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9 July 2021

Wayne Couzens’ guilty plea is a moment for anger, not relief

Sarah Everard’s murder remains a terrifying reminder that women can never fully protect themselves.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The relief that the Met Police officer Wayne Couzens has pleaded guilty to the murder of Sarah Everard, sparing her family the trauma of a drawn-out trial, only goes some way to temper the horror at the details which have now emerged.  

It appears that Couzens, who had already admitted to kidnapping and raping Everard, set out that day in March with the intention of abducting a woman – any woman, as long as she was alone and an easy target. He had rented a car three days beforehand; he had driven around looking for a potential victim; he hid her body in a bag he had bought a few days previously. He was an armed police officer tasked with protecting parliamentary and government officials. The thought of him contemplating the rape and killing he later carried out while on duty, whilst wearing a uniform that signalled to the public that he was someone to be trusted, is sickening. 

That detail – that the lead suspect in an abduction and murder inquiry was a police officer – is perhaps one of the main reasons the case sparked such an intense wave of national outrage. The atrocity of a murder is made all the more sinister when it is committed by someone who is meant to be keeping us safe. 

But as I recall that week in March, it wasn’t just Couzens’ profession that shook me so much I couldn’t look at the news or social media for days. And I don’t think it was that fact alone that triggered a wave of protests and a national conversation about violence against women and what we as a society can do to tackle it.  

[See also: Are UK police forces institutionally misogynist?]

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Instead, it was the circumstances I couldn’t get out of my head. When I returned to social media, scrolling through endless posts of heartbroken, shellshocked women, the prevailing emotion – for them and for me – wasn’t horror. It was anger.  

And it was anger because so many of us have been told so many times that what happened to us, while very sad, was in some way our own fault. Well, perhaps not our fault exactly, but our responsibility. That we could have avoided it, at any rate. By not wearing that skirt. By not getting so drunk. By not being so trusting of the charming man who later turned out to be not so charming after all. By not having such a reputation for promiscuity. By not talking so openly about sex. By setting clear boundaries – or, conversely, by not being naïve enough to assume those boundaries would be respected just because we had set them.   

Sarah Everard’s case was not like that. A woman walks home along a well-lit, relatively busy road. It isn’t late at night. She isn’t intoxicated. She doesn’t lead anyone on or make any poor decisions. She does everything right. 

And she still ends up dead in a wood in Kent. 

According to Rape Crisis, one in five women will experience some form of sexual violence in her life. Only around 15 per cent ever go to the police. The vast majority of these incidents are not abductions committed by strangers. They don’t fit so neatly into the accepted template of what assault looks like – they are examples of “date rape”, “grey rape”, “relationship rape”, violations of consent where it can so often be argued that the violation was a mistake or a miscommunication, as much the victim’s fault as the perpetrator’s.  

This narrative helps abusive men get away with what they do – it’s “he said, she said”, who really knows what happened, she should have been more careful. But perversely, it can provide comfort to women too. It can give us the illusion of control, providing reassurance that the crimes committed against us and our friends could have been avoided, and therefore offer lessons in how we can prevent them from happening to us again.  

And then a woman who did everything right dies anyway, and our semblance of security is shattered. Every venture outside the house is a risk. Every man is – though we hate admitting it – a potential threat. 

That was the point I remember furiously, tearfully trying to communicate to male friends in the days after the news of Everard’s death broke. That 33 million women and girls had just been reminded not that every man has the potential to be a rapist, of course not, but that a small proportion do and we have no way of recognising which ones. That we can never fully protect ourselves and the myth that we can doesn’t keep us safe – it just prevents us from holding to account those who hurt us. That our only choices are to resolutely ignore that grim fact, or live in terror. Most of the time, we are very adept at the former. Then a case such as this makes that impossible. 

That to me is why thousands of women defied lockdown regulations to attend vigils across the country and find solidarity in their grief and fear. It’s why the response of the Metropolitan Police in London, using such disproportionate force to remove women who had gathered to protest a crime committed by one of their own officers, was such a horrendous insult to injury.  

And it’s why Wayne Couzens’ guilty plea today isn’t a resolution, not really, not for me. Knowing one evil man will spend much of the rest of his life behind bars is justice, but just as it can’t bring a 33-year-old woman back to life, nor can it tidy away the reality of sexual violence Sarah Everard’s murder forced us to confront. There isn’t a perfect skirt or a perfect dating strategy or a perfect number of sexual partners that can prevent women from getting hurt by men drunk on power and incapable of seeing them as full human beings. And there never was.  

[See also: Sarah Everard’s disappearance is a horrifying reminder that women live in fear of violence]