Trigger warning: this article contains content pertaining to sexual assault.
I used to believe that we could save ourselves. That if we did absolutely everything right, took every safety precaution that has been repeated to us since we were young girls, no one could harm us. But time and time again, women do everything they can to protect themselves and, yet still become the victims of assault.
33-year-old Sarah Everard disappeared on March 3 on a walk home in South London. The next day, her remains were found miles away from the site of her disappearance. The suspected kidnapper is a police officer—the very people whose duty it is to keep women safe.
Everard’s death has once again sparked outrage on how unsafe it is for women to walk alone at night, leading women to begin sharing their own stories on social media. The “Reclaim These Streets” movement also began, promoting virtual vigils and other events under its name. But along with this, the hashtag #NotAllMen began to trend, saying not all men were harmful, a common yet incredibly dismissive response to women’s fears about being assaulted.
Not all men are actively harmful. But that’s just not the point here. The point is that it’s too many men, just enough men, are harmful so that every woman is terrified of walking alone late at night. It’s #notallmenbutallwomen (which started trending in response to #NotAllMen).
Not all men are rapists, but being raped is at the top of all women’s worst nightmares. Not all men are kidnappers, but all women are consumed with terror every time they walk in the dark. Not all men make sexist comments and jokes, but all women resent the very real and very traumatic workplace harassment that has been considered the norm for way too long now. Too many men ignore sexual assault, and not enough men call out this behavior for what it is. Knowing you are not a rapist, an assaulter or sexist is not enough. You can say you support women, but if you really do, you need to be holding those around you directly accountable for their actions, many of whom are often friends and family members.
The stories shared by women do not deny that men have their fears, too, ones they are just as equally justified in holding. But shifting the conversation away from the fears of women during a time when our voices are being heard is counterproductive. Too many times scrolling through Twitter, I’ve read first-hand accounts of women being drugged, raped, sexually assaulted, harassed, molested and catcalled, only for the comments to be filled with snarky critiques of the woman’s experience, pointing out “holes” or points in her story where the commenter believes she could have saved herself. A victim’s story is not your intellectual debate.
People are forgetting the real problem here: women are scared and silenced. We have a right to voice our fears without having them made out to be an argument over whether they are justified or not. The evidence could not get clearer that every woman is justified in her fear of sexual and physical violence.
As for being saved, it’s going to take a lot more than one bystander’s careful protection or one man being more educated on his actions. Because of the way society currently is, we can only do so much as individuals to save ourselves. We are in desperate need of a huge cultural shift, one that uproots the patriarchal forces at play in society. It starts with everyone around us, regardless of their gender, on our side, continuously making a conscious effort to keep us safe. Each person can do their part in being a guardian angel for a woman. Only then can we truly “reclaim these streets.”