Opinion: Women don’t feel safe

Opinion: Women don’t feel safe

by Emma Louise Harris.

Last week was vile for women. Bookended by what should be two celebratory days; International Women’s day on Monday and Mother’s Day on Sunday, yet filled with horror.

On Monday, Labour MP Jess Phillips read out a list of the 118 names of women who have been killed by men since the last International Women’s Day. These were cases where men had either been charged with or convicted of killing those women. The names had been collated by the Counting Dead Women Project which works with the Women’s Aid Femicide Census. It took more than four minutes for Jess Phillips to read out all the names. She said “Violence against women and girls is an epidemic, if as many people died every week at a sporting event, or because they had a specific job, there would be national outcry.”

On Tuesday, Meghan Markle was ridiculed and disbelieved on social media for talking about her mental health, after the interview with Oprah was aired. She revealed that she has had suicidal thoughts and there were questions within the Royal family before their son Archie was born over what colour skin he would have. Meghan has had vile racist and misogynistic treatment from the media since marrying Harry and decided to step back from Royal duties. (Look up the term “misogynoir” if you aren’t aware of it, it is the unique discrimination that black women face.)

 On Wednesday, it became apparent that a woman who’d gone missing while walking home in south London the previous week, Sarah Everard, had been murdered, allegedly by a police officer. Her remains were found in Kent and she had to be identified using her dental records. Wayne Couzens, who was serving in the Metropolitan Police, was charged with her kidnapping and murder. It was also reported that he had been accused of indecent exposure in a fast-food takeaway in south London on 28th February. Why on earth was he allowed to continue working in his role in the Met while this was being investigated? 

On Saturday, a vigil for Sarah Everard that was planned by Reclaim These Streets was cancelled due to the High Court ruling that it could not go ahead, ostensibly due to Covid-19 restrictions. Despite this, some people did turn up to pay their respects. What started out as a peaceful vigil descended into a display of police physical force on women. 

Saturday was also the one-year anniversary of the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman who was killed by plainclothes police in her own home during a botched raid. Breonna was shot in her hallway and died on the floor. Shockingly, more people have been arrested for protesting her death than for her death itself. 


We KNOW it’s not all men

After a week like that, it’s no wonder that women are feeling angry and scared. Following the horrific news of Sarah Everard’s murder, many women shared their own experiences of harassment and violence from men on social media, to be met with a barrage of “not all men” or “men get attacked too” comments. This kind of reaction completely derails the conversation. WE KNOW IT’S NOT ALL MEN. No one is saying that all men are dangerous rapists or that no men are ever at risk from harm (risk of harm predominantly from other men.) What we are saying is that we can’t always tell who the “good” men are, so we have to be wary of all men.

Although the vigils due to be held around the country were cancelled, many people attended virtual events online or carried out doorstep vigils and lit candles for Sarah. But what is it about Sarah Everard and the circumstances of her death that have inspired such an outpouring of grief? Firstly, I believe it’s because she did everything “right” and STILL got kidnapped and murdered. She was wearing brightly coloured “sensible” clothes and shoes. She walked along well-lit main roads. She spoke to her friend and boyfriend on the phone as she was walking. Secondly, a police officer has been charged with her abduction and murder, one of the very people who should be protecting us from violent criminals.

Women have been told over and over again how to “avoid” being raped or attacked. We’re told not to wear revealing clothes, or too much make up because it sends out “signals.” Not to walk on our own at night, to wear flat shoes so that we can run if we need to, to walk in the middle of the road away from hedges where a man might be lurking, ready to jump out at us. We’re told not to get too drunk, to watch our drinks constantly so a man doesn’t try to drug us. We’re advised to learn self-defence to protect us from assailants. Because although we are equal intellectually, in general, men are bigger and stronger than us, and we know that if they want to hurt us, they probably can. (According to the Office for National Statistics, in the UK, the average man is 5ft 9in and weighs 13.6 stone and the average women is 5ft 3in and weighs 11 stone.) We constantly modify our behaviour for our own safety. We are attacked and raped in broad daylight while wearing “modest” clothing too. Men who rape women are not “overcome with lust” at the sight of a beautiful woman. Rape is about power.

Getting a taxi isn’t always safer than walking either. Taxi drivers can be rapists or murderers too. John Worboys, known as the Black Cab Rapist, was initially convicted in 2009 of attacks on 12 women but police believed there may have been over 100 victims. In 2012, Swindon based Taxi driver Christopher Halliwell was convicted of murdering two women but again, was suspected of many more murders and he boasted he wanted to be a serial killer like his idol Myra Hindley.

When I was single and using dating apps, if I went on a date with a man, I would text a friend to let them know where I was going, maybe ask them to text me at a set time to make sure I was ok. Sometimes I texted a friend the number plate of a car I’d got in “just in case.” A couple of times on these apps I’d match with a man and he’d almost immediately ask if he could come straight over to my house. I’d say no and reply “You could be a serial killer!” They’d find it funny or get defensive. I’d say “And for all you know I could be a serial killer too!” One man replied with something along the lines of “I don’t think like that because I’m a nice person.” (Hmm…Isn’t that the kind of thing a “predator” would say?!) Anyone could be dangerous, regardless of sex/gender but straight men don’t seem to be concerned for their safety when meeting women whereas women have had it drummed into us since we were young girls not to trust men. (From our parents, society, “stranger danger” etc)


It’s exhausting

Being hypervigilant like this is exhausting. It affects women daily and many of the decisions we make. What we wear, where we go, who we talk to, constantly anticipating worse case scenarios, judging the moods and intentions of men around us. Shrinking our lives to feel safer. It’s been suggested that there could be a curfew put in place for women. But if women are not the cause of the problem, why should we be the ones subjected to a curfew?

We can be as “sensible” as possible when we go outside but the tragic truth is that some women are no safer indoors than outdoors. According to the Office for National Statistics, two women a week are killed by a male partner or ex-partner in England and Wales and almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Domestic abuse has increased during lockdown. This is not because the stress of the pandemic has caused these men to “flip out” but rather they have had more opportunity to abuse women as they have been pretty much trapped at home. This was highlighted in a Panorama programme that aired in August 2020 and used police statistics revealed that there was one domestic abuse call every 30 seconds during the first seven weeks of lockdown, including reports of kidnap, revenge porn and poisoning.

All of these crimes against women share the root cause of misogyny – the hatred of women. 

Women of colour, LGBT+ women, women with physical or mental disabilities, with mental health issues and sex workers have extra layers of vulnerability due to extra prejudice and hatred directed at those groups. I think of misogyny as a kind of spectrum with microaggressions like catcalling and sexist jokes at one end, and rape, abduction and murder at the other. Being catcalled once may be irritating or distressing at the time, but when it happens to you repeatedly, along with being sexually harassed or discriminated at work, groped in a club, then being disbelieved or victim blamed by friends and family members when you describe what has happened to you, it really wears you down. Like a death by a thousand cuts. 

Some people will tell you that catcalling is flattering. It’s not. Men don’t shout things like “You look radiant today!” or “That outfit really suits you!” They shout degrading things like “Get your tits out!” or “Give us a blow job!” (Horribly, I’ve experienced both of those multiple times.) It is intimidating and humiliating. It keeps us “in our place”, in check. It reminds us once again, as we’re just going about our lives, that we are “just” women, reduced to sex objects. I have often wished I was completely invisible to the leers and jeers of men.

In the wider world of popular culture, we’ve recently heard of the allegations of abuse and violence against Shia LaBeouf from FKA twigs and of Marilyn Manson by Evan Rachel Wood. It’s not just “men in white vans”, taxi drivers, police officers causing harm to women. It’s rich, revered celebrities. Similarly, it’s not just “ordinary” women who are victimised, it’s famous successful women too. We are all in danger just because we exist in the world as women. 


