This evening, women and men all over the United Kingdom will be lighting candles to remember Sarah Everard, a young woman in her thirties who went missing on 3rd March while walking home in London. She had been kidnapped and murdered. Although we were told this sort of crime by a complete stranger was very rare, women of all ages and parts of society spoke up to say fear and harassment on the streets and anywhere in public is all too common. A national dialogue has started and my guest blogger, Fiona Hallsworth, was moved to write this powerful piece.
Don’t think about my gender, don’t think about your gender. Forget “men vs women”. Just read my story. All of these examples really happened to me, they are just a small sample of many.
Imagine you are 11 years old and at a family party. You play with the other children, oblivious to the two grown ups staring at you. Your mother overhears them laughing and referring to you as “jail bait”. She realises that society’s sexualisation of your young body has already begun.
Imagine you are 13 years old. You notice that EVERY time you walk to school, grown ups slow down and stare at you as they drive past.
Imagine you are 14 and on a school trip to a theme park. The older, bigger, stronger person behind you in the queue pinches your bottom.
Imagine you are 15 and waiting at a bus stop with your friends. A grown up stands next to you and repeatedly says “I am going to rape you.”
Over the next few years, you are taught “the rules”. You must wear modest clothes and not get drunk. You must stick to well lit public places and never walk home alone. If you don’t follow the rules, a bigger, stronger person may grope, rape and/or kill you. It would be YOUR FAULT. You NEVER hear the bigger, stronger people being taught that they should not grope, rape or kill you.
Imagine you are 16 and take a job in a corner shop. It is the beginning of your life long lesson in how to look and smile at the older, bigger, stronger people just enough so that they know you are kind, but not so much that they assume you want to have sex with them. Many customers repeatedly interrogate you about your ethnic origin. The older, bigger, stronger people stand over you, demanding to know where you are “really from”. You start to understand how they fetishise the way you look and see you as an easy target. A friend insists on driving you home after your shifts, because if you walk home, you might get raped and murdered and it would be YOUR FAULT.
Imagine you are 19 and going for a jog. A person who is bigger and stronger than you deliberately jumps in front of you so that you bump into them. You are scared and run home.
Imagine you are 20 and in a nightclub. Bigger, stronger people repeatedly grab your bottom. One person does it FOUR times. You tell the bouncer but they ignore you.
Imagine you are 22 and going for a jog. A bigger, stronger person takes a photo of you as you jog past. You run home and decide you probably shouldn’t jog in public anymore.
Imagine you are 23 and travelling to and from work. EVERY time you get on a bus or train, somebody stares at you. They look at you like they want to kill you or eat you. If you are wearing shorts, they sit opposite you and stare at your legs until you feel so uncomfortable you have to move seats. Sometimes they try to brush past you on a crowded train, sometimes they take your photo when they think you are not looking.
Over time you learn to select the “right” train carriage that has other people like you on it. Then as the train empties at each stop, you worry that you might not make it home alive. You learn to sit on the bottom deck of the bus so that you can’t get cornered by someone who is bigger and stronger than you.
Imagine you are 24. Someone approaches you in the street and asks you out. As soon as the date starts they try to have sex with you and get angry when you say no and leave. The next day they text you “I don’t want to see you again because you are ugly”. You think it was probably YOUR FAULT as you really should not let people approach you in the street.
Imagine you are 25 years old and walking from a pub to a train station. Three bigger and stronger people approach you. One of them follows you a WHOLE MILE down the road. Luckily you reach the train station and merge into the crowd. As you travel the escalator down into the station, people passing on the opposite escalator stare and shout at you. Sometimes its rude comments, sometimes they just grunt weird sex noises at you.
The next time you walk home, you wonder if you should put your headphones in so that no one will talk to you. Then you remember that if someone attacks you when you are wearing headphones, it will be YOUR FAULT.
Sometimes you have to go home earlier or later than you would like so that a friend can walk you home. Sometimes you have to get a cab that you can’t afford. When you do get a cab, you anxiously check that it is a licensed cab. Because if you get raped and murdered by an unlicensed cab driver, it will be YOUR FAULT.
