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11 March 2021

Sarah Everard’s disappearance is a horrifying reminder that women live in fear of violence

Women grow up conditioned to protect themselves from attack. But why should the onus be on us?    

By Alona Ferber

Sarah Everard, 33, went missing after leaving a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, on the night of 3 March. Yesterday a policeman was arrested on suspicion of murder and, in the evening, police announced that officers investigating Everard’s disappearance had found human remains.  

These chilling facts hit women hard. Throughout the day on social media, they shared their rage at the brazenness of the violence against Everard. They shared their chosen methods of protecting themselves against attack when out at night alone: clutching keys in their fists, walking fast, crossing the street to avoid strangers, choosing the well-lit route, asking friends to check in if they haven’t called by a certain time after parting. They told of the mundane, ever-present possibility of violence that looms over women’s lives.  

They shared their outrage at the pervasive idea that women need to take responsibility for this threat. And they shared their anger, too, at the fact we live in a country where prosecutions for rape are at their lowest level since records began. The Sun reported that police in Clapham, knocking on doors investigating Everard’s disappearance, had warned women “to be careful going out alone”. As if women need reminding to be careful. How about policing the men who might attack them? How about they be the ones to stay at home instead?  

The other night, I went for a walk after work to stretch my legs and put some kind of buffer between my day of working at home and my evening of still being there. I stepped out the front door into the darkness, the tension in my body easing when I realised the person coming towards me was a woman, not a man. When I got to a nearby park and followed my instinct to enter, what went through my mind was something like this: “Don’t be stupid, why are you going in here, someone might attack you.”  

Before she disappeared on her walk home, Everard had spoken on the phone with her partner. She had done the thing that so many have done to feel safe after dark.  

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Women grow up with the sense that they need to modify their behaviour out of fear of attack. Abuse at the hands of a stranger is rarer than abuse at the hands of someone you know. Still, we grow up looking over our shoulders after dark. 

We know it in our bones, and we know it from stories and statistics. Just this week, there were the following. Exhibit A: a World Health Organisation analysis showing that one in three women, around 736 million, experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner in their lifetime. Exhibit B: a poll that found 97 per cent of young women in Britain have been sexually harassed and that 80 per cent of women of all ages have experienced harassment in public spaces. Exhibit C: Everard’s disappearance.  

[see also: The shadow pandemic: 243 million women have experienced physical or sexual abuse in the last year]

At what point does a woman first understand that there is a threat? I can’t remember the first time I felt in danger because of my gender. I remember one night when I was aged around 16, waiting for a friend outside a Tube station and being surrounded by a group of men. I was sitting down, on the edge of a wall, and they stood tall around me. I remember feeling both flattered that they were talking to me and scared that I wouldn’t be able to leave.  

In her recent book Feminist City, the geographer Leslie Kern recalls how, aged nearly ten, the disappearance of eight-year-old Nicole Morin in Toronto shifted her perception of the dangers adults had warned her about. “I became conscious of being vulnerable,” she writes, “not just because I was a child, but because I was a girl”.  

Later, in puberty, she writes, “the volume turns up on the message that girls and women are vulnerable due to our gender and that sexual development is going to make that danger real”. For many, “the message comes in like an IV drip, building up in our systems so gradually that once we’ve become aware of it, it’s fully dissolved in the bloodstream”.  

My daughter, aged three, is too young to know any of this. She knows enough about coronavirus to want the pandemic to end, but it will be years before she will tense up walking home. I quietly hold the knowledge that this will be part of her future.  

At some point I will need to warn her to be careful, just as now I might tell her not to run into the road. I will watch her grow, watch people reacting to her. I will gauge whether now it’s time, whether her vulnerability to violence, just because she is a woman, has already come into play.  

Maybe, by the time she is grown up, the onus will no longer be on women to protect themselves. Maybe by that point, the male violence that is the clear consequence of misogyny will be effectively policed and prosecuted. By then, public spaces might be designed in a way that empowers women, rather than making them clutch their keys.  

But for now, the story of Sarah Everard reminds us of how women learn to live with fear and the threat of violence.

[see also: Murders of women and girls are soaring – are we dismissing the danger of controlling men?]