The circumstances surrounding the murder of Sarah Everard have sparked outrage across the United Kingdom and the world. She was killed doing something many women fear: walking alone at night.
What has been especially terrifying for the women learning of her death is that she did everything right. She took a way home that was well lit, she wore shoes she could run in, she called her boyfriend as she walked, and yet, it still wasn’t enough. Her story highlights what many women have known for years: No matter what precautions you take, you’re never safe alone at night.
Even if she had not walked home alone, she still would’ve faced dangers taking an Uber, riding the bus, or having a male friend accompany her. Taking an Uber ensures time alone with a stranger, usually a man, who can still threaten your safety. In 2018, Uber received 3,045 complaints of sexual assault during rides. In one instance, a woman was raped trying to enter her house after exiting the Uber.
If you take the bus you are still at risk because someone can follow you home. Even having a male friend walk you home does not ensure your safety as women are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know. In the face of all of these possible dangers, it is easy to feel hopeless.
From the time we are young girls, we are taught how to protect ourselves. We learn to avoid walking anywhere alone at night if possible, how to carry our keys like a weapon, to check the backseats and underneath our cars, and to always be aware of our surroundings. It's heartbreaking that pepper spray is a staple on any girl's keychain, yet this is the world we are used to. We are taught that we are never safe and must protect ourselves in whatever way we can.
Sarah’s story has sparked such outrage because it shows the limits of what women can do to protect themselves. You can do everything within your control to protect yourself at night, but as long as men continue to threaten women’s safety, you may never be able to fully protect yourself.
Another chilling aspect of Sarah’s death is that she was killed by a police officer. This exasperates many women’s fears as police officers’ duties are precisely to protect women from these kinds of assaults. Being killed by those whose role is to protect breeds further panic. It places even more responsibility on women to protect themselves since no one else will.
Though violence against women is ubiquitous, prevalence varies depending on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. African American and Native American women are disproportionately at risk of sexual violence compared to women of other races. Recognizing the heightened risk of assault for women of color is vital to making sure all women are equally protected.
Concocting new ways for women to protect themselves—self-defense classes, new discrete weapons, etc.—does nothing to stop the problem at the source. If men didn’t create the dangerous conditions in which women live, there would be no need for women to go to such lengths to protect their lives. We need to direct the conversation about women’s safety to the people that most often threaten it: men.
It's true that not all men assault women, but most men are silent in situations where women’s safety is at risk. In conversations surrounding violence against women, when men react by trying to prove that they are not part of the problem, they remove themselves from any possible introspection about how their own behavior contributes to this larger system of sexism and violence. Overhearing a sexist comment or joke and not speaking up against it still perpetuates a culture of misogyny that inevitably leads to this violence against women even if it is not directly assaulting someone.
Complicit men also try to derail conversations about violent misogyny by disputing how common it is, bringing up violence against men, and victim-blaming. Their deflection is a by-product of their complacence in violence against women.
If men cared about the fear women carry with them at all times, they could work to make women feel safer in their daily lives. Put yourself in our shoes; think about what it would feel like to worry about being followed or harassed or touched or attacked at any moment. Think about the toll it takes on your well-being to constantly worry about your safety. Speak up when other men make jokes and step in when other men put women at risk.