(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Women need to demand freedom, not safety

Calls to change public life to protect women set a bad precedent for the way in which we view women’s freedom

My Mam tells a story about her late brother that I’ve been thinking about this week. She had been followed home one night in Tottenham when she was a teenager by a man who was up to no good. The following evenings, after having told her family what had happened, she still felt like someone was lurking behind bushes and hiding around street corners. It eventually turned out that it was her brother, Patrick, who was so enraged by the man’s behaviour that he had followed her home ever since, waiting for him to reappear to get a chance to beat him up.

There will be lots of women currently recollecting a time when their heart rate quickened or they clutched their keys between their fingers when they heard a footstep on the pavement behind them. The news of Sarah Everard’s murder is our worst nightmare come true – a woman, who by all accounts was following every rule women are told about how to stay safe at night, had her life stolen.

Men might be more likely to be killed in public spaces, but it’s almost always at the hands of other men

Aside from the initial shock and tragedy of Everard’s murder, how are we meant to deal with the questions this raises about women’s safety? The kidnap and murder of women is not a common occurrence – University of Kent criminology professor Marion Fitzgerald got into hot water this week for telling Radio 4 listeners that women shouldn’t be “unduly fearful”. She pointed out that “around 11 per cent of women who are victims of homicide are murdered in public places, compared to 35 per cent when it comes to men.” This has led some to react by sharing #NotAllMen hashtags or suggest that women shouldn’t be afraid because men are more at risk of street violence. Whataboutery is rarely helpful and often comes across as callous. Men might be more likely to be killed in public spaces, but it’s almost always at the hands of other men. To not understand the difference between that and male violence against women is to pretend that context doesn’t matter.

But does that mean that women should be afraid when walking the streets at night? No. Facts matter – a census review from 2009-2018 found that 1,425 women and girls were killed by men during that nine year period and only eight per cent of those men were strangers. We know that most women who are murdered are killed by an ex-partner or intimate relation. Everard’s murder was horrific, but it was not the norm and using words like femicide in relation to this case risks stirring up unnecessary fear and anxiety in women.

I’ve often written critical things about contemporary feminism and its approach to sexual harassment or sexism from men. Digging into shocking reports of how many women experience sexual harassment on a daily basis often reveals that included in the definition of harassment are things like jokes or online comments or other relatively trivial issues. But that doesn’t mean that women don’t have different and often more negative experiences than men when it comes to dealing with public life. We’ve all got anecdotes about being stared at by intimidating men on the tube, someone standing too close at a bus stop or more serious things like being flashed (as Everard’s alleged killer had done three days previously). It’s statistically very unlikely that most women will fall victim to the same brutality as Everard, but how do we stop women from being afraid that they might be in the unlucky percentage?

Women have to refuse to give in to fear

Individually, no woman should feel “hysterical” about feeling scared. As big and brutish as I am, there have been plenty of times when I’ve got in the door and let out a sigh of relief. But when it comes to dealing with the politics of women’s position and role in society, we have to refuse to give in to fear. We have to refuse to be or feel victimised by the threat (real or imagined) of male violence. It’s in this way that calls from contemporary feminists to change public life to protect women are setting a bad precedent for the way in which we view women’s freedom. We should also reject the idea that men and women’s relationships should change on the basis of this case. Lots of people are still shocked by Camille Paglia’s anecdote about wanting to “risk rape” in exchange for freedom, instead of being kept under lock and key by university hall monitors.

Police officers telling women to stay at home or not to go out alone is ignorant and impinges on women’s autonomy. Similarly, the idea of a curfew, originally suggested rather flippantly by Green Party peer Jenny Jones, is an illiberal and patronising idea (and rather ridiculous during lockdown).

The men who commit crimes against women are not doing so because no one ever told them about consent, or because they never got a good enough sex education lesson on equality and respecting boundaries. The man who allegedly snatched and killed Everard knew perfectly well what he was doing was wrong – putting a generation of men through lessons on how to walk a safe distance behind women is pretending that this is just a case of bad behaviour. There is a worrying suggestion that these men don’t really know what they’re doing. On the BBC’s Politics Live yesterday, the commentator Tim Stanley suggested that there was something “innate” about men’s relationships with women in the context of male violence. If it is innate for men to want to hurt women, that strips away their agency and means that the man who kills a woman is not really at fault, he’s simply a hostage to the forces of his biology.

Politically, we must assert that we are just as rough, tough and strong as men

There are plenty of practical things that can happen to make women’s night lives freer – from councils fixing broken streetlights to governments committing to faster, more reliable public transport. Socially, the atomisation of the pandemic should wake us up to the fact that we live in a world full of people who should be looking out for each other. I wish people would stop whipping out their phones and filming every time something happens in a public space and instead get involved with looking out for and helping our fellow citizens. But the political response is not so simple. The longer we perpetuate the idea that women are always victims, in need of protection from the state from cruel words, in need of shielding from sexist imagery for our own mental health or indeed in need of curfews or chaperones for protection from members of the opposite sex, the less chance we have of changing the context in which we really are victimised.

It’s not the fault of women (of contemporary feminism) that men kill women and it’s not because men have a deterministic drive to hurt us. The 1,425 men who killed women and girls in the last decade hold all the blame. But in order to stop these crimes from happening we as women have to demand freedom, not safety. Politically, we must assert that we are just as rough, tough and strong as men, even if personally we don’t always feel that way. It’s only by demanding our liberty that we protect ourselves from the fear of those dark street corners where we can’t always stand as equals.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover