Inside the Old Bailey’s Court 12 on Friday 9 July, the former Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens appeared by video link from Belmarsh high-security prison in south-east London. Wearing a blue sweatshirt and hunched forwards to hide his face from the camera, he spoke only briefly to enter his plea of guilty to the murder of the 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard in March this year. His barrister told the court that Couzens had told the defence team he would “bear the burden” of his actions for the rest of his life, and that he deserved to be punished – a claim likely to be of little comfort to the members of Everard’s family in the room.
Outside the building, four of Couzens’ former colleagues stood guard in police uniform. Their presence seemed unusually meaningful, as the police response to Everard’s disappearance was central to the scrutiny the case attracted, framing the narrative and playing a major role in the wider significance that her death assumed. Days after Everard went missing on 3 March, women in Clapham, south London, where she was last seen, told reporters that officers had visited them at home and warned them not to go out alone, that it was a time to be “vigilant”. On social media, there was anger: surely, women argued, it should be the freedoms of men committing criminal acts that were curtailed, not theirs?
It wasn’t only officers who misjudged the mood. When Everard’s remains were found a week later, the Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick made a televised address in which she said, “I know Londoners will want to know that it is, thankfully, incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets.” At the same time, women across the country were mourning Everard’s death, placing it on a continuum of sexism, harassment and abuse that marks their daily lives. As the Labour MP Jess Phillips pointed out in the Commons, it was difficult to describe extreme violence against women as “rare” when six other women and a little girl were reportedly killed by men in the week after Everard’s disappearance. There was dissonance everywhere: on 11 March the front page of the Times read, “Police insist women safe as remains discovered”, next to a picture of Couzens, who had just been arrested over Everard’s death.
It had emerged that Couzens had been reported to the police for indecent exposure just days before Everard’s disappearance. And after Couzens pleaded guilty to murder, it was revealed he had been reported to Kent Police in 2015 for indecent exposure (an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct has been launched into the alleged failure to investigate, and into other incidents related to Couzens across several police forces). Had these reports been taken seriously, many women wondered, would Couzens have been a serving officer the day he abducted Everard?
Following Everard’s disappearance, women began to share their stories online in an outpouring of grief and rage – at the near-misses, the close calls, all the times we made it home safe but felt that things could have ended very differently. There was fury that every woman has a story like this. I thought about the man who sat opposite me on a quiet bus, reached his hand under his coat and began to masturbate, his eyes burning into mine. I remembered the man who ran up behind me on the pavement one night and forced his fingers, suddenly and painfully, into my crotch without warning. The man who started running his hand up my thighs on a crowded night bus. The man in the dark green car who slowed down one sunny morning to tell me he knew exactly what time I walked down that particular street and on which days. The man who turned to his friend as I passed them on a dark street and said: “I’d hold a knife to that.” The van whose door slid open as it went past me, the men inside reaching out and “joking” about pulling me in. If this list sounds shocking, it isn’t. It is average. Like so many other women, I wondered how close my story had come to ending as Everard’s did.
That shared grief and rage found expression in a proposed vigil for Everard on Clapham Common. When the organisers were threatened with legal action (for breaking Covid restrictions), public anger at the apparent failure of the police to grasp the scale of the issue grew. In a series of extraordinarily tone-deaf statements, the Met underlined the importance of “safety”, urging women to “find a safe alternative way to express their views”. A number of large-scale protests had already taken place in London in 2021, including several anti-lockdown marches. Yet at this vigil, where women peacefully held candles, officers moved in and were photographed wrestling attendees to the ground. No such scenes of violent police intervention have emerged in recent weeks, as mostly male football fans have gathered in their thousands in public spaces, also in defiance of Covid restrictions.
She was just walking home. She did all the right things. In the wake of Everard’s disappearance, these words trended thousands of times on Twitter. They were sentences that revealed the logic behind the enormous public response to her death. Everard matched the societal picture of the perfect victim: a young, beautiful, middle-class woman who had taken every precaution we wrongly expect of women and girls. Don’t walk home too late. Don’t take a badly lit route. Don’t be drunk, or get in an unlicensed minicab. Don’t dress “provocatively”. So many women related to those strictures, and followed those rules; why, when we were making every effort, were women still disappearing?
The answer, of course, is that the problem doesn’t lie with individual women. It lies with male violence and with the system supposedly designed to protect us. Statistically speaking, our cultural obsession with teaching women to avoid sexual violence is nonsensical. Women around the world are attacked at all different times of day, wearing all kinds of clothing, at all different ages. There isn’t a magic trick for keeping yourself safe.
The only thing those women will all have in common is that they came into contact with a man who committed a deliberate act of violence. But it is more comfortable to believe in the fairy tale that we can spin our girls a spell of magical protection, woven from a thousand little restrictions to their liberty, than to admit the difficult truth. Around 90 per cent of rapists are already known to their victims: a woman is probably safer in public, drunk, at 2am, in a short skirt, than in her pyjamas in her own bed.
