By Mica Anderson
TW for discussion of sexual harassment, assault, and murder.
My mother is a wary person. It’s a fair thing to be – she lives many miles and a few time zones away from all three of her children. So it did not come as a surprise when my father told me on the phone, almost conversationally, that she has been keeping very close watch of all the women being murdered on the news.
I was having a check-in with them about my upcoming trip to London. I am starting a new job, which is an exciting development in my life, but if I wanted to gloat about employment I would just direct you to my LinkedIn.
Trips to London are usually something I enjoy – catching up with old friends, seeing shows – but I found myself, on this visit, grappling with the gut-wrenching anxiety that comes with existing as a woman – far more than ever before. I had been thinking worrying thoughts. The evenings are getting darker earlier in Edinburgh, and I find myself reluctant to leave my flat past 8pm. Nevertheless, I ventures southwards – plagued with anxiety from the get-go.
I stayed with a female friend who lives alone, near her work for a few nights. In the shadow of the Gherkin, we discussed our fears. We shared our experiences having been catcalled or harassed in the streets. This much is, unfortunately, an aspect of life for women that is accepted and expected. But, at least for me, never before has the threat of assault, or rape, of murder felt so prevalent. My friend told me that at work, one of her colleagues had insisted on having constant coverage of the Sarah Everard case on TV, and it spun her into a paralysing anxiety.
I hadn’t started work yet. So, in the mornings, she would head off, and I would fill my days elsewhere. One day, I booked myself in for multiple flat viewings and ventured out on them on my own, all around an area of London I had never been before. Every single agent who showed me around happened to be male – for a few occasions, it was just myself and them in empty flats. Not an inherently strange or dangerous concept, but with my fear for my personal safety at a record high, I found myself rushing through viewings as quickly as possible. On the Tube back to hers, I told myself I was being silly. That I was working myself up in a panic, that if I just kept my wits about me I would be absolutely fine. Still, I would sit in the carriages alone, turning the thoughts over and over again in my mind like a sour sweet, glancing from man to man with unfair suspicion.
And then, beggar’s belief. While waiting for the friend in a crowded weeknight Leicester Square, I sat in front of the Odeon, looking up at an advertisement for ‘No Time to Die.’ Having remembered sitting in the square before with a female friend and being harassed, a thought crossed my mind – ‘I wonder how long it will take for someone to approach me.’ Not a minute later, I noticed a man in a red jacket, carrying an umbrella, threading himself amongst the crowds of people lining up to see Daniel Craig. He was continually raising and lowering his hand, as if waving to the groups of people walking by. No-one paid him mind. Then he noticed me watching him, and he bowed theatrically. He came towards me, offered his hand, and told me, ‘Come on, let’s go dancing.’
I laughed. Every woman knows you must laugh. Every woman knows you must kill with kindness – to politely decline, for fear of retaliation. I told him no, thank you. I maintained I was waiting for a friend. He then asked if I minded if he sat beside me for a while, and, again, with my friend still on her way, I said fine. He continued to make conversation with me. His questions were alarming.
‘Is it hard?’ He asked, and gestured to me, moving his hand up and down, ‘Is life hard? Is it all OK?’
Amongst my rising heart-rate, I found this bizarre – why was this random creepy man checking in with me?
He continued. The questions became more sinister.
‘Do you have a mum and dad? Who… takes care of you? What about a man? Do you have a man who takes care of you?’ I said yes, and yes. Every woman knows, as well, to claim a boyfriend is on his way, even if it’s not true.
‘Let’s go dancing, come on.’ He kept maintaining.
I looked around. There had been a group of men and women sitting next to me briefly, but they had left. I thought of standing and rushing to the security guards at the Odeon, to ask if I could wait inside.
‘You remind me of my daughter. She’s just in that bar, over there.’ He said. I felt panic rising in my throat. My stomach dropped. There was no daughter.
All the while, while speaking at me, he continued to gesture over my shoulder, as if catching the attention of someone behind me. I kept checking in the direction he was gesturing in, worried. I worried he had a partner who would appear, and it would be myself versus two. Eventually, my refusals to go with him or engage left him with no other option, and he walked away. He returned to me twice after leaving. The second time, he asked if I could watch his umbrella. I refused.
‘Friend is coming soon.’ I said. I wasn’t going to be marked.
The third time he returned, he simply sat next to me in silence. My friend called me off the Tube. He stood up sharply and walked away.
I told my friend about it over a wine at a pub nearby. She apologised profusely - because women do this too. We apologise when we run late and our friend gets harassed, which happens with sickening frequency. I told her not to worry, and we got drunk and travelled home together, keeping each other safe. That night, I found myself unable to sleep, replaying the incident over and over in my mind, feeling the panic rise again and again. It unsettled me. The gesturing, the daughter claim, the insistence we go dancing. I feared for any other person who may have been taken by what he was saying.
Some people may have found the above passage ridiculous – he was just a strange man, but it’s London! And anyway, I let him sit beside me, and kept talking to him. If I had felt really unsafe, there were loads of people around, and the security guards right there. But if you found it ridiculous, then I know that you can never understand. The above, I grant, is all true. But you cannot imagine the care we must take.
I had an escape route planned. I thought of getting the attention of a passer-by. I wondered how easy it would have been to latch on to the group of strangers sitting next to me, chatting casually. I was worried he was gesturing to someone else. I was afraid he was marking me, with his umbrella, as vulnerable and on my own. It has happened to other women before.
My friend tells me how the news cycle had continued at work – now moving between coverage of Sarah Everard to coverage of Sabina Nessa, like a sick double feature,
‘I was stressed out all day, and all I hear in my ear is all the gory details of women getting murdered.’ She said. Sitting opposite her, I feel my heart-rate quicken again; we were supposed to go out for for some food and now, in a flash, every fibre of my being is telling me not to go outside.
She speaks of her well-meaning boyfriend, who, upon seeing her get worked up about the increasing (and always present) amount of violence perpetuated against women, had told her to trust the statistics regarding attacks and assaults… ‘It happening to you is about as likely as getting struck by lightning.’
I sat on the seat opposite her, struck by this. ‘Well, by that logic,’ I said, ‘women are walking around in a constant thunderstorm, under constant threat of a lightning strike.’
I barely had time to register this incredible metaphor – which I told many, many people about afterwards – before the reality of what I was saying sunk in. While statistics show that, in the entire population of women who occupy this planet (just over 51%), the likelihood that any one of them will be jumped in an alleyway or taken while walking home is low. But it’s not none. And yet, we as a society are content to just live with that.
Low crime doesn’t mean no crime, as Singapore loves to mention. I lived there for four years, just before coming to university. Before that, Geneva and Switzerland. In both places, I always felt cushioned by safety. In Switzerland, I was too young to be going anywhere on my own; in Singapore, there was always the very safe MRT or taxi rides home after bouts of teenage drinking and partying. But there were moments, in both places. Moments I’ve pushed to the back of my mind, not because they are anxiety-inducing to think about (even though they are), but because they are quotidian. I was catcalled in Singapore (and every other country I’ve ever lived in or visited); older male taxi drivers would ask me if I had a boyfriend; I would tell the truth.
‘No,’ I would say.
Laughing, one said, ‘Is there a vacancy?’
Your seatbelt feels a little tighter in these moments.
When I left my friend, to go and spend the night with another friend (oh the joys of couch surfing), I made sure to leave before dark. For the rest of the week, once I started my daily crusade to the office, I would venture out after work for various dinners and shows. On my way, I thought only of the inevitable journey home. I went to see David Mamet’s Oleanna at the Arts Theatre, mostly unaware of the content. I won’t spoil it here, but the three-act, two-person play follows three separate instances of a young, female university student coming to visit the office of her older, male professor who is up for tenure. The dialogue is bitty and hyper-realistic, and the tension regarding what they discuss, the implications of their subject matter, the ripples of what happen in the time we don’t see them on stage… it caused myself and the female friend who I had come to see it with to react similarly. In all the same places, we would hum, tense up, and gasp in acknowledgement of when we, ourselves, would feel uncomfortable – reflected in the female character, so like ourselves, that we were watching. The final scene, which deserves a trigger warning of its own, dominated the overtly ‘university student-y’ discussion we had afterwards. The next day at work, the scene keeps replaying in my brain.
I return home to Edinburgh. It feels like a rural village in comparison to anxiety-inducing London. Echoes of the Met Police’s solution to women feeling unsafe in the presence of a police officer to ‘wave down a bus’, Dominic Raab not knowing what the definition of misogyny is, and Boris Johnson's refusal to class misogyny as a hate crime ring in my ears, but I feel comfortable and calm for the first time in nearly a fortnight. My train gets in well after dark. My cupboards are empty, so I venture to Tesco. Walking home, it is just me and this other woman on the street. We have made a silent promise to one another; one I have made wordlessly a million times before. I’ll watch you and you watch me, for as long as our routes home keep us together. I’m safe so long as you are here. I’m safe so long as I’m on a main road. I’m safe so long as there’s a car driving by. I’m safe so long as I’m passing a business with CCTV cameras. I’m safe so long as there’s witnesses. Someone who will hear me shouting, who could intervene if needed.
But I feel more comfortable. And then, I see a post about the spikings happening in Edinburgh nightclubs. Instagram accounts and stories and petitions. People being injected by needles. I feel sick to my stomach, all over again.
