only one.
During the week since Sarah’s disappearance, the Met had been telling women in her local area – Clapham, South London – not to go out alone, leading, once again, to a conversation about just how often we are told to modify our behaviour to reduce our personal risk. The police, of course, would argue that their priority is to keep women safe, however much the advice rankles. But the line between safety guidance and victim blaming is a blurred one and it says something, I think, that last night, as women shared story after story of their own experiences of feeling unsafe while simply existing, the tweet topping the charts was #NotAllMen.
It was, at least, predictable. It is always the angry men who take to the mic first, brimming with confidence and a swagger borne of never having to question your safety just getting to and from work. The irony, though, is that the louder such men are, the more they prove our point. Their volume only ever serves to demonstrate that there remains, in 2021, a world for them and a world for us.
The men who truly deserve to tweet #NotAllMen, the men who embody the sentiment entirely, would never consider tweeting so. They were too busy, last night, being horrified alongside us, knowing that it’s not about whether all men do, but rather about the fact that all men could.
Some of them, comfortingly, had spent the last few days asking what they could do to make women feel safer. Stuart Edwards was one of those who went viral after enquiring: “I live less than five minutes from where Sarah Everard went missing. Everyone is on high alert. Aside from giving as much space as possible on quieter streets and keeping face visible, is there anything else men can reasonably do to reduce the anxiety/spook factor?”
The replies that rolled in painted a picture that would cause any good man to pause and check his privilege. Shout if you’re going to be passing me running or on a bike, one woman said. Be an active bystander and intervene if something doesn’t look right, added another. Pick up on a woman changing pace and drop back if she seems frightened. Never block a doorway, or our path. The replies from men taking on responsibility, admitting shock at the hidden reality of our anxious world compared to their own, were sobering for everyone involved in the conversation.
Such brutal, seemingly random attacks on a woman are mercifully rare and always shocking. But there’s something especially difficult and heartbreaking about Sarah Everard’s death, and it’s not just the profession of the chief suspect, the fact that he should have represented safety.
We’re all told, repeatedly, that the greatest threat to women comes from men they know. But having spent the past year watching in horror as lockdown drove domestic violence rates up and up and up, the fact we are now once again fearing for our safety outside in the real world, in pin-drop quiet parks and apocalyptically empty streets, feels like a new terror.
It’s 2021. We’re not safe in our homes. We’re not safe outside them. We’re not even out of lockdown yet already women are back under self-imposed curfew, and we can’t even take to the streets to shout about it en masse. In short, we feel at the mercy of a dangerous world, and it is a horrifying experience.
I’m not sure keys can help us this time.