Today I learnt the news that the remains of Sarah Everard, the Londoner who went missing walking home from her friend’s house, were found. It was a discovery that left my friends and I reeling, devastated for her family and loved ones, cataloguing the times we have been put in dangerous situations by men.
I was 12 when I was first sexually assaulted, groped by an older relative in Jamaica as he taught me how to snorkel. I assumed he had done it by accident, I didn’t tell my mother who was waiting at the shore for me, I didn’t tell anyone.
I was 13 when a grown man grabbed my butt as I stood next to my mother and my 8-year-old brother in Greece, waiting to cross the street. I remember feeling confused, I remember wondering if he knew I was a child because I was very tall, I remember excusing it for this reason.
I was 18 when, on New Year’s Day, I walked through a tube station with my friend Charlie and a group of men pushed past us, one of them putting his full adult weight into a slap on my ass, so hard I jerked forward and had to catch myself from falling. When I turned around, asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, he and his friends stepped towards Charlie and I, menacing, asked what we were going to do about it. That moment had the kind of electricity that makes you realise how close you are to danger. We backed off; they went about their day.
I was 22 when a man took upskirt shots of me in the street without my knowledge or consent. He ran away when confronted, and I had to be resigned to the fact that there would be photos of me somewhere in the world without my permission.
I was 25 when a photographer in a shoot organized by my agency straddled me in the name of “getting the shot”, made me pretend to orgasm for his camera. I explained it away in my head, sometimes shoots were weird. That man was later arrested and charged with assaulting several other models, and had been previously arrested for raping a middle-aged woman.
These are not even half of the stories I could share. I have friends who have been assaulted on massage tables, raped after a consensual date, cornered on public transport in broad daylight, on hiking trails, in parks. We collectively have so many stories like this that sometimes we forget them, sometimes our friends say, hey remember when that guy jerked off across from us on the train? And we will laugh in disbelief, think, how did we forget that? We forgot, because this sort of crime is prolific. And we as women are taught to excuse it from an early age- boys will be boys, take it as a compliment, just ignore it.
None on the offences I mentioned that happened to me or my friends have ended in convictions. The police I called after that man struck me in the tube drove Charlie and I around for a bit to see if we could find them, but then stated it was probably a lost cause, despite having happened in a tube station with CCTV. By that point I was used to shrugging it off, already used to excusing men’s behaviour.
Sarah Everard was one of us, a woman minding her own business on her way home. She left her friend’s house at 9pm for the 50-minute walk home through South London. She did what we are told to do, she wore her running shoes, she took a well-lit high traffic road home, she called her boyfriend as she walked. She was murdered and her remains were found about a week later. It is still unclear what happened to her but what is clear is that this horrific crime resonated with every single female friend of mine. We all know the feeling of heading somewhere, wondering if we chose the best route, wondering if that man behind us is following us or just coincidentally making the same turns. Keeping our headphones out of our ears so we can stay alert, keeping our keys between our fingers as a weapon. The word “fire” ready in our mouths, because we know and were told as children that the word “rape” wouldn’t garner the same response. We know what can happen because to so many of us, it has already happened.
Of this victimized portion of the globe there intersects black and trans women, a threat that hits them twofold. According to The Human Rights Campaign, 2020 was the deadliest year in the US for violence against trans people with at least 44 known deaths reported. And even when they succeed, even when these men kill us, there is no dignity in the aftermath, as the family of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, murdered in a North London park, could attest to. Police officers assigned to the case took selfies with their bodies, just when you thought they could not be further desecrated.
Marginalized communities have long known the danger the police can pose. We are no strangers to our relatives being stopped for no reason, to dubious charges and unnecessary use of force. And so, to learn that a Metropolitan police officer was somehow involved in Sarah Everard’s murder is no surprise. As reported by The Guardian, a survey by UN Women UK showed that almost all women had experience with assault of some kind. 97% of women aged 18-24 and 80% of women of all ages, to be precise. There is no man who is free from suspicion, which is why when men hear our pleas to listen, when they say “not all men”, they must recognise that we do not know “not all men” because it is proven otherwise time and time again. By strangers, by family members, by people we thought were friends, by lovers, by teachers. Sure, “not all men”, but until we know for sure we are safe, until we can walk at night without fear, you don’t get a fucking medal for not assaulting a woman.
How do we protect ourselves? We have proven time and time again that it does not matter what we wear, how we behave, what we say, what we do? Should the onus still be on us, the women? Should we still be expected to be on the defensive, should we still teach our daughters that they should be polite to the men who corner them, that they should not fight back if and when they are attacked?
At what point do we say, this is not our problem but yours, men? At what point do the men in our lives start standing up to that one friend who they swear up and down is a good guy, just a bit pervy when he’s had a drink? At what point do they shut down the men at work who make disgusting jokes behind women’s backs, who purposefully misgender trans people? When does it become their responsibility, not ours, to call out these people, to shield us from the ‘bad apples’? And not just because they have daughters or wives or mothers or sisters but because they recognise the humanity in us and desire to protect it for that reason alone. When do they realise that it is not our problem, but theirs?
// Feature photo courtesy of Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash.