Why women’s stories being shared in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder are no longer enough
Women are angry. We are angry, and our anger is filling the internet. We are sharing our stories, repeating, as we have done so many times before, the tales of all the times in our lives when men have made us feel unsafe, when they have followed us home, when they have threatened us, when they have hit us, when they have hit on us despite the fact we have already said no, when they have shouted abuse at us, when they have raped us, when they have harassed us, when they have stood by in the pub as their friends harassed us, and when they have stood by in the kitchen in shifty, uncomfortable silence as we cried and raged and despaired at all the male violence in the world.
The kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard (allegedly by a serving policeman) last week, and the subsequent failure of policing at the peaceful vigil held in her memory in Clapham, is not the first time this kind of news story has led to women sharing their stories. Something about it does seem to have tipped opinion and comment beyond the usual levels, however. Blessing Olusegun’s disappearance and death in 2020 did not galvanize social media in the same way, as many Black commentators have pointed out. The 21-year-old Black woman went missing on a beach in Sussex and her death was treated as unexplained rather than suspicious, despite the similarities between her case and that of Sarah Everard, a conventionally attractive white woman. We need to ask ourselves some urgent questions: why do Black and other marginalised women’s disappearances and rapes and deaths not garner as much attention? Those stories also need to be told, because those lives were just as precious as Sarah’s life, and the story is not complete until they are told and heard with as much attention as Sarah’s. But perhaps there is something more about this case that has led to it being a tipping point for story-sharing, for discussion, and for change. Whatever the case, there is a momentum here that feels important to make use of, whether that takes the form of amplifying the stories of similar cases involving Black women, or asking what we can now add to this well-worn story of violence against women and girls.
The stories we are hearing now have been threaded throughout our lives since before most of us were teenagers, a thread that glitters darkly — it is always there, stitched deep in the very fabric of our existence, impossible to unpick; so much a part of our day-to-day tapestry that you almost can’t imagine what it would be to live without it. If the first time a man exposed himself to you was before you even really knew what sex was, can you ever really approach sex without at least some fear? If the first time you became aware of your body as a sexual thing was when a man on a building site shouted something out about your breasts, can you ever really have your own, private, caring, uncomplicated relationship with that body? If the first time you stood your ground and said no you were laughed at, or forced, or made to feel lesser or unwanted, can you ever really approach any encounter with the conviction that your ‘no’ means something, that it will be heard and respected? These things mark us from girlhood. The threads run deep, and the stories now being told reveal, yet again, how deep, how widespread, how painful yet absolutely commonplace, these unwanted narratives of fear and violence are for women.
The stories have been threaded through social media for a while, as well (remember #MeToo?). We have been opening ourselves up, revealing these intimate, distressing details of our lives to thousands of strangers. We tell of calculations: shall I walk, and risk attack that way? or stump up for a taxi I can’t really afford and risk the driver attacking me? which way home is the one I won’t be blamed for taking if something happens to me? If I go home with this man, will I come out alive? We tell of our own, special maps of cities, the ones not shown by Google or in your battered A-Z, but which we all have a version of in our minds: the park that has good lighting and the bus shelter that doesn’t; the alleyway under the railway bridge in the middle class neighbourhood where a teenage girl was attacked when you were her age; the street with several garages on that you walk down to get to the supermarket, ever-so-slightly holding your breath each time in case one of the men working there shouts something out or stares at you for just a beat too long. For the past week or so, I’ve been receiving messages from women friends, from female relatives and colleagues, and speaking about Sarah Everard and other women who have been murdered and raped and assaulted and harassed by violent men over the years. We have exchanged memories, we have cried together, we have raged, we have texted to make sure we are feeling OK after shocking news reports and to reassure each other that we are in each other’s thoughts, that we know what it feels like to be reminded of previous incidences of hurt committed against us by men.
This period seems to have gone by incredibly fast while also feeling somehow slowed down, as I and the women I know have recalled incidents both recent and from years ago. After a few days, a few male relatives got in touch, for which I am grateful. But I wonder how common this is? I wonder how urgent this time has felt for men? I wonder how many men, when they hear news of yet another violent attack on a woman, instinctively reach out to the women in their lives to check in? I have seen a few tweets from men here and there, expressing anger and disappointment at their sex, and a few men have liked or shared angry sentiments I have tweeted, or commented on Facebook posts I have made. I know many good men, and I know many of them do care about this stuff, and are (almost) as angry as I am. But where are the rest? Where are most of them? Perhaps they are scared. Perhaps they don’t know what to say. Perhaps they feel it’s not their problem and they just need to let us rage for a bit until we quieten down again. Raging women are a discomfiting presence for men. I don’t know what they are thinking, for the most part, these men — none of us do, because they are not telling us.
I would like to extend an invitation to all the men that I know: start talking about this now, if you’re not already. Start educating yourselves on what this system is, this system which means that, even though you yourself may be a decent, non-violent man, the fact that at least a third of women experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives (the vast majority of it perpetrated by men) means that any woman you meet will likely be making a calculation at some point, invisible to you, about whether or not you mean her harm. Consider whether you want women to be gauging your status as potential threat, to be viewing you and all the men you know, at least once, with wary eyes and a mind poised on the edge of fight-or-flight mode; women who will not be able to fully engage with you as the decent man you are because you might be One Of Them, one of the ones that violates her space, her person, her body, her rights. Crossing the road if you’re walking near a woman after dark is no longer the high bar you once thought it was. It is the bare minimum. It is the least we deserve, and personally, I am tired of you telling me you’re doing that. It is not news. It is not work, it is not action, it is treading water, and telling me you’re doing it also tells me that that’s as far you are prepared to go in your commitment to doing something.
