'We could all be Sarah': Women share safety fears online

Sarah Everard, who went missing from Clapham in London

Missing woman Sarah Everard, 33, who left a friend's house in Clapham, south London, on Wednesday March 3 and has not been seen since. - Credit: PA

I cannot name a single woman I know who can't relate to the fear of walking home alone. 

Chilling crimes take place in the world every day, but there's a reason Sarah Everard's case has rocked the nation. It's a sobering reminder that the little voice in your head telling you to walk a little faster, to watch over your shoulder, to grip your keys in your fist, or to question whether you should be going out at all - is there for a reason.

Even as I say this, I'm aware of how ludicrous it sounds to have to reel off some sort of anti-assault checklist before stepping outside. How much longer must we normalise the notion that women are responsible for preventing their own attacks? How much longer must we weigh up the factors of a crime against whichever choices the victim made in the run-up to it?  

What justification are we really looking for when we do that - are we searching for reasons that they may have deserved what happened to them? Or are we desperately seeking to understand what we can avoid, so the same thing doesn't happen to us? It's 2021, and we STILL instinctively study crimes against women through the lens of their own actions and not those of the attacker. 

"We could all be Sarah" - this is the line appearing over and over again on social media today. This is the line burned into the hearts of women across the country and knocking the wind out of us all as it once again forces us to confront a painful truth that we try to meticulously manoeuvre around in day-to-day life: our safety is not guaranteed. Even if we do everything 'right', as Sarah did, our safety is not guaranteed. 

Perhaps to some, these sentiments may sound dramatic; because no - not every woman you know will be kidnapped, assaulted, or murdered in their lifetimes, but every woman you know has felt unsafe on account of a man's behaviour at least once.

Sarah's story hits so painfully close to home; the shockwaves travel beyond the horror of this specific case and reverberate through to all the corners of the lived female experience. It forces us to recall every scenario in which we've felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and lends itself to a much wider conversation about the staggering inequality which continues to bleed into each area of a woman's everyday life (an inequality which is notably even more dangerous for trans women).

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Thousands of women have taken to social media this week to join the conversation and to recall their own experiences with personal safety threats. Many have shared instances where they've been subject to harassment or violence despite following all the 'prevention' steps they're told to take. I've since witnessed numerous men declare their shock at the astonishing number of women coming forward, with a new study also revealing that 97% of women have been sexually harassed in their lifetimes. 

The sad thing is, you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman who's surprised by any of those statistics. Perhaps because there's still such a widely misconceived belief that such incidents only occur down dark alleyways in the middle of the night, and not in broad daylight, in social settings, in parks, in gyms, in offices, in homes, in spaces which would otherwise be considered safe. Women move through life with an entirely separate sense of awareness; one which is wired up to assess potential risk at all times. Sadly, that risk exists everywhere, and not just in the cliche scenarios set out in films and fiction. 

This is where men have a lot of listening to do. It's difficult to sufficiently summarise a lifetime's worth of indoctrinated risk-perception in a quantifiable way, especially when it's so normalised and ingrained into our culture that it almost can't be recognised for what it is. 

It's a basic method, but I think a simple role-reversal scenario can be powerful in demonstrating some of these points. For example: Men - when is the last time you got into a taxi alone, and felt knots in your stomach when you saw a female driver? Did you size her up, to assess whether or not you could physically take her on if she attacked you? Did you keep your phone to hand, poised over the 'emergency call' button? Did you carefully weave your keys through each finger, ready to defend yourself if needed? Did you keep your eyes glued to the road, monitoring every stage of the route, to make sure no detours were taken? 

This has been my experience every time I've travelled in an Uber or taxi alone, and EVERY time I've imagined how bizarre it would seem for a man to do the same. This is just one of an infinite number of examples where men and women may find themselves in identical situations, but facing very different thought processes. My perception of any given situation could look completely different to a man standing in exactly the same spot, and it's soul-destroying that one's gender still dictates so much of the way they experience the world. 

As is always the case when these conversations hit the internet, there have been plaintive cries of 'not all men!' seeping out of the woodwork. 

No, it's not all men, but it's enough that hundreds of women around the world die every single day as a direct result of gender-based violence. Now is not the time to make self-serving, defensive statements. Now is not the time to frantically single yourself out as 'one of the good ones' - nobody is going to offer you a medal for not being a violent criminal today. 

What you CAN do is actively listen and commit to understanding when women are sharing these experiences with you. Seriously - it requires a lot of emotional labour and we are tired of doing it over and over again. There are also infinite resources and learning tools available for those who want to seek out useful information for themselves. 

What you CAN do is call out the attitudes and actions that perpetuate violence and endanger women and girls, especially in male-dominated spaces and among your own network of friends and family.

What you can also do is focus on how you can be an ally and ask how you can personally use your power and privilege in the world to make meaningful changes, rather than worry about whether the statements being made make you feel accused (spoiler alert: if they do, you probably have some serious work to do) and attempting to avoid any responsibility by separating yourself from the narrative. 

 It's everyone's responsibility to allow women to exist safely in the world, even those who don't consider themselves a threat. 

We have such a terribly long way to go, but we cannot make any measurable progress until everyone demonstrates the same willingness to push for positive change, even if that involves a bit of uncomfortable self-analysis beforehand. 

Sarah Everard may not be a Suffolk local, but she's one of us, she's ALL of us, and we owe it to her and every other victim to keep using our voices and fighting this fight. 

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