When I was eleven, my mother sat my older sister and me down and told us a man had attacked a girl in our neighbourhood. From now on we were to be careful walking to and from school. She didn’t use the word ‘rape’ but my sister told me afterwards that was what she meant. It wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do to be more careful, but that wasn’t my mother’s point. She was training us in a grim new way of life: be fearful, be alert, treat every man as a potential threat.
It was the first of many warnings. ‘Be careful,’ like ‘text me when you get home,’ is another way of saying ‘I love you’ in a world wired by the threat of men’s violence. In Aftermath (2001), an exploration of the trauma of her sexual assault and near-fatal strangulation, the philosopher Susan Brison wrote:
When I started telling people about the attack, I said, simply, that I was a victim of an attempted murder. People typically asked in horror, ‘What was the motivation? Were you mugged?’ and when I replied, ‘No, it started as a sexual assault,’ most inquirers were satisfied with that as an explanation. I would have thought that a murder attempt plus a sexual assault would require more, not less, of an explanation than a murder attempt by itself.
The violent sexual assault of women is axiomatic, a fixed point around which the rest of our lives must acculturate. We do not ask for explanations. Last week, a YouGov poll showed that 97 per cent of women aged between 18 and 24 have been sexually harassed, which not only gives the lie to the notion that things are getting better, but indicates an experience so universal that womanhood could reasonably be defined as vulnerability to sexual violence. (Such a definition would be inclusive of trans women, who are especially vulnerable to harassment and assault.)
The business of staying safe is riven with contradictions. Walking home has its risks, but the expensive alternative is getting in a taxi whose door locks are controlled by a stranger, and I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been harassed in a nearly empty train carriage. Charting a route along busier roads is thought to be most prudent, but sometimes it’s smarter to choose streets that almost no one uses rather than those with a higher density of potential attackers. Headphones and sunglasses deter unwanted attention in some contexts, but dull the senses against potential threats in others. Reporting incidents to the police could help other women, but more often leads to retraumatisation, humiliation, disbelief and inaction.
As a teenager, I carried a knife. It was a comically slender flip-blade, but its weight against my thigh was a comfort. At university, every new arrival at my women-only college was issued with a rape alarm. High-pitched yowls rang through the walls as people tested them in their bedrooms. Nowadays, I carry my keys fanned out so the sharp ends protrude between my fingers (actual knuckledusters are illegal in the UK, as is pepper spray). I know that I must go for the face so he’ll be recognisably disfigured afterwards, and try to scrape his DNA under my fingernails. There are apps that turn phones, at a tap, into digital flares and black-box recorders, summoning emergency services, releasing GPS positions, initiating audio recording. The most fun nights of our lives routinely end with the sorts of calculation that ought to be necessary only for the navigation of major disasters.
Sarah Everard and I were the same age. At the weekend I turned 34, and she never will. Not only has a police officer been accused of abducting and murdering her, but other police officers were then ordered to block the vigil that marked her death, and many of the women who showed up anyway were pinned to the ground, separated from those they arrived with, and arrested. (Anyone who finds it hard to imagine an arm of the state being so unconcerned about the optics of such tactics is not paying enough attention to the experiences of people of colour.) Commentators defending the actions of the police on Clapham Common have objected that it was an angry protest, not a vigil. But that is just another way of saying that we were supposed to light a candle and hurry home with our keys between our fingers.
It is only reasonable to consent to be policed if you are thereby protected. If there is any justification for policing (and whether there is should remain an open question) it is to keep us safe. We are not safe. Men keep murdering women and the police have offered us no exit strategy. Rape convictions fell to a record low in 2020. That only counts the incidents that are reported: 83 per cent of sexual assaults are not. Women are socialised to have a finely tuned sense of whom to trust, and we do not trust the police. A Freedom of Information request in 2019 revealed that, over a six-year period, nearly 1500 accusations of sexual misconduct were levelled at police officers.
Covid-19 remains a grave threat, but so are those tasked with enforcing the pandemic restrictions. They look set to become more so. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons this evening. It would give the police powers to take a ‘more proactive approach’ to shutting down protests, including the ability to detain protesters who depart from pre-agreed conditions on permissible actions, and increased scope for stop and search. Actions that are noisy or cause ‘serious annoyance’ may also be outlawed. In other words, anything other than quiet, ignorable, choreographed marches will be aggressively policed. The effects of this clampdown will be predictably uneven. Protest is not only the last resort of those whom the state has failed, but also the nexus at which state violence is unmasked.
‘We do not have time,’ Andrea Dworkin said in 1983, in her speech asking for a ‘Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape’:
We women. We don’t have for ever. Some of us don’t have another week or another day to take time for you to discuss whatever it is that will enable you to go out into those streets and do something … And I want one day of respite, one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me. And how could I ask you for less – it is so little. And how could you offer me less: it is so little.