13th March, 2021
As most people have, I’ve been moved by the death of Sarah Everard. The fact that she was attacked on her way home and that some people believed she shouldn’t be out walking on her own at night. As if in some way she was to blame.
Sarah left her friend’s house at around 9pm and set off on the 50 minute walk across Clapham Common to go home. She was on the phone to her boyfriend.
Sarah wasn’t ‘asking for it’. I don’t know any women who do.
I’ve been watching the outrage on social media. And I’ve been reading the stories of women who can relate to being afraid when they have to walk home alone. I know that men are targets, too. But statistically, women are more likely to be attacked by men verbally, or physically.
It’s made me think over my life and the number of times I’ve been afraid or uncomfortable. It started in my teenage years. My boss at the greengrocer’s cornering me and kissing me and making me feel like it was my fault (hardly, I was a tomboy of fourteen and he was old enough to be my father), two middle-aged men on a beach smirking and saying ‘nice legs, shame about the face’ when I’d plucked up the courage to wear my first bikini.
Working in an office in the eighties and commuting by train and tube went hand in hand with gropes down my blouse, my bottom being slapped/pinched/fondled. I would cringe at the sight of builders with their whistles and catcalls, and the ‘give us a smile, love’.
I learned to never give men eye-contact, hold a folder or my bag in front of me, walk with my door key peeking out of my closed fist, and to never challenge men’s behaviour. As many women of my generation did, and many women continue to do in our enlightened age of sexual equality.
I’m now middle-aged and I see that some things have changed for the better in small ways. My daughter tells me that it’s not often she comes across this type of behaviour at work (she is a nurse). But it is still there. This idea that some men (not all men) hold that women are there for their entertainment or gratification.
My last experience of this was on a packed train on the way home from London early one Saturday evening. I’d been to a Word Factory event at Waterstones in Piccadilly with Lovely Son. The tube was filled with football supporters and we had to stand. One of the supporters decided to start a conversation with me. I mumbled and shook my head, looked down at my feet. His friends jeered. He tried again, more aggressively this time. My face was red, I was so hot, I could feel the embarrassment all around me. I told him that I didn’t feel like talking. He persisted, asked where I’d been, where I was going. I could smell the beer on his breath and hear his friends laughing.
My son interrupted and told him to leave me alone. I could feel everyone staring. Feel the men weighing him up (he’s over six feet tall and in his twenties). I tugged my son’s sleeve, told him it was okay and to please leave it. The tube stopped and we got out. Thankfully it was the station we needed.
I was shaking. My son was angry. I told him this was how things used to be when I was younger. I had learned not to antagonise, play along in a small way until I could get away. I’d learned to get off at the first stop and pretend I was changing tubes, watching to make sure I wasn’t being followed.
He said that’s not okay. He was angry. I didn’t know what to say. How to explain that it’s not all men, but enough of them are like to be a threat.
It seems to me that we have come a long way. But to some men, women will always be targets for their fun. Education and laws have done much to change perceptions. But some men feel superior and that they have the right to do as they please as far as women are concerned. I despair. It’s not right. I would like these men to walk in our shoes and be subjected to the day to day prejudice we receive on a regular basis. I would like to see them change their route home, ‘give us a smile’ on cue, and feel small, helpless.
On Monday, the House of Lords is meeting to discuss an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill making misogyny a hate crime. This is another positive step towards change. But how do you report misogyny on a daily basis? How can you prove it? We need change. We need more men (like Lovely Son) to stand up when they see it. We need to teach our children that women are equal to men. Mary Wollstonecraft argued for this over two-hundred years ago. We’ve come a long way since then. But there is still so far to go.