Imagine you are 26, standing in a pub chatting to friends. Bigger and stronger people keep on walking past you, grabbing you round the waist and brushing their crotch against your bottom. When you say “don’t touch me” they reply “I was just walking past there isn’t enough room!” You notice that they don’t grab and brush when they walk past people who are bigger and stronger than them, even if it is very crowded.
Imagine you are 27 and cycling to and from work. People stare and shout at you as you cycle past. Sometimes it’s rude comments, mainly its just the weird sex noises again. A bigger and stronger cyclist repeatedly overtakes you whilst staring at you, then slows down, forcing you to overtake them. Eventually you decide to stop, get off your bike and call someone. That way, if you do get raped and murdered, someone will know when you went missing. You breath a sigh of relief when the other person cycles off into the distance, but decide that you probably shouldn’t cycle in public anymore. You go home, lock your bike away and instead buy a train ticket that you can’t afford.
Imagine you are 28 and on a bus. Another person on the bus starts chatting to someone smaller and weaker than them. When they realise the other person is not interested they start shouting and swearing at them. You politely suggest that the bigger person should leave the smaller person alone. They start shouting at you instead.
There are about 20 other bigger, stronger people on the bus. They can’t intervene because if they do, they might get stabbed. You have to get off at your stop, knowing that the victim and the abuser are both still on the bus. You are haunted by this experience for the rest of your life. You will never know if the victim got home safe. If they didn’t, you know it would be YOUR FAULT.
You are 32 and it is your wedding day. You are fortunate to live in a culture where you can get married when and to whom you choose. You think about how lucky you are to marry someone who loves you, respects you and does not beat you. One of the best things about having a partner you love, is that when you walk down the road with them, some of the staring and harassment stops.
Imagine you are 34 and at a family wedding with your partner and child. A family friend you have not met before grabs you where they shouldn’t when they hug you. You keep quiet and tell your partner about it on the way home.
You are now 37 and decide to try jogging again. You put on the “right” clothes that won’t attract attention. People who are bigger and stronger than you shout at you as you jog past. Luckily, by this age, you have learnt to wear headphones, sunglasses and a baseball cap to help you pretend that the shouty people don’t exist.
Imagine you have a career that you love and have studied hard for. Over the 14 years that you work in the NHS, various patients make rude comments about your body, try to grope you, stand in doorways to stop you leaving, or threaten to spank you. Sometimes you have to take a bigger, stronger colleague with you so that you can do your job without being harassed or intimidated.
Imagine you are 38 and a parent. You notice that you seem to be invisible to a lot of people. You have to walk in the road with your small children because the younger, fitter, stronger person ignores you and doesn’t let you pass. Whilst this frustrates you, you are glad that you have reached the “invisible” stage of your life, because at least it means that the staring, harassing, groping and intimidation has stopped. You can’t wait until you become a pensioner, because then you will be really invisible.
You listen to the news. Sarah Everard has been murdered, despite following “the rules”. You cry for the victim and family and lay awake at night worrying. People like you are told to curfew in the evening in case you get murdered.
You try to explain to people that the roots of this violence lie in the predatory behaviour and aggression that you have experienced since you were 11 YEARS OLD.
Bigger, stronger people respond by saying “But we are not all like that!” “We get killed more than you!” You look up violent crime statistics and see that they are correct. Then you wonder why you have spent your life under curfew and following “the rules” when the bigger, stronger people are both the majority of perpetrators and the majority of victims.
You try to explain that, although you have a lot to be grateful for, your quality of life has been dimmed by fear EVERY DAY since you were 13 YEARS OLD. This fear was not created by social media. It began before social media existed. Your bigger, stronger partner and your bigger, stronger siblings have grown up free from this fear.
Some people listen. Some people ignore you. Some people laugh at you and call you rude names. Some people reply “well what do you expect, it’s YOUR FAULT”.
by Fiona Hallsworth