The disappearance of Sarah Everard in south London has once again led to women being advised by police to stay at home and be extra vigilant, according to a report in the Sun. Such warnings perpetuate damaging myths about danger, for example that only men can protect women and, ergo, women can’t protect themselves; that women are somehow complicit if they are outside and alone at night; and that night-time is dangerous and not the men responsible.
Regardless of what happened to Ms Everard, and like all those following this story I’m hoping that she is found safe and as soon as possible, there is a troubling theme in the police’s response. Whenever there are rumours that a serial rapist or killer of women is on the loose, women are warned to stay at home, despite the fact that most incidents of sexual assault and physical violence by men towards women and girls happens in the home.
It is so shameful that women are made to feel this way, and what’s particularly distressing to me is how many times I have heard similar advice from the police during my four decades of campaigning to end male violence.
I moved to Leeds in 1979, during the hunt for serial killer Peter Sutcliffe. I was 17-years old and had been raised, as had most girls, being warned that our safety was our own responsibility. ‘Don’t go out alone at night’, ‘don’t talk to strange men’, ‘cover your flesh if you don’t want to get yourself raped’. Men were rarely told that they were to blame for the fact that we constantly looked over our shoulder whenever we were out alone in case a predator was looking to strike.
As a response to West Yorkshire police issuing what was effectively a curfew on women, feminists organised the first Reclaim the Night marches which occurred simultaneously across 12 English towns and cities, from Manchester to Soho.
Women on these marches carried placards reading ‘No curfew on women — curfew on men’ as they shouted about their anger at being kept off the streets — the supposedly public highways, after all — by the threat of male violence.
I recall feeling very angry at being told by police to ‘stay indoors’ and ‘Do not go out at night unless absolutely necessary, and only if accompanied by a man you know.’ Ironically, Sutcliffe himself gave the same advice to his sister.
My women's group mocked up police notices and fly-posted them all over the city. ‘Attention all men in West Yorkshire,’ the notice read, ‘there is a serial killer on the loose in the area. Out of consideration for the safety of women, please ensure you are indoors by 8 p.m. each evening, so that women can go about their business without the fear you may provoke.’ The police discovered our scam and the posters were taken down the next day, but we had made our point.
The murder of five women involved in street prostitution in Ipswich that occurred in 2006 is but one example of how police have failed to learn the lessons of how to keep women safe (i.e. deter the perpetrators). Police issued a warning to all women in the city to stay away from the red light area, including the prostituted women themselves who were, at the time, offered little in terms of an alternative.
Jacqui Cheer, Suffolk police's assistant chief constable, said ‘My message to you is simple — stay off the streets. If you are out alone at night you are putting yourself in danger.’
Where was the warning to punters to stay away from vulnerable women? Putting yourself in danger is a little like the copper who once said to me that women who are drunk and in public late at night are in danger of ‘getting themselves raped’.
More recently, in 2019, Broxtowe North Police, Nottinghamshire warned women on its Facebook page (the post since deleted) that those out late at night who worried about male violence were taking ‘a risk’. ‘Women who walk alone especially at night are at risk of harassment, or even physical assault,’ read the post. ‘Taking a risk when it comes to walking alone at night is not one of those things we should be doing.’
Women should be able to go for a walk without fear or a male chaperone. We feel scared not because we are pathetic, weak creatures but because so many men target us. Feminism exists because women are sick and tired of being in danger in both the home and on the streets. They should be the ones to lose their freedom of movement, not us.