How safe do YOU feel at night? Seven female writers share their views

How safe do YOU feel at night? Seven female writers share their views

March 11, 2021

How safe do YOU feel at night? The tragic case of Sarah Everard has provoked an avalanche of accounts from women who’ve been harassed or assaulted. A shaming day for all men? Seven female writers share their views

The tragic tale of Sarah Everard has haunted the nation this week. As a serving police officer was arrested following the disappearance of the 33-year-old as she walked home at 9pm last week — and news broke that human remains had been discovered — social media was flooded with accounts of the fear, abuse, harassment and violence that women experience daily. 

The police officer, it should be said, is still only a suspect, has not been charged with any offence, and remains innocent until proven guilty.

That said, why is it that women still feel unsafe on Britain’s streets? And are they right to do so? Here a selection of writers give their views…

It could be any man at any time — it’s terrifying 

Flora Gill, 30

Flora Gill, 30

The first time I was harassed in the streets, I was 11 and walking back from school in the middle of the day; a man chased me and started taking photos up my skirt.

When I was 14, walking through a park in the morning, I was jeered at and pushed between a group of boys.

At 16, I was followed back from a party at night as a man chased me, laughing.

At 21, while travelling, I was groped in a crowd while my partner walked unaware beside me.

These are not the only instances, or even the most serious. The point is they all happened at different ages, at different times of the day, while I was wearing different types of clothes.

As women, there are so many things we do to try to minimise our risk. We don’t jog at night, we avoid the top floor of the night bus, we check the back seats of our cars, we walk with our keys in our hands, ready to deploy as weapons if necessary.

It’s the same set of rules Sarah Everard appears to have had in mind. She took a well-lit route, she called her partner, she wore bright colours and it still was not enough.

So when people ask ‘What could you have done differently?’ the answer is: nothing. 

Whether you’re a schoolgirl walking home in your uniform, or a 33-year-old in ‘sensible’ clothes, you are never without ‘risk’.

It’s not all men, but it feels as if it could be any man, at any time, no matter our precautions; and that is a terrifying world to live in.

I was assaulted — but I refuse to be cowed by fear

Julia Lawrence, 53

Julia Lawrence, 53

The ‘incident’, as it was referred to in my police report, happened on a hot summer’s night in 2019. 

It should have changed my attitude towards my personal safety and, indeed, that of my 24-year-old daughter — but I wouldn’t let that happen.

I was walking home from a friend’s house, a mile-long stroll along a busy road in North London, at about 11pm when I became aware of someone following me.

I slowed down, he slowed down. I sped up, he sped up. So I ducked inside a restaurant. When I emerged ten minutes later, he’d waited for me. 

In blind terror, I tried to sprint away — me, a middle-aged woman, a little bit tipsy, wearing strappy sandals, trying to outrun a 6 ft tall young man in trainers.

Obviously, he caught me. What happened next was truly bizarre: he just grinned and grabbed my bum, then ran off.

I have never been so scared in my life. To the police’s credit, they took it very seriously. I attended an identity parade where I failed to pick out my attacker, but they got him anyway: a local ‘character’ who had learning difficulties and was targeting women.

My family and friends begged me to be more careful, not to walk alone at night, but angrily I refused. Why should I? I will not moderate what I see as perfectly reasonable behaviour in response to the unreasonable, and extremely rare, habits of others. Would I walk home along a country road, blind drunk, miles from anywhere? No, because that would increase my chances of running into danger, most likely from a speeding car.

But strolling home on a warm summer’s evening in a busy area is a privilege I am not prepared to forsake over a threat which I see as minimal. I was simply unlucky.

Women have fought too hard, for too long, for freedom to relinquish it that easily.

Harassment of women is worse today due to porn

Tanith Carey, 53

Tanith Carey, 53

As I walked arm-in-arm with my 15-year-old daughter up our local High Street last week, I vaguely noticed a respectably dressed, middle-aged man in a mask queueing to get into Marks & Spencer.

I thought little of it until Clio said a few seconds later: ‘That guy just made a weird gesture at me.’

Confused, she described how, while staring directly into her eyes, he had lowered his hands, palms-down, from his chest to his crotch, as though pushing something down.

As it dawned on me what this meant, I felt nauseated. Right in front of me, this stranger had felt emboldened enough to indicate to my child that he’d like to force her to perform oral sex on him.

This is not an isolated experience for my daughter, just as it wasn’t for me at her age. 

But you might have thought that, in the intervening decades since I was a teenager, the huge strides we have made towards equality, as well as campaigns such as #Me Too and Everyday Sexism, would have meant this kind of harassment was dying out.

On the contrary — it’s actually got a lot worse.

For ten years, I’ve been writing about the effect instantly available internet porn has been having on our society.

I’ve charted how the explosion of clips delighting in sexual violence have encouraged some men to see all females as objects to be degraded for their sexual pleasure.

Even if staged, violent porn encourages viewers to be turned on by violence and the subjugation of women. Until we find the courage to tackle these portrayals, women will never be safe.

I have no faith in our justice system

Lindsay Nicholson, 65

Lindsay Nicholson, 65

My best friend lives only a mile from my house. Easy walking distance. But when we get together (outside of lockdown, of course) I never, ever walk home after an evening spent with her. The path is unlit and runs alongside a golf course, which is deserted at night.

