The Sarah Everard case is completely and utterly chilling. Every woman has been there – alone, on a darkened road, heart beating furiously, thinking about the dreaded what if. Except it wasn’t just a hypothetical worst-case scenario for Sarah, but her reality, made difficult to digest by the fact that the suspected perpetrator is someone whose job is to protect us. Combine the brutality of her death with the use of force by police at what was supposed to be a peaceful vigil in her honour and the situation seems particularly stark – insulting, even – when compared to the laissez-faire policing of Rangers fans in Glasgow.
Sarah Everard is sadly just one of thousands of women who have been attacked and assaulted, many of whom are working-class women or women of colour who are less visible in the media as victims. The death of Blessing Olusegun remains unsolved and is a striking reminder that the stories of these women often go untold.
Sarah’s story and stories like hers seem all the more poignant when accompanied by data released just a week after her disappearance. UN Women UK found that over 70% of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment in public. The findings are particularly relevant for female students, with 93% experiencing some form of sexual harassment. In the wake of the stories of sexual violence emerging from St Andrews over last year and into 2021, it seems like little has changed. Harassment clearly remains an issue that is extremely significant in terms of the experience of female students on campus. During my time at St Andrews, my flatmates and I have been honked at, barked at and experienced catcalling. I avoid looking men in the eyes whilst alone and get nervous walking past large groups even in broad daylight.
This leaves us with the question of how to resolve this seemingly inescapable problem. Baroness Jenny Jones proposed the solution of a 6pm curfew for all men. Although it wasn’t meant seriously, it draws attention to the fact that the problem does not lie with the actions of women, but with the behaviour of men. In the wake of Sarah’s murder, keeping to well-lit, busy streets, covering up, wearing sensible clothing and footwear and informing loved ones of your whereabouts now seem redundant – Sarah took every precaution she could, doing exactly what every woman has been advised to do, and it still didn’t help her. These protective measures have been exposed for what they are – futile, surface-level actions which do nothing to address the deeply-rooted issue of female safety, allowing perpetrators to continue harassment, abuse and violence against women.
Male behaviour needs to change. For this to happen, women need male allies. As Al Garthwaite, an original Reclaim the Night organiser, stated, male allies have to “talk to other men and help them understand.” Men must help women in challenging unacceptable behaviours to tackle the root cause of the issue, instead of pushing women to change their habits and live in a perpetual state of fear.
Instead of taking this approach, the government has adopted a reactive rather than proactive stance, with Boris Johnson considering extending Project Vigilant, where plainclothes police officers will frequent clubs, bars and pubs to seek out and prevent harmful and predatory behaviour. The issues with this are clear – the Sarah Everard case shows that police officers often fail in their duties to protect women and the plainclothes element presents a worrying accountability problem. To produce the change that is necessary, the government has to prioritise education.
It is futile to attempt to plaster over the gaping hole that is misogyny and violence against women with a few police officers, without teaching men to respect women and their boundaries. The money that has been pledged to improving lighting and CCTV in neighbourhoods will do little to make women feel safer when an insidious culture of sexism still exists. The government’s promise feels like a tokenistic gesture designed to placate women, without devoting the time, effort and funds that are needed to overhaul the deeply engrained attitudes that produce this behaviour in the first place.
The Evening Standard, ‘What happened to Blessing Olusegun?’ – https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/what-happened-blessing-olusegun-death-sussex-b924027.html
BBC News, ‘Sarah Everard: How a woman’s death sparked a nation’s soul-searching’ – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56384600
The Guardian, ‘Men must challenge other men on women’s safety, campaigner says’ – https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/12/men-must-challenge-other-men-womens-safety-campaigner-al-garthwaite-sarah-everard
The Guardian, ‘Police could patrol nightclubs in drive to protect women’ – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/16/project-vigilant-what-are-the-measures-boris-johnson-announced