A woman walks home alone at night. She wonders if she will make it back.
I have been overcome with a heavy, lingering sense of dread ever since I heard about the murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman from the UK who was allegedly kidnapped and killed by a police officer while walking home. Days after her disappearance, her body was found in a field, stuffed into a builder’s bag.
Whenever I let my mind sit in a quiet stupor, the scenes almost seem to meld together: a woman on a road at night, the oily glow of street lamps, and the uncertain threat of danger that could loom ahead. This is a walk that all women have taken before, and as we make our way, we are often warned of its seemingly imminent dangers – assault, violence, death. Whether we walk across campus, through an office, or into a friend’s house, we are constantly told by society that it’s our duty to make sure that we are not assaulted. Sarah Everard’s tragic death is not about one woman – it is about all women.
“Hold your keys between your fingers and make a fist.” This is what my mother told me the day before my freshman year of high school. She took her hands and stuck my pink little house keys between her fingers like knives so that I would know what to do if a man tried to take me while I was walking home from the bus stop. I walked to the school bus that day looking down at my small hands, counting each key it held. This is just one of the rules of thumb that are drilled into women. Keeping ourselves safe is our own burden, set onto our shoulders with staggering weight. At first glance, some of these rules seem useful and even smart to follow. Shouldn’t women at least be partially responsible for keeping ourselves safe?
The problems with this sentiment arrive swiftly and painfully. It feels as if these tips turn to blame when someone is assaulted. The golden rules are referred back to, and we thumb through them with vigor and glee. A skirt was too short. Her smile was too wide. It was not really rape, but rather sex that she regrets. We begin to crumble in on each other and ourselves, separating those who are deserving of rape from those who are not.
Another problem arrives when we begin to realize that many of these tips don’t really even work. According to RAINN, 1 out of 6 women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape. Hitting even closer to home is the fact that female college students are 3 times more likely to experience some sort of sexual violence (ibid). I learned, too, the fickle nature of the rules when I swiped at someone with my keys – and cut myself. What leaves me grasping at some semblance of control and calm is the fact that out of 1000 assaults, 995 perpetrators walk away with no jail time (ibid). They are allowed to continue their regular lives, while we are left to grasp at sticks and stones, figuring out how to put ourselves back together.
The rules are not enough.
They weren’t enough for Sarah Everard either. She did everything “right” that a woman is told to do. She wore bright clothes so people could see her. She called her boyfriend to let him know that she was on her way. She walked down a busy, well-lit street. And it was all for nothing. It will never be enough.
Time and time again, we slap a quick bandaid on a festering wound. We elect sexual predators to the highest office, we throw around the excuse that “boys will be boys” and let them off with a gentle slap on the wrist while women are left in the dust. Brock Turner even allegedly took photos of himself committing sexual assault, and he only served three months in jail lest his life be ruined by his choice to rape an unconscious woman.
So what do we do now? We tailor our lives as to not be assaulted. We stay on guard because we have been taught that violence is coming, and it is our job to stop it, and if it happens, it is our own fault. We can no longer live like this – behind a clear glass box, protected from men within its high walls. We cannot live half-lived lives because men refuse to confront their actions and the actions of others. We can no longer ask nicely for men to please stop killing us.
For my friend who was stalked at her workplace on campus. She was told by a campus police officer that her stalker “is a student and has every right to be here.” For the girls who we dropped off in front of their sorority house at night, and we stayed until they got inside because a car of men were watching them. For my little sister who at the age of 12 was followed into a gas station by a 30-year-old man. For myself, when I am walking home and my best friend tells me, “Text me when you get back so I know you’re not dead lol.” I am at the mercy of the men around me, at the fragile mercy of the world.
A woman walks home alone at night and she will never make it back.
“Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN, www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.