We can’t win

If you don’t trust men then you’re seen as a “stuck-up haughty bitch” who needs to chill out. If you do trust men then you’re naive, stupid and “asking for it.” We can’t win. We are blamed for the crimes against us, because “boys will be boys” and we’re a “temptation” to men. Due to this culture of victim blaming we currently live in; the responsibility is often shifted from the perpetrator to the victim. 

In her February 2021 interview with Gayle King on CBS This Morning, FKA twigs was asked “Nobody who’s been in this position likes this question… and I often wonder if it’s even appropriate to ask…why didn’t you leave?”

FKA twigs replied: “We have to stop asking that question… I’m not going to answer it anymore. Because the question should really be to the abuser: why are you holding someone hostage with abuse? People say it can’t have been that bad, because else you would’ve left. But it’s like no, it’s because it’s that bad, I couldn’t leave.”

If you’re a man reading this, you may well be feeling uncomfortable, ashamed or defensive. Good. You should feel that way. Because even if you’re not an active danger to women, I bet there will have been times when you laughed at or told a sexist joke, continued to pursue a woman when she turned you down, disbelieved a woman when she told you about her bad experiences with men and so on. If a woman has never told you about her bad personal experiences with men, it’s unlikely that she’s not had any, but rather that she doesn’t see you as a safe person she can trust to share it with. 

I believe we ALL agree that male violence against women and girls needs to stop. After the recent outpouring of anger and women, yet again, sharing their awful accounts of what men have done to them, some men have asked what they can do to help.


How men can help


So, what can men do? 


  • Take this time to reflect on your own behaviour and that of the men you surround yourself with.


  • Don’t tell or laugh at sexist jokes. Challenge men who tell those jokes.


  • Call out other men who “joke” about raping/kidnapping/killing women.


  • Ask women what you can do to make them feel safer. For example, crossing the road if you’re walking towards a woman who is on her own.


  • Don’t continue to pursue a woman if she has rejected you. If a woman is wearing earphones at the gym or walking down the street she probably just wants to be left alone. You are not entitled to a woman’s time or energy.


  • Don’t think women are being “dramatic” or “hysterical” for worrying about their personal safety. We have to think about this stuff every single day. 


  • Don’t compare women to inanimate objects. “Oh, if I left my keys in my car / my bike unlocked I’d expect it to be stolen.” WOMEN ARE NOT OBJECTS. WE ARE WHOLE AND COMPLETE PEOPLE.


  • As a responsible parent, teach your sons to respect women. 


  • Don’t play the “hero” and offer to beat up abusive men. We don’t need any more violence in the world.


  • Listen to and believe women who share their experiences of abuse and rape. False accusations of rape are so incredibly low, around 3% according to the Home Office, so the absolutely overwhelming majority of women are telling the truth.


This is not an exhaustive list but hopefully will give you some ideas.


I mentioned the spectrum of misogyny earlier. I believe the acts at the lower end like catcalling and sexist jokes actually contribute to the culture that enables the horrific acts of abuse at the other end. Because it perpetuates the objectification and dehumanisation of women and the “boys will be boys” attitude. I like to think that if we can stamp out the “lesser” acts on the lower end of the spectrum the horrific acts will happen less often. 

See women as your equals as humans and treat them with dignity and respect, not as dainty, fragile dolls that need protecting. Women don’t actually need men to protect us. We need men to stop hurting us.


Emma Louise Harris is a visual artist based in Southampton. Feminism is a recurring theme in her artwork. Alongside her creative practice, Emma has worked in the voluntary and public sectors including a role as a senior support worker in a women’s safe house (for survivors of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation), and in local government and the NHS. She has attended training on coercive control, and areas of sex/gender based violence such as honour killings, forced marriage and FGM. Emma is also a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault.