She was just walking home

On Monday we celebrated International Women’s day and this year’s theme was Choose to Challenge. We tweeted and shared our favourite images of women empowering other women, quotes, art work, flags and hash tags. Trolls trotted out the same tired jokes about flags not being ironed, and women in the kitchen.

The next day a police officer was arrested in connection with the investigation to find missing woman Sarah Everard. Sarah disappeared on her way home from a friend’s house last week. She’d left her friend’s around 9pm, she had changed into trainers and took a well-lit route for the 50 minute walk. She never made it home, and the missing person search became a murder investigation.

Waves of anger and grief flooded social media, women across the UK shared their experiences of male aggression and violence in public spaces.

There were thousands of tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts from women, many sharing common safety planning that we have been conditioned to do, as part of our everyday life since childhood. These very unnatural acts we perform without thinking, planning your route home through well-lit areas, wearing bright ‘non provocative’ clothing, and wearing shoes that we can run in, carrying our keys through our fingers to be used as a weapon if necessary, not wearing headphones when alone so we are aware of what is happening around us, ducking into shops and cafes when we become aware of someone following us, finding crowded carriages on trains – but not too crowded and not crowded with just men, taking pictures of taxi license plates and sending to friends, sending the text to friends once your home, or waiting nervously for that text because you got out of the taxi first. Pretending to talk to fictional male partners on mobile phones to avoid unwanted attention, creating fictional male partners as an ‘acceptable’ excuse to refuse unwanted sexual advances, the list goes on and on.

Women are conditioned to live in a constant state of hyper awareness of how we look and behave, and to check for potential threats in our surroundings when out in public and even at home. Did we do all our checks? Did we check in advance the car park we are going to use when travelling to an unfamiliar place, did we check where the CCTV cameras were as we drove in? Did we park as close to the lift as possible? Did we lock the door as soon as we got back into the car, after checking the back seat and do a quick scan of our immediate surroundings before we got in the car? Did we walk confidently, while also avoiding eye contact? Is my make up too much? Is my top too low? Am I doing absolutely everything I can to avoid becoming a target for someone based solely on my gender?

Sarah’s name began trending on Twitter yesterday, but not as high as #notallmen. As women and girls shared harrowing experiences of abuse and assault in public spaces and tagged her name, they were outnumbered by men who felt compelled to diminish these experiences by mansplaining that they were allies, that women shouldn’t generalise about men.

Not assaulting or abusing women isn’t something that should require praise, we know that not all men harm women, but if men aren’t actively challenging this behaviour in other men, if they are remaining silent while other men make disparaging, abusive comments about women, or worse, laughing along with them, then they are still culpable for the conditions that make this behaviour necessary for basic survival as a woman. You would be hard pressed to find a woman who has not been abused or assaulted in some way while out in public. Most of these incidents go unreported, we are all too familiar with the appallingly low stats for successful prosecution of men accused of sexual assault, but there is currently no law that fully criminalises public sexual harassment. The responsibility for not being raped, or assaulted, or abused still falls heavily on women, and it’s exhausting.

If the responsibility for choosing to challenge falls solely on the shoulders of women, then we will continue to have to teach our daughters how to protect themselves, to make themselves the property of a father, or a brother or a partner (whether real or fictional) to humanise themselves in the hope that this will discourage unwanted and unsolicited attention.

In order to make real change, the narrative needs to change from what women can do to keep themselves safe, and look at what we can do to stop male perpetrators of violence and abuse towards women. Men must take responsibility for having the conversations around consent and respect for women with other men, with their brothers, friends, sons and fathers. Don’t just tell social media what a nice bloke you are because you’ve never raped or murdered a woman, hold your peers to account for their behaviour. Make that behaviour unacceptable.

If men truly want to be allies, then they must also choose to challenge.

Sarah Morton

Sarah is standing for the DWP GEC as part of the Left Unity slate. Click on the image below for more information.