Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news
Earlier this month, 33-year-old Sarah Everard went missing in south London. She was last seen leaving her friend’s house at 9 p.m. on March 3. On Tuesday, a serving male London Metropolitan Police officer was arrested on suspicion of murder in connection with her disappearance. A woman was also arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender. Police said that both remain in custody, as a search for Everard on Wednesday uncovered unidentified human remains in a wooded area near Ashford, Kent. On Friday, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Nick Ephgrave said, “I can now confirm that it is the body of Sarah Everard.”
While London mayor Sadiq Khan insisted in a statement Wednesday that “all women and girls should be able to feel safe on the street of London at all times,” Metropolitan Police making door-to-door inquiries during the investigation of Everard’s disappearance, according to the Sun, warned women not to go out alone. The response from many women was one of exhausted outrage. Why should our freedoms be restricted when men are overwhelmingly more likely to attack people – both at home and outside? Why is the onus always on women to avoid being attacked?
The contrast in online and social media conversations about this case has been especially illuminating on this point, as women across the United Kingdom are speaking up to share their experiences of feeling unsafe. Some women – including me – suggested a curfew for men following Everard’s disappearance. Some men, understandably, hated the idea and found it unfair. But in my case, the suggestion was mainly to illustrate the absurdity of asking women to confine themselves as a solution to a safety problem that overwhelmingly starts with men.
The notion that a woman is doing something irresponsibly dangerous by walking home alone falls apart as soon as a man considers it perfectly OK for him to do the same thing. The danger isn’t inherent in the behavior of the victim. It’s in the choice and actions of the perpetrator. But women are nevertheless constantly shouldering the responsibility of reducing opportunities for violence on the behalf of would-be attackers.
Most women I know had been aware of Everard’s disappearance for at least several days before the arrests. They’d begun to talk about it – their anxiety about leaving the house rising, their willingness to run early in the morning or in the evening (the times they were most likely to be free from work) dissipating. Many declared their intention to stay indoors rather than go out alone, restricting their own already limited freedoms under Covid-19-related lockdown almost automatically.
The men I know, by contrast, appeared largely oblivious to the story until Wednesday, when women online started to comment on their relative silence. Some men asked what they should be doing to help, and whether crossing the street if they’re walking behind women in the dark might be useful. London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey offered his condolences as a concerned “father and husband,” saying he felt heartbroken that his wife and daughter had to live in fear in their own city, even has he vowed to “deliver for the safety of women and girls” if elected.
It was a pretty unsatisfactory statement for women who don’t happen to be attached to men in either capacity but still worry about their own safety. And while doubtless well-meaning men would naturally point out that their immediate thought was also for the welfare of their female loved ones, the persistent framing of women’s value as relative to the role they play in men’s lives – especially by public figures – is wearing thin.
#MeToo similarly saw constant references to male concern “as a father of daughters.” They begged the question of whether it would have occurred to these men to care about sexual assault if they were childless – or, whether as well as fearing for the safety of their daughters, they might think to teach their sons to respect and care for women, whether or not they have anything in common with them. One blind woman amid the online furor of the last few days described the horror of being regularly assaulted by people pretending to help her. Her reality is alien to the vast proportion of the population, but empathy for her – or anyone’s – circumstances shouldn’t necessitate any personal connection or experience.
Some men suggested that it was women’s “responsibility” to avoid danger – with one suggesting to me on Twitter that women shouldn’t make “bad decisions” and do “dangerous things.” Others were offended even by the implication that women should be wary of them. Some pointed out that men are even more likely to be victims of violent crime than women.
But while it’s true that men are more likely to be killed violently, men are also far, far more likely to kill both men and women. And women typically live with far more fear of violence than men, largely because for them, harm – when it does happen – most often occurs at the hand of someone they know. And whether their attacker is known to them or not, it is significantly more difficult for the average woman to defend herself against the average man.
A large proportion of male homicides occur because men are more likely to get into a gang-related fight with other men, or engage in violent crime. Women are much more likely to be attacked and killed by their partner, and make up the vast majority of domestic violence victims – a point apparently overlooked when they are told to stay inside for their own safety. In 2013, women aged 15 to 44 worldwide were more likely to be killed or maimed because of male violence than because of war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. Women are far more likely to be raped as well.
The more personal, more targeted nature of violence against women is reflected in their daily experiences. A majority of women in the UK have been sexually harassed, according to a new YouGov survey for UN Women UK. Among those who said the event was not serious enough to report were women who had been groped, followed and coerced into sexual activity. Even if these instances don’t end in physical violence – though many do – reminders of our vulnerability, and a lack of faith in authority to deal with them, are constant, as are our behavior modifications in response.
Women are coming forward across the UK and beyond to describe how unsafe they feel in their daily lives. From childhood, many women living in urban areas are taught to get a taxi home if it’s late, to clutch their keys between their knuckles while they’re walking if they can’t afford one, not to wear headphones at night and to keep a constant eye out for an unknown figure in the dark.
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Men may justifiably quote statistics on their vulnerability to murder. But as the reaction to this horrific story shows, while men may be more likely to come to danger, women are more likely to do everything in their power to avoid it.
The blame for what happened to Sarah Everard should belong to the perpetrator or perpetrators of her fate, and no one else. And for any men curious about, or affronted by the conversation in the last week, it might be worth taking a pause to consider the lived experience of women, and how that might be different to their own. The empathetic among them will no doubt soon understand why Sarah’s story has struck such a chord.