I have a bright pink keychain that looks like a tiger, but it’s ears are super sharp – almost like a dagger. It’s not just a cute charm that brightens up my car keys, it’s part of my “just in case” plan. My, “I have to walk home alone because everyone else lives on the other side of town” plan. It was a gift, and I never questioned it. I wasn’t confused, or fearful. Actually, I was just immediately grateful. Several different women have asked me where I got it. Cashiers at the grocery stores, girls in the bar bathroom, my friends – again, I thought nothing of this. I just smiled and said, “Amazon!” Almost like they had just complimented my top.
That was before Sarah Everard. Before I started to read the stories from women all over the world, stories so similar to my own worries, tendencies and experiences – it’s as if they were all there with me clutching my pepper spray in my hand as I took the garbage out. Walking home from parties in pairs and being the last one on the street, feeling my heart thump in my ears as I ran with all my might just to make it to my front door unscathed. I felt struck reading these stories because I realized these aren’t just commonalities, or coincidences. This is ingrained programming. On the heels of Sarah’s murderer pleading guilty to kidnap and rape, it’s only right that we continue to discuss, stress and stand against the prevalence of violence against women in the U.K., and worldwide.
The Fear We Know All Too Well
The fear of being attacked for being alive. The fear of having our bodies become a wide-open playground for other people without our consent. Having our innocence, our sanity and our lives taken from us for no sensible reason – just for being at the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.” The wrong place being the neighborhoods we inhabit, or the cities we visit, and the wrong time being any time after the sun goes down.
What happened to Sarah Everard is an absolute devastation. It is a senseless, cruel act of violence against an innocent woman who did nothing wrong. Who – in fact – did everything right. What it isn’t, though, is an isolated incident. Unfortunately, this is what we as women play out in our heads every time we go somewhere alone. It’s what we theorize escape plans for. What we face every time we leave one destination for the next, or when we get in an Uber alone. This is a fear that is as natural to women as breathing.
As I thought more about this, I tried to think about the origin. When did I first learn that I might be attacked for existing? When did I first realize I had to exercise caution in the same scenarios that men could perform with ease? Instead of being told to embrace my femininity, when was the first moment I realized I should be thinking about ways to protect it? To smother it, or cover it up so it doesn’t catch the attention of others?
Really, this goes back to the playground days.
While boys are being measured by how far they can wail a football, girls are busy being forced to measure the length of their skirt against their fingertips. Busy being sent home to change if it’s too short, being taught to cover up to avoid being a distraction. Even during a time in life when we’re as innocent as we will ever be. Or maybe it was when we were told that if a boy embarrassed us, or disrespected us, that it meant he liked us. Essentially, we were told that affection should hurt, and we couldn’t avoid it. Instead, we should just ignore it rather than react to it because “boys will be boys.”
Regardless of the absurdity that is our programming, what happened to Sarah Everard is personal because it could’ve been any of us. It echoes around the world. In the comments of posts like this one from lucymountain and in the March vigil-turned-protest in London. In the eerily familiar feelings of visceral anxiety shared between women. So where do we go from here? How can we even begin to approach the undoing of centuries of neglect, or the layers upon layers of deep-rooted misogyny, abuse and misunderstanding that make up our modern world?
Start with Education and Understanding
To evoke change, it’s important for us to do our research. For staters, a lot of people have a warped perception of what classifies as violence against women, or sexual violence, or even how to reference it appropriately (this is a very helpful key). Sexual violence against a woman in particular doesn’t always match a specific scenario. Sometimes the assaulter is invited in. Sometimes it’s a long-time friend, or significant other who decides not to take “no” for an answer. Someone who decides to take things too far after having one too many. 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone familiar to the victim.
Additionally, not only was what happened to Sarah Everard not a one-time, unfortunate event – according to the Washington Post and new data shared by the U.N. Women United Kingdom, it wasn’t even an uncommon event. This data indicates that 86 percent of British women between 18 and 24 have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. 86 percent. In. Public. Spaces.
According to RAINN, there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, on average. A recent VICE article states that 70 percent of Japanese women said that they have been assaulted or abused in public. UN Women states that globally, around 736 million women—nearly one in three—have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life.
The problem is widespread, it is gut-wrenching and it is ugly, but understanding the magnitude of this issue is a major step toward change.
Continue the Dialogue
In addition to doing the research and leading with empathy, we have to keep the conversation going, regardless of how much we wince, or how unbearably uncomfortable it feels. We all have an obligation to speak out about violence against women in general. It’s not just the job of the victim, or their family, or support group. It’s not just the job of women. This is actually a great way for men to get involved and stand with women in this pivotal issue.
Social media makes this pretty damn easy. There is very real, very intense information sharing happening on accounts like Shit you should care about, or within the hashtag “#TooManyWomen.” In my opinion – that is social media at its best. I believe it’s crucial to take a moment to digest these posts. To take them in and to pass them on. It’s the simplest, quickest way to get involved – to show that you’re not content with the silence that has existed around this issue for so long. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s pivotal to remember that this situation was every bit as horrible as it was preventable.
This issue can feel vast, so start with your inner circle. Don’t be afraid to call out, or educate the people in your life if they are excusing, or perpetuating dangerous behavior as “good fun,” or “harmless.” Check your language. Stop saying shit like, “he’s just overly friendly” and say what you really mean – “he can’t keep his hands to himself.” Our words hold more weight than we realize.
Be an Advocate for Survivors
Violence against women feels like an intense, taboo, confusing and at times – crushing topic. It can feel overwhelming, especially when it isn’t something you live and breathe every day, or when the fear isn’t looming on your day to day. That doesn’t mean we give up. In fact, it absolutely begs for the opposite approach.
Some tips: If someone who was abused confides in you, start by supporting them in every way you can, and in every way they feel comfortable with you doing so. If someone is afraid to go home, or expresses fear about an ex, don’t ignore those signs. Work on being an advocate. Think of the women who have lived through it and are brave enough to speak out as your friends, your sisters, your mom, or your aunt, and think about the lengths you would go to protect them. Because someday, you might have to.
Be a Supportive Bystander
If you see something that looks off, it probably is. Trust your instincts and intervene if you see someone being stalked, followed, or assaulted. Also, try to be mindful when you’re walking behind a woman on a dark, empty street. Think about crossing the street, rather than walking directly behind her, or take another route if you can. Ask the women in your life what would make them feel more at ease. Ask them what you can do to lessen their anxiety, or to support them in this struggle. Be willing to listen, learn and unlearn.
Britain working to registering misogyny, or violence against women (even though it is merely experiential at this point) a hate crime. The #MeToo movement. Organizations like RAINN that work day in and day out to create safe places for people who have been abused. They dedicate their time to sharing reliable, up-to-date information and ways to get involved. These are all examples of steps in the right direction, but the fight is far from over. We have a lot of work to do, and none of us are absolved from that duty.