It’s surprising to hear victim blaming from a victim of rape. And yet, when I worked as a support worker at a rape crisis centre, I heard it all the time. For some of the women and girls I worked with, it was comforting to believe that there were things they could do to stop it happening again: not stay out too late, not get too drunk, not be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The centre’s policy was that we should gently but firmly disagree with any statement that hinted at victim blaming, but there were moments when it felt cruel. If a woman tells you that constant vigilance will save her, how can you possibly turn around and tell her “actually, no, it won’t”?
When it became clear that the missing 33-year-old Londoner Sarah Everard was not going to be found alive, the public anguish was immediate and intense. Coincidentally, the murderer of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman – found dead in June 2020 in a park in Wembley – appeared in court only a day after the Met confirmed that a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, had been arrested on suspicion of Everard’s kidnap and murder.
Today (30 September), Couzens was sentenced to a whole-life prison term. It comes days after a vigil was held for the 28-year-old primary school teacher Sabina Nessa, whose body was found a few minutes’ walk from her home in south-east London. All of these cases serve as a shocking reminder that sometimes women’s very worst nightmares do become reality.
The state is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it fails. In Sarah Everard’s case, the failure was all the more devastating because her murderer exploited the powers granted to him as a representative of the state. This week, we heard how Couzens capitalised on his position as a police officer to kidnap Everard, how he used his warrant card to prevent her from resisting, and how passers-by assumed they were witnessing a legitimate arrest and so did not sound the alarm. We also heard of accusations of indecent exposure against Couzens while he was a police officer, and that, three years before he was hired by the Met, some of his past colleagues at the Civil Nuclear Constabulary had nicknamed him “the rapist” because he made the women around him uncomfortable.
Should the Met have realised what Couzens was capable of? Many commentators are now confidently asserting that the signs were all there, and when the investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct is concluded, we will have a better idea of whether this is true.
We know that it is common for men who murder women to have a long history of committing other crimes, and that sometimes the response of the criminal justice system is so pitiful that violent offenders are able to victimise women again and again. Theodore Johnson, for instance, killed three of his girlfriends over the course of four decades spent shuttling in and out of prison, with the authorities apparently convinced at every release that he was a changed man, only to be proved wrong.
But often we can only see in retrospect that a perpetrator’s pattern of behaviour was on course to escalate to murder. And sometimes there were no signs at all, or at least no certain ones. There are cases that are made all the more frightening by the fact that they were nightmarishly random.
Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, and Sabina Nessa were all killed while doing ordinary things, the sort of things we all do. So when the Met police commissioner Cressida Dick said in a statement in the immediate aftermath of Everard’s murder that “it’s extremely rare for a woman to be abducted off the street”, she was technically right, but she also missed the point. What happened to these women is rare, but there are other forms of male violence against women that are not rare. And the fear of dark streets and lone men is a fear that all women share. It could have happened to any of us, and we have all had moments of wondering if it might be about to.
Online and in the media, we have seen a highly charged discussion about what exactly should be done to prevent such crimes happening again, and unfortunately a tweet format limited to 280 characters lends itself to the kind of simplistic statements that make it all sound so easy, like those ads that promise to solve a problem with “one weird trick”. Popular suggestions for “one weird trick to end male violence” have included mandatory consent workshops, harsher penalties for catcalling, a 6pm curfew for all men, and defunding the police – alongside lots of calls for “something to be done” that never actually make clear what that “something” ought to be.
The situation is not entirely hopeless. There are some dull and unreliable measures we can take, mostly involving the criminal justice system. It’s highly likely, for instance, that police vetting procedures will be re-examined in the wake of Couzens’s conviction, and it might become more difficult – though never, I’m sorry to say, impossible – for abusers to slip through the net.
But there is no “one weird trick” to end male violence, and there never will be. Reading the responses to these terrible cases, I had the same feeling I used to have when faced with a rape victim desperate to believe that she can prevent her further victimisation, if only she tries hard enough. We all want to believe in a single, shining solution that will finally allow women to live without fear. And it therefore feels so cruel to respond to that kind of fragile certainty with the truth: “Actually, no, it won’t.”