By Karly Stilling
Two and a half weeks ago, a 33 year old woman named Sarah Everard was walking home from a friend’s house in London. She wore bright clothing and followed a major, well-lit street—but she never made it home.
Now a serving police officer has been charged with her murder.
In the wake of her death, vigils have sprung up across the UK. People are gathering en masse to mourn her and the countless other women lost to male violence every year. The public conversation has shifted from grief for Sarah and sympathy for her family to a wider discussion of the dangers facing people who present as female. Woman after woman has appeared on the news to share their story of male violence or assault—from uni students to members of parliament, every woman has one. I’m not at all surprised (didn’t we learn this from #metoo?), but it seems a lot of people are.Embed from Getty Images
Why are we still shocked when these things happen? It’s true that to be murdered by a stranger is relatively rare—women are far more likely to experience violence from men they know, often those closest to them—but it’s still a possibility of which every woman who has ever walked home alone at night is painfully aware.
Once, in conversation with a male friend, he mentioned that he’s sometimes scared walking alone at night too. I pointed out that he’s scared of getting mugged or beaten up. Women are scared of getting raped and murdered. Both are assaults, but only one involves complete bodily invasion.
I grew up seeing male desire portrayed as the height of romance. In the movies I watched as a kid, no didn’t mean no, it meant try harder. Persistence was proof of ardour, and to have a man pursue you without taking no for an answer was proof of your value as a woman. Women played hard-to-get to make a man prove himself. They acted aloof to signal their worth as women, lest they be seen as ‘easy’.
I learned that dance early on. I internalized it from films, magazines, novels. Love stories were full of that narrative: boy pursues girl, girl plays hard-to-get, boy tries harder, girl is delighted at just how much he wants her, boy gets girl.
I was never cool enough to pull it off, of course. I couldn’t play hard-to-get for the life of me, I was far too desperate for love. And that’s the thing—most women are only ‘hard-to-get’ when they in fact don’t want to be ‘gotten’. For most girls, it’s not some game to make a man prove himself, it’s genuine lack of interest.
We find ways to play off unwanted advances:
“Sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend.”
“No thanks, I’m not drinking tonight.”
“I’m not really looking for a relationship right now.”
We have to offer up these transparent excuses. If we say what we really mean—“I’m not interested, please leave me alone”—we get called a bitch. It’s happened to me more than once, though many men are getting better. I once only had to shake my head at a couple of guys approaching me and my friends for them to put a hand up in a gesture of apology. Advance made and declined without exchanging a word. I wish more men were like that.
Sarah Everard’s disappearance hits hard for many reasons. She was doing everything we’re told to do to keep ourselves safe: wearing bright clothes, not staying out too late, sticking to busy streets, not wearing earphones, calling someone while she walked (insubstantial armour intended to safeguard us against predators).
And then there’s the man who took her: an off-duty police officer. Someone who’s meant to protect. A symbol of safety.
The shocking images of police officers arresting women at a vigil for Sarah last weekend in London hit like a slap to the face. A police officer abducted and murdered a woman he didn’t know; now the same police force is arresting fellow women trying to honour her memory.Embed from Getty Images
Of course we all understand the Covid restrictions. We know it’s not safe to gather in groups. But it’s also not safe to be someone who presents as female. It’s not safe to trust police officers (BIPOC communities know this well). It’s beginning to feel like it’s not safe to exist these days—everything we do, everything we are, is a risk.
When I was sixteen years old, my boyfriend spent the night in his car outside my house because he wanted to see me first thing the next day and he wasn’t allowed to sleep over. I thought it was the most romantic thing that had ever happened to me. I thought it was love.
I learned better when he dumped me shortly afterwards, the relationship having already lost its lustre after a few short weeks.
At eighteen years old, I was on a pub crawl in Rome where I spent some time chatting with a young Turkish backpacker staying at the same hostel. At the end of the night, he followed me back to the women’s dorm and refused to leave unless I gave him a kiss. I said no and he followed me into the room, where he only listened to my repeated requests to leave when the other women sleeping inside began to wake up.
Some days later, on a public bus in Florence, my friend and I spotted the same guy and realised he’d followed us. Panicked, we got off the bus and spent a stuffy afternoon and evening locked in our room hoping he hadn’t seen us. We left first thing the next morning, and thankfully we never saw him again—but I didn’t stop looking over my shoulder for the rest of that trip.
Sometime in my early twenties, I took a job as an assistant for an older male in a position of power. We’d been working together for several months already and I had come to trust him, even to consider him a mentor.
Late one night going over work for the following day, he sat beside me and kissed my bare shoulder. I froze, our friendly relationship suddenly taking a completely different shape in my mind—a much more ominous one.
“Don’t,” I said.
“Are you sure?” He asked. “You might like it.”
I quickly gathered my things and left. He never did anything like it again, but our relationship was never the same.
I don’t know what these experiences say about me or about the men I’ve known. By and large, I’ve been lucky. I’ve heard countless stories from friends and acquaintances who haven’t been so lucky.
They accumulate in my mind, these stories, like dark marbles in a jar. They clack together when I walk alone at night; when I get on a bus; when I find myself alone in a room with a man I don’t know or trust—or with one I do. One after another, they are filling up the jar.
I think a lot of us have these jars. If the recent sentiment in the UK is any gauge, many of them are getting full. Many are overflowing. And many are shattering from the weight.
Author’s note: the shootings in Atlanta occurred after this article was written but before publication. They are therefore not included in the above essay but deserve mentioning as another painful and tragic example of the threats facing women and those who present as women every day in the US, the UK, and everywhere around the world.