A woman was murdered in London last week, by a police officer who apparently abducted and killed her during her evening walk home from a friend’s place. Sarah Everard’s death is terrifying and infuriating not only because she did so many of the right things we’ve been told to do, like walking along a busy road and keeping her friends apprised of her whereabouts, but because it appears that she was killed by one of the very people we expect to protect us from the bad guys.
The responses have been heartfelt, and somewhat predictable. On one side, we’ve seen repeats of the same advice we’ve always seen given to women on how to stay safe in public, including “hacks” of how to call for help quickly. We’ve also seen, more strongly I think, anger about why we demand changes from women instead of from the men who attack them. And it’s justified anger – the burden of safety should not fall entirely on those who want to be safe.
However (and you knew this was coming from me), no matter how much we rightfully want and rightfully demand that bad guys, of any gender, stop being bad guys…it’s a massive undertaking. The things that lead them to hurting us come from many causes and require many solutions that can take time, even generations, to change completely….If it’s even possible given human nature. I’m not saying that we don’t start that work and that we don’t try. Absolutely, we need to be clear that it’s not okay to hurt others, that it’s not okay for men to victimize women for whatever reason. Or, for that matter, for women to victimize men, for women to victimize women, and for men to victimize men. But could we be any more clear about that to any individual than we must have been to a police officer, one who was entrusted to protect those in some of the most sensitive places in London? Surely, if anyone should have been given the message that you don’t hurt innocent women trying to walk home alone, it was this attacker? Whether it’s because he didn’t want to listen and internalize that directive or because it wasn’t given to him properly, those types of failures will always exist.
Women have long been told to dress “appropriately” and to not do things like walk alone at night. It’s certain that it’s not fair that those things are more likely to lead to harm for a woman on her own than for a man, and even more so for an attractive woman dressed attractively. It’s also certain that that’s the world we live in today and that even if we demand change starting now, that it will be the world we live in for some time to come. I can protest against that evil, raise awareness that we need to be ever more clear that women should be able to do so without harassment and without danger. And I can also be honest that we don’t live in a world of should and be honest that if a woman chooses to engage in activity that might lead to harm, then she should know the kinds of harms that may result and she should have access to the most effective defensive tools possible. She should know that even the police may not be safe, if that is so, and she should have more than the ability to call an emergency number and the harmful advice to fist her keys between her fingers. I find it frankly insulting that we are not considered deserving and capable of doing more, having more, being more.
Encouraging women to learn how to protect themselves shouldn’t be dismissed as placing “all of the burden” on them to remain safe. Instead, to me, it’s an acknowledgment that the world is not what we wish it would be and that we cannot and should not be forced to wait until it is before we live our lives. In other words, I don’t want to languish in protective custody for someone else to decide that I get to be safe, and I think it’s as pernicious to imply that I should as it is to imply that wrongdoers bear no responsibility for their wrongdoing. Besides, I believe I should get to do all of the potentially risky activities I’d like, but that I should have the right to know how risky they might be and to have the ability to protect myself accordingly. I’m not here to wait for the world to be ready for me to do as I like. I’m here to take that right for myself, and I believe you can too. It’s not, to me, about accepting a life of fear, of expecting the lecherous gaze and the dangerous creeper, but about accepting that while those bad guys may be out there, I have the power to choose to do my thing anyway. It’s not, either, about being overconfident in my ability to defend myself against the larger, the stronger, the more authoritative, but it is about having access to realistic strategies and tools, and being willing and able to use them.
Let’s be angry. Let’s demand a world where we are not victimized for being who we are and living our lives fully. And let’s demand a world where we have the right and capability to protect ourselves against those who would deny us that, even if those people might sometimes be ourselves.