By Caroline Sarychkin,
I sat down to write this and rattled off nearly a thousand words about the times, serious and less so, when men have harassed me since my teenage years in the 1970s. I realised the most telling story occurred when something very different happened.
I grew up in Mill Hill and lived in Edgware for a long time. 12 years ago I moved to a small riverside town in the countryside. Just before lockdown I visited a friend here who lives on a houseboat and had to walk home along the waterfront. It was a beautiful night. The moon sparkled on the still water of the river, the streetlights were on, there was absolutely nobody around and it was dead quiet apart from an occasional night bird. It was just me and this incredibly lovely landscape. Utter peace. I had the revelation that I wasn’t scared. ‘Is this what it feels like to be a man?’ I wondered. Of course, as soon as I had the thought I looked around, worried that I might raise the spirits of toxic masculinity which lurk everywhere.
I was over sixty. This was the first time I ever felt that sense of safety at night when alone, outside. It only lasted a blissful minute or two. (By the way, I wouldn’t have taken the route home that leads through the park because that feels dangerous even here.)
It is totally unacceptable that in the 21st century, in a developed country with the rule of law, the overwhelming majority of women are still afraid to go out alone after dark. What is infuriating is that most of the advice given to women is about how we can keep ourselves safe.
NO, NO, NO, NO, NO.
Women are not responsible when they are physically or verbally abused by men. So why is it still a woman’s fault if she is attacked for being young, being old, being scantily dressed, wearing a burka, having a drink, going for a walk or run, talking too much, talking too little or simply being female?
When are men going take responsibility for a culture that not only allows this viewpoint but encourages it? Even women have internalised it to some degree. ‘I wouldn’t wear those shoes to walk home because you can’t run in them.’ ‘That dress is provocative.’ ‘You should have known better than to get so drunk.’
Not every woman experiences violence but we have all experienced the fear of violence, and this fear is what limits our freedom.
We are no longer living in a feudal society where women are the chattels of their menfolk yet so much of the advice on how men can help women assumes this is still the case. ‘Pick your girlfriend up from the station if she’s catching the late train, put your female friends in taxis at the end of the evening.’ These are kind and courteous things to do but they are not the answer to ensuring women do not feel threatened. Instead they reinforce the idea that we need to be protected. Until women have reason to feel safe in small ways they cannot begin to feel safe from the much rarer instances of murder and serious assault.
So what would help?
I start from the premise that the majority of men are decent. They are also largely unaware of the effect their behaviour can have on a woman who is on her own.
For example, a couple of guys have been out for the evening, had a few beers and then catch the tube home. They are joking and laughing, maybe getting a bit smutty or sweary. They choose their seat. A woman is sitting opposite them. They probably don’t even register she is there. She, though, will be carrying out a risk assessment from the moment they get in the carriage.
Have they noticed me?
Are the men between me and the door?
Will they try and include me in their conversation?
I don’t want to speak to them. If I ignore them will they verbally abuse me?
If I answer will they verbally abuse me? How great is the threat of violence?
Do I get out at the next station? Will I be verbally abused for leaving. Or worse?
What will be waiting for me in the next carriage?
Uncomfortable, isn’t it? As a man have you ever needed to do these calculations? Imagine having to go through this every single time you travel home after rush hour, maybe more than once as people come and go. So what can you do to help? Keep your voice down, just behave like the reasonable rational man you are, not some kind of wannabe football hooligan no matter how much fun that might seem. Avoid eye contact and only speak if spoken to unless it’s absolutely necessary, e.g. ‘What’s the next station?’ or ‘Have I missed Camden?’ Maybe read a book or play a game on your phone, that way I can see that you most likely aren’t interested in me.
Just because you know you are not a rapist or murderer doesn’t mean that I know it.
How about the walk home from the tube station? Imagine it from my viewpoint. It is dark. As a woman I am hyper aware of every noise and every shadow. My hand is in my pocket, keys between my knuckles. I am trying to project confidence and self-awareness. Then I hear your footsteps behind me.
You’re walking quickly simply because it’s late so you want to get home. All I hear is your heavy male footfall advancing on me. If I speed up and you speed up to overtake me I will assume you are following me, ready to pounce. This is terrifying. Please, either slow down or cross the road. You can walk as fast as you like over there. I’m still going to be watching you but at least there’s a distance between us.
If you’re walking home and need a wee, gentlemen, please be very sure I won’t see you. I know you’re not flashing me but it makes me very uncomfortable to think about your exposed penis when we are both in that dark alleyway. If I can wait until I get home so can you. If you go behind a tree don’t come back onto the pathway until I am well past you or I may think you are jumping out on me.
You can show me all the statistics you like that demonstrate that random assaults on women are vanishingly rare. It doesn’t alter my perception of the danger to me. In the same way that the police and security services can point out how many terrorist plots they have foiled, or the airline companies show how safe aeroplanes are, this is forgotten when the next failure happens. The murder or terrorist attack or air accident only needs to happen once to make an indelible impression. Women are in effect constantly living under the highest terrorist alert level. Sadly, we are far more likely to be victims of male violence than victims of terrorism yet where is the outcry from the press?
In this country a woman is killed every 2-3 days by a man. Every single woman you know has felt scared of a man simply because he is male because there are so few mechanisms in place to protect her if he has murderous intentions. Women are living in a state of fear.
We need better streetlights, more visible police on patrol at night, more attention paid to things like flashers and gropers on public transport.
Investigation of animal cruelty should have higher priority, many abusers start by abusing animals then move on to abusing women.
We need a policy of no tolerance to anyone who threatens women or even ‘jokes’ about it.
We need to drain the swamp of social media that feels it is fair game to abuse any woman who looks different or speaks her mind.
Back when I was a slight 17 year old, walking home from Edgware Tube Station to Mill Hill because I’d missed the last bus, keys grasped, trying to look confident, I didn’t imagine that all these years later women and girls would still be just as scared and only able to take the same precautions as me. I am not sad that things haven’t changed, I’m bloody angry. There is NO excuse for the way women’s freedom is still curtailed because of a few evil men. There is also no way things will change unless the vast majority of good men work with us to create a society where women feel safe. My guess is that we will never feel the same sense of security as our brothers but if we can at least feel less scared that would be progress.
PS If you think I have exaggerated anything, don’t tell me about it, ask the women in your life what they think. Listen to them and learn from what they tell you.
Caroline Sarychkin is a lawyer and lifelong feminist.
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