So what can you do? It’s not the same, but I think this can be a useful analogy: a few years ago, as I started to become more aware of how racism affects every strand of life in the UK and beyond for people of colour and for Black people especially, I began to read. I bought books by Reni Eddo-Lodge, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, by Eula Biss and by Claudia Rankine. I read them and I talked about them, with friends, with students, with my family. I read articles about how I as a white person was complicit. I started to build a clearer picture of how racism wasn’t just isolated bad incidents carried out by evil individuals, but rather a system of power that we are all living inside and that, if it is to change, must be changed from within, by both individual and collective action, and by white people owning up to their part in upholding this system. I reflected on past behaviour of my own which was racist, and past situations where I could have said something and did not. I did embarrassing things like reaching out to a friend and apologising for a racist joke which she had called me out on. It was so long ago she couldn’t remember anything about it, and it’s unlikely that reminding her of this did any good, other than to help assuage, in some tiny way, my own guilty conscience. This stuff is not always easy, but it’s not really that difficult, either. It is an ongoing process, and I won’t always get it right. But I hope I will continue to try, because the alternative is a dangerous apathy that actively hurts Black people and people of colour. Some of them are my friends, but this shouldn’t matter, because all of them are people.
Are men now buying books, reading articles, talking to their friends about that other oppressive system of power, the patriarchy? Are they asking themselves how they can do something to help? Are they thinking of how they might contribute to action leading to real change? The other night I spoke to my mum, in desperation for where we (still) are, and she reminded me of the consciousness-raising groups women held in the sixties and seventies. Why aren’t men setting these up, now, for them and their friends? Perhaps they are. Some of them ask women what they can do, and some women have the patience to give them a few pointers. Other women, understandably, are tired of being asked to perform the labour of setting out, in simplified terms, why we as women are people too and as such deserve to be treated decently. If you want to be an ally, read and listen to women’ stories. But now is the time for you to tell your own stories, too: to share them with each other, to comment on them, to critique them, to give yourselves a space in which to talk openly about what it means to be a man (or a boy) today and what it means for the women in your life to see you not talk about these things. We’ve heard from women and will continue to do so, as we should, but this picture is not complete until we’ve heard from the members of the group that is perpetrating this violence against us.
As a literary translator, I speak and write a lot about the need to hear women’s stories. I wrote a piece that asked ‘Where Are the Women?’ about how we publish, read and review fewer women in translation than men; there is, in general, a relative dearth of women’s voices in public life. This is not a good thing, and we should be committed to changing it. With each new story that is emerging now about violence towards women, particularly the ones that have never been told before, I am reminded of how this sharing continues to have value — in the sharing, we see each other, and in witnessing and believing each other’s pain we are able to form new bonds that can add to the strands of our resistance. And yet, as much as I recognise its value, I am also a little tired of hearing almost exclusively from women right now. These stories have been told before, countless times, and what it does seems to be limited. We strip ourselves bare and share horrific facts about how we and our bodies, and our friends’ and our daughters’ and our sisters’ bodies, have been violated time and time again, and yet still it continues. I am exhausted. Our sharing can and does unite us, but how might we move beyond upholding and valuing women’s stories to a space where we see a different question being asked: ‘Where Are the Men’?
I’d like to hear some men’s stories, please. I want to read about men who have had a realisation about an aspect of their behaviour that they now see is problematic, and which they have started to take steps to re-think. I want to come across a story in a literary magazine about a man who teetered delicately on the edge of persuading a woman to do something she didn’t want to do and then stepped back from the brink, something in her face or deep in his gut switching a dim light on somewhere in his brain and giving him time to pause. I want to read about why that happened, about what shift in his personhood would have occurred had he overstepped this line, and about what he did with that new self-knowledge. I want to read about a man who has challenged a friend for using sexist language, or for insisting on talking to a lone woman at a bar despite her polite refusal to engage. I want to watch a programme in which a man is left alone with a woman and, instead of the viewers being invited by the director to experience and revel in the heightened drama this sort of scene usually asks us to share in, for us to watch something unfold that involves tenderness and care, and an understanding from the man that of course this woman might be frightened and so he is going to make it clear he means her no harm. I want to see novels reviewed in which men reckon with themselves and ask themselves difficult questions about male entitlement and privilege. I want to see men ask themselves and each other why this behaviour is so prevalent, why they often stand by and do nothing, what it does to their sense of being men when they do step in, and what sort of future they want for their sons and their nephews, their male students and friends.
I want to read these stories in longform journalism, in short bursts of angry, brave tweets, in novels; I want to hear about them being told in speeches to Parliament, in break-out rooms on Zoom, in conversations between fathers outside the school gates. And I want men, once they have done this reading and reflection and this difficult holding each other to account, to reach out to the women in their lives and to ask how they are feeling, and express something more than a downturned lip, a sad look in their eyes, a sigh of ‘aren’t things terrible out in the world,’ before changing the channel and the conversation to something easier. The story at the moment is being told by women and is a vital sharing of accounts that will always have value, but it is an old story. It has been being told, like a fairy tale, for such a long time that we cannot remember when it began. The story cannot end until men also take up the thread and start stitching their own experiences into this complicated, difficult, frightening tapestry, which has been woven so tightly, and which we can only begin to unpick once we all acknowledge that some of the most important threads in it are not women’s, but men’s.