Yet the myths persist. I have led school sessions on sexual consent in which boys have asked me, “Why don’t girls just stop wearing short skirts? Everyone knows a man can’t stop once he’s turned on.” This logic is powerfully persistent in a world where the police continue to urge women to stay vigilant, or to stay home to be on the safe side.
Some of this same logic was at play in the response to Everard’s case, and in those Twitter hashtags. The anger was real – but what did it tell us about the women who weren’t “just walking home”, or who didn’t “do all the right things”? Are their deaths less tragic? There appears to be a certain threshold for public sympathy with victims of male violence.
While media coverage of Everard’s case surged, there were far fewer column inches devoted to Julia James, 53, who was murdered while walking her dog near her home in Kent in April. Or to Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, the sisters murdered in a park in Wembley, north-west London, in June last year. Their mother, Rev Mina Smallman, told the BBC soon after their deaths that the police hadn’t responded urgently enough to her children’s disappearance: “They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and they thought they knew who she was. A black woman who lives on a council estate.” Their bodies were found instead by Nicole’s boyfriend.
How do we move forward, when these cultural myths and institutional prejudices remain so entrenched? Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, tells me she sees a glimmer of hope. “There is at last some recognition of the epidemic of violence against women and girls,” she says, adding that any shift in public understanding needs to be matched by change in the way violence is policed and prosecuted. “The extent to which transformative changes to the criminal justice system will materialise is yet to be seen. Many of the recommendations from the government’s rape review, for example, come without an effective accountability framework, or the multi-year funding they need.” Simon adds that the conceit of the perfect, blameless victim remains a powerful obstacle: “It relies on harmful sexist and also racist myths and stereotypes.” Women who do not fit this mould – and many don’t – face far greater challenges in accessing justice.
It is far easier to blame individuals than it is to fix a system that is utterly broken. It is not, as Commissioner Dick recently claimed, a matter of there being an “occasional bad ’un” in the police force. Almost 600 sexual misconduct allegations were made against Metropolitan Police officers between 2012 and 2018. In the past two years, more than 125 women have reported domestic abuse at the hands of partners who are police officers to the UK charity the Centre for Women’s Justice. The Met is currently investigating allegations that a serving officer raped two female colleagues.
In a devastating irony, a woman who attended the vigil for Everard told the BBC she was ignored by police when she tried to report an incident of indecent exposure on her way home. She alleges an officer told her, “We’ve had enough with the rioters tonight, we’re not dealing with it.” What might that offender, emboldened by his apparent impunity, have gone on to do next?
[see also: Are UK police forces institutionally misogynist?]
Last month, the government published its review of the way rape is prosecuted in England and Wales, and found deep systemic failures. As a crime, it has effectively been decriminalised, with just 1.4 per cent of the cases reported to police resulting in a charge or summons.
Nor is it only the criminal justice system that repeatedly fails women: from our media to our male-dominated politics, those with the power to create change too often refuse to acknowledge the scale of the issue, and its insidious roots in social and cultural norms. In the wake of Everard’s disappearance, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme invited on the criminologist Marian FitzGerald to emphasise that men were at a greater risk of experiencing violence than women. “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,” she told Nick Robinson.
In parliament the same month, the Labour MP and shadow solicitor general Ellie Reeves called on the Attorney General Michael Ellis to take stronger action on sexual violence, and was reprimanded for her tone: “I don’t think that the emotive language that [Reeves] uses is appropriate at all,” Ellis told the Commons. Boris Johnson ludicrously suggested introducing more undercover police officers in nightclubs to help protect women. His assertion in parliament, two weeks after Everard’s death, that we must tackle “casual everyday sexism” was meaningless: here was a man who once promised that voting Conservative would “cause your wife to have bigger breasts”, and who advised his successor as editor of the Spectator to ignore its female publisher: “Pat her on the bottom and send her on her way.”
There was another phrase that trended in the days after Everard’s disappearance: #NotAllMen. “Why do men do what we do?” tweeted Nazir Afzal, former chief prosecutor for north-west England, after Couzens’ guilty plea. Within four minutes, another man had replied: “They aren’t men. Leave me out of it.” There will always be a significant minority of men who react defensively in this context, seeing themselves as the victims. If their numbers swell in the wake of a case such as Everard’s, it is because the strength of the public reaction scares them into believing that something might actually change. Wrongly, they perceive the notion of progress towards gender equality as a threat.
They needn’t worry. In the decade that I have spent campaigning for women’s rights, it has become clear to me that the media and political spotlight flickers restlessly and usually all too briefly on the issue of violence against women, and that big promises and grand plans quickly fall away once the outcry quietens down. Speaking outside the Old Bailey last week, Commissioner Dick said she was “sickened, angered and devastated” by Couzens’ crimes. But what of the hundreds of complaints of sexual offences against other Met officers? Such strong words will be meaningful only when they are matched with strong action. The change we need to see is in the system itself, not in individual women’s behaviour. And until the people in positions of institutional power recognise this, and the scale of the problem, women will continue to pay with their lives.
Laura Bates is the author of five books, including “Men Who Hate Women” and “Everyday Sexism” (both Simon & Schuster)
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook