The vile murder of Sarah Everard, who was abducted from Clapham Common earlier this month, her body later found near Ashford, has prompted a national debate about how we address violence and menace by a tiny minority of men against women, which sadly is endemic and normalised in many parts of everyday society.
I spent most of my working life in London. Just going to and from work on the tube, you get very used to sexual remarks and gestures, groping hands, staring masturbation, obscene suggestions – which, when rejected or ignored, can involve aggression, then the person following you off at your stop, shouting abuse at you.
You walk down the street, its dark, you are on your way home from work, or maybe you have met friends after and its later, on the main road there are lots of people around, so you feel safe despite the shouts from behind. But then you have to turn on to your quiet, residential road. No one is about. Is the man still behind you? What do you do?
(Un)fortunately this is so common that many women have standard defence strategies. So for me, there were a couple of late night corner shops that I took refuge in on multiple occasions over the years until the shouty man got bored and went away. I often called my boyfriend and asked him to come to the end of the street and meet me. Or asked him to open the door and watch to see that I was coming – it took about five minutes.
Occasionally a police officer
Occasionally, there was a police officer around (talking about 20 years ago now, when I lived in a dodgy part of London) and, if needs be, I would ask them to watch me go up my road and check no one was following me. All of these people helped me – they were so used to it, it was all in a day’s work for them. I am particularly grateful to the shopkeepers. That really wasn’t their job, but they accepted the responsibility, it was the norm for them.
I am not making up the threat. I know too many people who were attacked on these streets. And it isn’t that I lived in fear, I just had natural, instinctive coping devices – like you look left and right before crossing the road. It was normal. I wasn’t upset about it, it was just what it was. That’s the problem right there.
It does feel very different in Rye, that’s one of the reasons I love it here. Although I imagine most women in this town will also have experienced at the very least, unpleasantness, and some, very much worse. In the last week, listening to the dialogue, I have learned a few things about how we can all make women feel safer that I wanted to share and ask for other people’s views.
The first thing I noticed was that a lot of men were saying that if they were walking behind a woman along a dark and lonely street, they would cross over to the other side of the road. I now know that this has probably happened to me, without me realising. I thought that people were just crossing the road because that was the way they were going. Now I understand at least some of them were doing this to make me feel comfortable. I am very grateful for this.
A strategy for harassment
By the way, I do this too. If I am say 50 yards behind and gaining pace on a woman on her own, I will do something like cross the road, or pause for a few minutes to give her space, or call someone so she can hear my voice and conversation which I hope is reassuring. I do this automatically not consciously. And other women do it for me. I hadn’t realised men were doing this too. Thank you.
Another strategy I heard about was what to do if a woman is being harassed on a bus, cafe or in another public place. Both male and female onlookers might want to help, but don’t always know how. I know I have been in that situation and what I have done is to go close to the woman being verbally attacked, smile, wave so she knows I am there, but then I just sit there in silence not knowing what to do.
What I learned this week is that if you are a woman, then it might be an idea to engage the other woman in conversation: “Hey aren’t you Lucy, Jan’s daughter? How is Jan? I haven’t seen her for a while. How is her leg? Still septic? Ow, so painful. Oh do you mind if I sit down?”
If a woman is threatened and needs your help, she can play along with this – at least you give her the option. Then she is not alone. There are two of you. Witnesses. If you are a man, maybe engage the aggressor. “Hey mate, do you know what the score is? Do you know when this train is due in Hastings? Have you got a taxi number? Is that a pasty in your hand? Where did you get it from? Any good?”. Another witness. Evidence. Just in case.
Distracting their aggressor
I think a lot of good men would want to defend the woman being harassed more directly, for instance by confronting the aggressor and/or offering to see the woman home safely. But you might be doing them more of a favour by distracting their aggressor and letting the woman escape. Don’t forget, at this point, she is under threat and, even though you are a good guy, she doesn’t know that. Rather than you offer to see her home, she might be more grateful if you engaged and diverted her harasser and let her get back under her own steam.
We will recognise what you did and thank you in our hearts. Like I do now for the men who crossed the road to make me feel safer.
This is an awful place to be, but I hope that men and women can work together on this. We all have men and women, girls and boys, in our lives that we love and want to protect and keep safe.
I am aware that men are also victims of crime and their lives are endangered too. This story is about women and girls however.
What do others think?
Image Credits: Tim Dennell, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flowers_at_Sarah_Everard_Vigil_in_Sheffield.jpg.