openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Sarah Everard's disappearance is a time to talk about male behaviour, not women’s

In a new poll, 97% of young women reported having been sexually harassed. Why are men unaware of the extent to which fear shapes our lives?

Rachel Hagan
11 March 2021, 2.18pm
Sarah Everard went missing shortly after 9.30pm on Wednesday 3 March
Anna Watson / Alamy Stock Photo

The disappearance of 33-year-old Sarah Everard has dominated the conversations of my girlfriends’ group chats for days. And it has haunted me, even before yesterday’s arrest of a Metropolitan Police officer on suspicion of her murder and the grim discovery of – at time of writing, unidentified – human remains.

Sarah went missing shortly after 9.30pm on Wednesday 3 March while walking home to Brixton from a friend’s house in Clapham. My housemate and I have sat up at night ruminating over those last moments between Sarah and her friend, imagining how they might have parted.

“Get home safe”, “Text me when you get home” are the habitual but sincere farewells of all the women I know. We think about the absence of the consoling text.

We think about the fears instilled in us from childhood. That if any strange men offered sweets – a tangible edict for Haribo-loving five-year-olds – we were to say no and if needed, scream for help. That we should ensure any regular walking routes were often changed up, too. I think about the terror I felt when Joanna Yeates was murdered in my hometown of Bristol when I was 12 years old, and how that feeling that has lived with me ever since.

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We think about the strategies we deploy on our walks home. How we keep our phone’s ‘find my friends’ feature switched on. We carry keys between our knuckles. We call someone – just as Sarah did, reportedly chatting on the phone to her boyfriend as she walked home, not long before she disappeared. We change our route to a busier or brighter one. We cover-up our limbs, wear our bags tight across our chests and panic at the sound of a leaf blowing in the wind. We take Ubers if we can afford it, and then worry about the safety of doing that, too. We leave earlier or later than we would like, if it means we have a companion to get home safely with.

There’s a weird man following me in Sainsburys, I’m worried if I turn around now he will be following me. I didn’t buy anything because I was scared

A quick search of my Facebook messenger group chats over recent months revealed numerous messages about being followed and harassed by men.

“I’m scared, it's unlit and there is a man following me, he’s not losing his gaze”, read one message. Replies followed: “don't worry, I have you on ‘find my friends’”, “call me”, “walk quickly.”

“After I said bye to you, a man in a taxi followed me slowly all the way up the road for 15 minutes.”

“A man just screamed in my face: ‘let me follow you home, you are sexy, I want a party.’"

One from me to my boyfriend: “There’s a weird man following me in Sainsburys, I’m worried if I turn around now he will be following me. I didn’t buy anything because I was scared. I’ve left.”

Just two weeks ago in Brixton, a friend walking to the Tube was followed by a man who then pulled out her headphones and put his arm around her shoulder. Then there was the time on holiday in Berlin when a man was following a group of us for around half an hour masturbating. We went to the police, who brushed off with “it happens all the time.”

A 2019 YouGov poll found that 25% of women said they never walk alone at night, compared to just 8% of men. 61% of women regularly take precautions to avoid sexual assault, including 66% avoiding certain areas, 64% informing others about one’s location and schedule and 60% avoiding being out at certain times.

This week, UN Women UK revealed 97% of 18-24-year-old women said they had been sexually harassed and 80% of women, of all ages, said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. We already know that a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK.

A woman's ability to walk home at night is something Reclaim the Night demanded in 1977. It’s now 2021

Since Sarah’s disappearance, the Met Police has urged women not to go out alone in Clapham or Brixton after dark – echoing the advice given to women across northern England in the 1970s, the era of the Yorkshire Ripper.

But the conversation should not be around Sarah's very normal behaviour, or other women’s freedoms. We should be all entitled to walk home from a friend's house – or through any public space at night – and be confident we will arrive at our destination safely.

It’s something Reclaim the Night demanded in 1977. It’s now 2021.

For most of us, walking has become a constant comfort during the unknowns of the past year, a ritual to buoy us through some of the hardest parts of lockdown. To have that meditative practice stripped away due to fear of male violence is not acceptable.

A week that started with International Women’s Day has ended with this reminder of how unsafe we often feel.

Tell me when a man has felt compelled to put their keys between their knuckles? Or heard their heart beating out of their chest louder than the footsteps of the person behind them?

Most men are not sufficiently aware of the extent to which fear of violence shapes women’s lives.

We need to use this moment to have a conversation about male behaviour. It cannot be just a conversation between women, about our behaviour. Nothing will change until men talk about this, both with women and amongst themselves, rather than shying away from difficult conversations. We owe it to Sarah, and to ourselves.

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