My friend’s boyfriend is, statistically, correct. Your chances of getting attacked by a stranger are low, I grant you. Chances of being attacked or assaulted by someone you know? High. Astronomically high. Disgustingly high. The CDC of the United States reports that about 1 in 4 women report “contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and reported some form of IPV-related impact.” IPV stands for intimate partner violence - and the statistics from the UK are just as harrowing - according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) year ending March 2018, an estimated 7.9% of women (1.3 million) […] experienced domestic abuse in the last year.” Any number of men you know are abusers, and any number of women are survivors. But what feels most panic-inducing is the media’s obsession with touting the latest abduction/assault/murder perpetuated against women on its news cycles. And I know I speak from a position of privilege on this. As a white, cisgender, able-bodied, and middle-class woman, when someone like me goes missing, the world pays attention. News programs dedicate hours to circulating pictures, information, and tip lines – as we’ve seen most recently with the murder of Gabby Petito. This attention is often given at the expense of other missing persons who belong to marginalised identities – people of colour, trans and non-binary individuals, disabled individuals, and those from working-class communities. Men and boys who fall into any of these categories, as well, tend to receive less media attention. This phenomenon seems pertinent to point out just after this year’s Indigenous People’s Day passed on October 11th in the United States. It is celebrated in lieu of, and in direct contrast to, Columbus Day – a national holiday commemorating the purported ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Though, as history shows us, Columbus did not ‘discover’ anything, and instead set off the colonisation of the Americas that would lead to the deaths of millions of Native Americans, a near-erasure of indigenous American culture, leading to the staggering statistics we see regarding Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits today – this group’s chances of getting murdered is 10 times higher than all other ethnicities. Media attention, however, is not occupied to the same scale or with the same amount of frequency – and nor is law enforcement or the government, No More Stolen Sisters states. I could write about the intersections for hours – and many other better-informed academics and journalists have. This article is simply my story.
I’ve had conversations with well-meaning male friends and relatives, who ask me (as their closest outspoken feminist) what they, as men, can do. I appreciate these conversations; I appreciate the engagement. But, despite these conversations, despite the Night Tube running again, despite the apps and services in the making or already running to help keep women safe, despite the posts on Instagram, nothing is going to change. Outrage is going to die down. We will, as a public, all participate in collective amnesia; women, and/or those of other marginalised groups, will store it in the back of their minds. One more like them on the television. But thinking and reflecting on the faces off the news, and how likely it is that it could be us, too, is an exhausting task, and we too, will abandon it, for sake of our mental health. Until we remember again; until, inevitably, the cycle of misogyny and male entitlement will continue to turn.
So when men ask me what they can do, I don’t know what to tell them. The men asking are usually progressive, respectful men; who aren’t afraid to call themselves feminists; who would never dream of harassing or assaulting or catcalling; who believe wholeheartedly in equality, in empowerment, in justice. But this is all part of unlearning that they have been doing, or have to do. Misogyny is taught. No-one is born with a natural inclination towards it. Comedian Rachel Parris said it best when she tweeted, ahead of her piece on the Mash Report – ‘we live in a culture that allows misogyny to exist and grow and flourish […] while Couzens is being held up as a monster, he may not have always been.’ I agree with this wholeheartedly, and it’s terrifying in its truth. What may begin as locker room banter can turn into the act of sexual harassment. What may begin as heartbreak or rejection can turn into a belief into the creed of ‘incels’. What may begin as a fear of losing a partner can turn into abusive and manipulative behaviour. And in the end, it all comes down to the ugly, ugly truth.
The truth is this; men are taught, from birth, that they are entitled to women, in some capacity. Whether it be their time, their bodies, sex from them, their pity, their advice, a relationship from them, their knowledge of a certain subject, the right undermine or gaslight them, the right to interrupt them or speak over them… they are taught it is their right as men. And, until this deeply ingrained truth that exists in every man is acknowledged, women will continue to be abused, to be assaulted, and to be murdered. Part of unlearning is acknowledging the bias you already have. No amount of feminist literature you’ve read or #HeForShe tweets you’ve retweeted or suffragette merchandise you own will undo this if you’re not actively doing the work, men. If you want to call yourself male allies, you need to examine your thoughts and feelings towards women and other marginalised groups. We are so encouraged to fight against the biases we have that I think we gloss over what they actually are, lest they expose some dark, horrible, discriminatory thoughts we have been taught to think. But the better option is not to ignore. The better option is to seek out these thoughts, to engage with them – where did we learn them from, and how? When did we start to hold them as truth? And, most importantly, how can we stop other people from learning them and going on to perpetuate them? Then, and only then, can they be unlearned, and perhaps a slow societal shift may be put in motion.
But until then, all I have are thoughts to leave you with. Every single woman you know – your girlfriend, your sister, your mother, aunt, grandmother, every female friend you’ve ever had; every teacher, doctor you’ve seen, actress you revere, the woman taking train tickets and making your latte and sitting at the desk next to you, every co-worker and classmate and acquaintance… every one of them has a story. A wandering hand here, a friend who became too familiar there; a stalker, an abusive ex-boyfriend, a teacher who told her to keep it quiet. There has always been an instance where the lines was crossed, and they were reminded that their bodies are not their own. In a patriarchy, they are a form of currency. Doesn’t that make you sick? Doesn’t that make you livid? It makes me, despite having lived with it all my life, sick and livid. But it’s not enough that It makes women sick and livid. We are not following each other home. We are not gaslighting each other. We are not perpetuating misogyny, over and over again. It needs to start, and end, with you.