I’ve struggled to know what to say in the wake of Sarah Everard’s disappearance and the arrest of a serving police officer on suspicion of her abduction and murder. The resulting conversations about women’s experiences in public space, the threat of rape, and the work we habitually do to try to stay safe, are deeply connected to the research I’ve been doing for almost a decade. And yet I’ve struggled. In this I am not alone. For the past few days social media has been full of women feeling the same. Unsure what to say but wanting to speak, to share grief and rage, and our collective exhaustion.
Over the past year we’ve all learned what it is to lose your freedom in order to prioritise safety: to restrict your movements, to restrict yourself, to have to risk assess the smallest decisions. I think I’d been hoping this would have led to different conversations about the responsibility put on women to prevent the violence perpetrated against us. That there would be some social sense of empathy for the work that women do and the desire to create a world where this isn’t just expected.
Instead, we’ve fallen back on familiar ground; blaming women for never having the ‘right’ amount of panic.
Don’t panic enough and you’re to blame
First, we saw the usual narrative: what was she doing walking alone at night? ‘Good’, blameless women know not to do that. It’s dangerous, asking for it, she should have kept herself safer. The gendered message of responsibility never given to men in the same way.
Women responded on mass by using online spaces to document their safety work. From carrying keys between our fingers, to changing our route, calling a friend to let them know we’re ‘home safe’, not going out in certain clothes. The small, daily, routine decisions made so often as to become habitual, expected, ‘common-sense’. Sarah would have done this work, both on that night and on so many others. She would have made a calculated decision to stick to main roads, to call her boyfriend. To trust a police officer.
This work is not an optional addition; it is a requirement for women, and we know it. The catch is that we can’t know when we get it right, because when our safety work works nothing happens. Required to act, yet all we can measure are the times we are harmed despite it. And then no one cares about what’s come before, we’re blamed, and we blame, ourselves.
Panic too much and you’re paranoid
This sharing of our safety work inevitably led to a shift. The problem was no longer that women weren’t keeping ourselves safe but that that all of this safety work wasn’t actually needed at all. We can see this message underpinning the statement given by the Met Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick in a televised news conference.
“I know Londoners will want to know that it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets…. But I completely understand that despite this, women in London and the wider public – particularly those in the area where Sarah went missing – will be worried and may well be feeling scared.”
Such comments, while acknowledging women’s fear exists, situate it as unfounded. Criminology Professor Marian Fitzgerald went further on Radio 4’s Today programme in suggesting women’s fears in public space, and the work we do, is groundless.
“I think I’m entitled to say as a woman, we shouldn’t pander to stereotypes and get hysterical… Let’s not get this out of proportion and let’s not wind each other up to be unduly fearful.”
Don’t be scared women, the risk isn’t real. This won’t ever happen to you. Except if it does, because for some of us it will, it will be your fault for not being scared enough. This is the second catch. Don’t panic enough and it’s your fault, but panic too much and you’re hysterical. The message is really quite simple: Women whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.
Culpable never capable
Taken together it’s no wonder that we doubt ourselves and other women, fault ourselves and other women. We’re told to trust our gut, to act on intuition, at the same time as having that dismissed time and time again. We’re positioned as culpable, never capable. Anything to stop society asking the questions we need to, of ourselves, of society, of men. I don’t mean all men, but I do mean some men. And I want to know what the other men are doing about it. For too long our focus has been on women’s individual behaviour. We need to start asking different questions if we want the violence to stop.
My heart goes out to Sarah’s parents and family, her boyfriend, her sister, to everyone that knew and loved her. But most of all it goes out to her. To this woman who has just lived through the year that we all have. Who was looking forward to summer, to finally being free. And who appears to have had taken by a man she’d been told would protect her. I’m still not sure what to say really. It just feels so unfair.
Fiona Vera-Gray is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Law at Durham University working on violence against women and girls and author of The Right Amount of Panic.
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