I first learned of Sarah Everard on Twitter, through familiar sentiments about female vulnerability hashtagged with an unfamiliar name. Instantly, I felt weary. I could tell how useless and how predictable this cycle would be, how useless and predictable it already was. A woman was raped, or murdered, or raped and murdered, or missing and presumed raped and dead, and here was the obligatory chorus of living women saying, “See? This is why I am afraid of being raped, afraid of being murdered. This why I won’t go out alone, this is why I don’t wear headphones, this is why I hold my key between my knuckles, this is why I cross the street to avoid walking past a man.”
I’m not the intended audience for these messages since I’m neither a woman who feels afraid when alone at night nor a man prone to feign surprise at the fact of women who are. Yet as a spectacle, it was unavoidable, promoted in Twitter moments and written up as an event in itself by outlets like NPR and the Washington Post, the latter of which characterized tweets as “demand(ing) change” though it cited no examples of such. This is the sort of empty gesture that passes as feminist now, or at least feminism-adjacent: the dutiful documentation of ladies venting their spleen, the “amplifying” of women’s voices with no discernible purpose. Or is there? Women are “never safe,” a CNN headline declared, helpfully removing the sub- from the text. (Women also “already knew” that, according to the same headline, but I suppose it can’t hurt to be reminded.) An avalanche of women’s pain, as usual, is met with the insatiable desire to produce even more.
My contribution to the discourse is a question: what do these expressions accomplish? I’m not addressing the women responsible for them, not exactly, not yet, though I believe that if you want your speech to be an intentionally political, consequential act, this should be considered. I know the confessional impulse is as impetuous as it is strong and, like the artistic impulse, usually cannot explain itself—which is not to say it’s above reproach. Rather, I ask as a general inquiry, albeit one I hope may influence that impulse in the future. How do these recitations function in the world? What is their result?
The first (painfully obvious) effect is the affirmation of women as helpless, categorically powerless to exert control over our own safety. Weirdly, women profess their adherence to protective rituals they know won’t work, like wearing bright colors or being on the phone with someone while they walk. These are things they do in spite of knowing their insufficiency. Since proposing any real self-defense is victim-blaming, the refrain becomes, “There is nothing effective we can do, and even if there is, we shouldn’t have to do it; men are the ones who must change.” Meanwhile the enduring, overwhelming nature of this collective fear (as opposed to Everard’s, or any woman’s, murder) becomes the driving force of the mainstream complaint: the threat of male violence has controlled my life, I cannot move freely in public without worry and that is unjust. Specific harm should be the issue, but potential harm and ambient anxiety become the focus. The condition of being fearful, or of showily centering those who are (in the bullshitting style of a politician or clout-seeking “male ally”) becomes the prerequisite for participating in the debate over what’s to be done.
And what is to be done, if we agree—and I really hope we do—that rapists and murders are unlikely to be persuaded by exhortations that they “change”? One Instagrammable slide in heavy circulation at the moment says “educate your son” but about what? Women’s fear? That harming women is wrong? I’m not being facetious. I’d like to know precisely what those behind these posts think the solution is, especially when their solution eschews criticism of institutions. “Gender-based, patriarchal violence,” as Natasha Lennard writes, “operates through specific modes of social organization, through structures of power.” Do these people truly think Everard’s murderer was simply not told the right things as a boy? The inarticulacy of these cris de coeur makes them dangerous. In the vacuum of coherent analysis and concrete, organized action, the state exploits outrage to respond with more cops, more policing, in spite of the evidence that Everard herself was killed by a cop.
There’s a reason why a nebulous fear became the focal point of Everard’s story and not the particulars of her murder, which, I’ll say again, appears to have been committed by a cop. Regardless of intention, the barrage of tweets conflating Everard’s killing with instances of catcalling or general street harassment obfuscate the murderer’s status as a police officer and erase the infrastructure responsible for pervasive, racist violence against people of all genders. The popular imagination of a sidewalk sneak attack, for instance, obscures the plausibility that the murderer approached Everard not as a random stranger but as an official authority figure. I remember once, years ago, coming across a list of safety tips for women that acknowledged the possibility of threat by cop, but only if a predator is impersonating a police officer. In this fantasy world, you could evade danger by asking to call the station with the officer’s badge number before you complied with his orders to, say, get out of your car—because surely a real cop would have no problem with that, would in fact be eager to set you at ease. A real cop would not be a threat.
