In March 2021, the whole of the UK was shaken by the disappearance of Sarah Everard. Sarah, who resided in the Brixton Hill area of London, disappeared whilst walking home from a friends house. Sadly, it later transpired that she was murdered. A serving Met Police officer was charged with her kidnap and murder. The events prompted widespread protest and anger at the risks facing women every day. The debate quickly turned to what next; how should society change in order for women to feel- and be- safe. The discussion has not escaped us at Become The Voice. After discussing the harassment and abuse of women with some of the female members of the Become the Voice team (which you can find here) we felt it was important to host a conversation with some of the male members of the university in order to involve them in the conversation about what can be done to make women feel safer. Last week, Ben Sturt and Katy Cottrell spoke with two University of Exeter students, Tom Scrivener and Charles Cutland, about recent events and what should happen next. 

Part of the reaction to the Sarah Everard murder has focused on the dangers faced by women on a walk; the anxiety is heightened if walking alone or in darkness. Suggestions have been made about how to make women feel safer in these situations. For example, it has been proposed that if a man is walking behind a lone woman, that they cross to the other side of the road in order to give the woman peace of mind. 

Tom stated that “it’s a good thing that things are being publicised about what to do, because often I have been a bit tentative about how to walk behind women. It is especially difficult on nights out because it has been difficult up until now to know whether I should appear to be speeding up to go past them, or if that would intimidate them more. Another option is to linger back, but obviously now I know that looks even more ominous. I think this part of the discussion is very important because they are very easy steps to make to make people feel more comfortable- that’s a positive.”

Ben added “it’s quite a sticky situation for a man; being consciously aware of the fact that you may be making a woman feel uncomfortable. It is not a position you want to be in. Speaking from personal experience, I can think of one particular instance where I had just finished a run and gone from a job into a quick walk. These two women in front of me were looking back with angst, and then they sped up. It was a horrible feeling to think that you could make someone feel like that. Therefore, some kind of etiquette, some social guidelines would perhaps be helpful. I know it has been suggested about crossing the road [if you are walking behind a woman], especially late at night. That is a good idea. What is that to us [men], anyway? Crossing the road is an easy thing and a reasonable adjustment to make.”

Sadly, the actions of men mean that women feel uneasy walking down the street. In a recent YouGov survey, 80% of women said they had been sexually harassed whilst in public.1 This fact led Charles to observe a catch 22 situation.

He said that “obviously, you don’t want to be making someone feel uncomfortable [whilst walking down the street]. I feel as if whatever action I do can be interpreted by them, or by me, in a way that has negative connotations. I don’t really know how the issue can be solved. However I react in that scenario- because of what’s happened and what a minority of men do- always puts the worst case scenario in your head.”

Katy confirmed the reality for women. “Different women who have had different experiences have different things that would make them feel more comfortable. If someone has had a man who has been following them from a distance, then a guy hanging back isn’t going to make them feel more comfortable. Whereas if someone has been directly attacked, then someone following up behind them is scary. It is difficult because there are so many different women who have different opinions on what makes them feel safe. But I think the main thing is making it clear that you’re there; that you’re not trying to hide or anything.”

Katy suggested that pretending to be on a phone call may help put a woman’s mind at ease. “It was clear that they weren’t sneaking up on you because they were having a chat or actually having a real phone call.”

The shocking nature of the situation became all too stark when men’s experiences are compared with women’s. On this point Ben stated: “I’ve been at Exeter University for four years. I could walk around Exeter at any time, 3am in the morning let’s say, I could have my headphones in and feel completely safe. On the other hand, my girlfriend doesn’t feel safe walking alone after dark. So that’s why we have to address the issue, because that’s not right. That shouldn’t be the state of play anywhere, let alone a country that’s supposedly as developed and progressive as ours. So, it’s up to us men to make reasonable adjustments in our behaviour in order to make women feel more comfortable.”

Tom added “this might be my recklessness, but I have never even felt worried, even walking through London at night. I suppose the whole headphone thing is huge because I just don’t feel as if I have to be aware of my surroundings. The fact that I can be so tunnel vision…I can make myself look more confident and less vulnerable, which I guess could be another issue in itself. It is often quite easy to recognise a woman who is feeling scared, which is completely understandable. That could, in turn, fuel anyone around them who is thinking of doing anything, which is the problem. The fact that men don’t really ever have to think about walking home at night; I’ve never even thought about it at all because it doesn’t really affect me. It is just terrible [for women]. No way to live your life.”

Finally, on the point about using headphones, Katy said that “the headphone thing is weird as well, because, a lot of the time, I can put my headphones in but not play music because if someone catcalls me, then I can be like ‘I didn’t hear you, I had my headphones in’, but then I can also be vigilant if someone’s going for me. That fact, for me, really does show the difference [between the experiences of men and women.”

By Ben Sturt

Keep an eye out on Become The Voice’s social media and website for the next article in this series. 

1: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/10/almost-all-young-women-in-the-uk-have-been-sexually-harassed-survey-finds

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