What woman in her right mind would do that? I take my car, or, if we have shared a bottle of wine, her husband drives me home.

Like all women, I decide where I go, what I wear and how I travel based on personal safety.

This is not paranoia. Like most women I have been followed, harassed, catcalled and even flashed at more times than I care to count. My daughter, who is 28, and my mother in her 80s, have both had similar experiences.

We text one another the registration of any minicab we use and check in after every journey.

Nor do we have any faith in the police or the justice system to protect us. A family friend was followed home by a stranger who forced his way into her flat and brutally raped her.

He was caught and prosecuted, but walked away from court scot-free. The defence argued that sex had been consensual and seemingly the jury believed him. Our friend says her experience at the hands of the so-called justice system was even worse than the rape. Who would put themselves through that?

Black boys are most at risk on the streets 

Emily Hill, 37

Emily Hill, 37

‘There but for the grace of God, go I,’ is what any woman empathising with Sarah Everard must be thinking.

But please forgive me for disputing the idea that a curfew should be imposed on men because otherwise a woman’s day would effectively end at sundown.

I feel so sorry for Sarah and her family, but I am uncomfortable about wholesale conclusions about men and women being drawn from her disappearance. In my experience of London, it is not true that the streets aren’t safe for women. They are — as long as you don’t meet a murderer. The vast majority of us won’t.

I’m 5ft tall and weigh less than 7st, but have never been accosted or harassed by a man on the street. But I was hurt once when a woman tried to mug me in broad daylight.

Every year for the past six years, there have been 100 homicides in London. The streets here aren’t safe, it’s true — but for working-class, mostly black boys. Too many women have died, too, but as a result of domestic abuse, not going out after dark.

We shouldn’t have to dread walking home on our own 

Radhika Sanghani

Radhika Sanghani, 30

The first time I learned to fear walking home alone was after a talk we had on safety at my all-girls’ primary school. I was 11 years old.

We were told to avoid ponytails (easy to grab), not to wear headphones, make sure we wore shoes we could run in and hold our keys. Over the years, those messages have become part of my life.

The first time I experienced harassment was not long after that safety talk. A van driver catcalled me when I was crossing the road in my school summer dress, humiliating me so much I tripped up and walked away feeling like I had done something dirty. Then there was the time I was celebrating the end of my A-levels, when a man took advantage of a packed nightclub to slip his hands into my underwear.

Yet every single time I’ve been harassed — these are just a few of many incidents — I have felt guilty afterwards. I blamed myself for ‘not being conscientious enough’, for ‘putting myself at risk’.

Now, finally, seeing the reaction of so many women to Sarah Everard’s story, it is making me think twice. Why should women grow up fearing walking home alone? Why do we accept that we have to do so much to stay safe when most men don’t even have to think about it?

I’ve always felt it’s naive to want to live in a world where women don’t have to ‘Stay safe! Get a cab! Be careful!’ But now I’m changing my mind. It’s long overdue.

Women should be safe— whatever we wear

Julie Bindel, 58

Julie Bindel, 58

Safe? I will only feel safe when men stop assaulting, raping and killing women. When there are serious consequences for men who commit acts of violence against women. Until then, any attempt to reassure women we are safe, because few are ever snatched from the street as they were in the days of the Yorkshire Ripper, will fall on deaf ears.

So long as the conviction rate for rape and sexual assault is as low as 1 per cent of offences reported to police, men will believe they can act with impunity. When judges treat men accused of killing their wives with sympathy because she ‘nagged’ him, then we will continue to fear fatal male violence. What needs to happen before women are truly safe is to point the finger at violent men rather than focus only on the victims.

We need to make it clear abuse of females is unacceptable and carries stiff penalties.

But we can do this only if the criminal justice system starts locking up more rapists and batterers.

Why should women curtail our behaviour because we fear being sexually assaulted when we go about our business? It should be safe to take a taxi alone, even if we’ve had a few drinks, and no matter what we are wearing. Rather than giving women advice about how to dress or behave, we should be telling men ‘enough is enough’.

And one man’s view: I just hadn’t realised how bad things were

Stephen Pollard, 56

Stephen Pollard

Some crimes shake the nation. They remain in our consciousness for decades — such as the murder of James Bulger — because they illustrate something that plays into our worst fears. It feels, tragically, that Sarah Everard’s disappearance is one such case.

Since a man was arrested on suspicion of her kidnap and murder this week, there has been an outpouring from women on social media and elsewhere. They have all made the same point: that for women, fear of attack is a day-to-day norm.

If I’m walking at night in a quiet street and I see a woman in front of me, I cross the road, conscious that she cannot know my intentions.

But I don’t think I appreciated until now just how unrelenting and constant the concern is that women feel when they are out alone at night. Some men have reacted by remarking that not all men are rapists. I’ve rarely heard a more fatuous comment. Of course we aren’t. But to the woman near us, who doesn’t know us, every one of us is a potential attacker.

I’ve been attacked twice: once in the street at night and once in a busy Tube station. So I also look about me when I’m out, and if I spot someone behind me I’ll often cross the road to see if I am being followed.

But for a man, the fear is very different — the fear of a mugging is not the same as the fear of sexual assault.

It shouldn’t need to be said that women have the right to walk down a street without fear. But if that right is to be honoured, men need to change their behaviour. We have to put the fears of women at the front of our minds when we are out.

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