I’d be exponentially more afraid for my life to refuse a cop who said, “Come with me” than I would to tell a random catcaller to fuck off, and I’d feel much less at liberty to try to defend myself with force if the man menacing me were in uniform. That’s not because I respect one more than the other; it’s because only one of those parties knows they’re above the law. Analogizing these scenarios is so misguided that it physically pains me. And this ostentatious display of women’s fear, the fetishization of it, frightens me so much more than walking by myself. I’m freaked out by women who hype each other up about how easily they could be killed and leave it at that. (With feminists like this, who needs misogynists?) Men can be, and are, killed by strangers quite easily, too, including strangers in uniform, yet their fear and pain doesn’t garner corporate media’s international attention, not without millions of people flooding the streets to protest it.
To those who insist on seeing Everard’s death exclusively through the lens of a gender war, I want to say: fear and rage can be an entry point into the rejection of violence against women but not the termination or sum of our collaborations. We’ll find no empowerment in petitioning for the protection or mercy of men, neither of which we have a good track record of procuring anyway. And it’s frankly embarrassing that these conversations so assiduously avoid the possibility of defending ourselves. It doesn’t require guns, necessarily, or any implement at all, though I recall with admiration Miss Major’s anecdote of keeping a brick in her purse when she worked. Self-defense training and martial arts can be more accessible. But it’s pathological to refuse to tell a woman who habitually treats her house key as a weapon that she might benefit from learning how to use a knife, just as it’s stunningly regressive to ignore the greater degree of violence inflicted on women in their homes and workplaces, by people they know and sometimes love.
And please understand that while many, many women do need weapons, and the right to use them without ending up in jail for saving their own lives, other women need to be talked down rather than have their paranoia further condoned. Our gender alone doesn’t place us on equal ground. At least one woman, Reclaim the Streets organizer Anna Birley, publicly implied that criticizing police commissioner Cressida Dick is at odds with “a movement of women seeking to support and empower other women.” Such racial and class solidarity tacitly (and sometimes, explicitly) bolsters politicians’ calls for curfews, hate crime legislation, and more pronounced police presence as a corrective for “male violence.” It should be no surprise that Prime Minister Boris Johnson capitalized on the moment by announcing plain-clothes cops will patrol bars and clubs in the name of women’s safety. At the same time, he pushed a bill to enhance sentences for those convicted of sex crimes, which is the same bill that gives cops draconian oversight over protests, including the right to dictate when they start and stop. (As pictures from the weekend illustrate, the police hardly need more license to meet public gatherings with brutality.) A highly publicized murder of a white woman is a gift to the people with the most power, the people positioned to inflict the maximum amount of suffering, unless we work, as quickly as they do, to make it otherwise.
The state is the single biggest threat to women’s health and safety. It administers violence directly through policing, jails, and deportation, and indirectly, through relentless deprivations and oppressions that foster interpersonal violence against women, that keep women underpaid and dependent on male partnership or state surveillance to access resources. One need only look at news stories of the past few days to see the fundamentally rotten nature of a law-and-order response further confirmed. So far, police are investigating (whatever that means) their inaction when a woman reported that a man flashed her on her way home from a vigil for Everard only to be brushed off by a cop who told her, “We’ve had enough tonight with the rioters.” (Everard’s accused murdered, Wayne Couzens, was twice reported for exposing himself to a woman in public, and those complaints seem to have been similarly ignored.) The department is also looking into allegations that an officer sent an “inappropriate” image with “offensive comments” about Everard to other cops while he was guarding the location of her body—and these are only the incidents that have come to public light. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote, to treat police violence and male violence as separate phenomena is to foreclose the dream of being free from both: “to not name . . . the systems of violence that enable men like Couzens is to do their work for them.”
Further surrendering our right to access public spaces does exactly that. I don’t want you to be afraid of the street. I want to see you out in it.
Charlotte Shane is a co-founder of TigerBee Press, an independent publisher based in Brooklyn.