The disappearance of Sarah Everard while she walked through Clapham, south London, at 9pm on 3 March gives horrific shape to the hum of fear that women constantly feel in public spaces. My social media timelines are full of women who are distressed by Sarah’s disappearance, and terrified that it could have been them. Men have asked what they can do to help women feel safer. But what’s needed beyond the education of individuals are urgent political solutions to counter men’s attempts to claim public spaces as their exclusive domain.
The fear that we feel in public places is so common that many women consider it a fact of life. In a 2008 US survey of 811 women, 99% reported having experienced street harassment, of which men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. While out running, I’ve been chased by men, and it’s rare that a week passes without random male passersby shouting derogatory comments or making noises at me. The joy I find in running is diminished by fear.
This fear is grounded in the knowledge that harassment can precede assault or even murder. In the space of just nine days in 2016 in the US, Ally Brueger, Karina Vetrano and Vanessa Marcotte were all murdered by men while out running. There is no way for women to know whether single instances of abuse will escalate, so we have to anticipate worst-case scenarios, and regard every cat-calling man as a potential rapist or murderer.
Street harassment is how men mark out public spaces as their own, making women into trespassers on male territory. Behavioural psychologists have observed how male pedestrians crowd women’s personal space at cashpoints and traffic lights, how all-male groups take up more pavement space, and how men make more antisocial noises in public than women, considering it more acceptable to speak on mobile phones at checkouts or in train carriages. Women are more distressed than men by such unwanted public noise, and by having to challenge its perpetrators. We don’t know how these encounters might escalate.
This isn’t a new problem. In fact, men have long sought to exclude women from public spaces and make them feel uncomfortable. In the 19th century, pubs, saloons and restaurants in the UK and US were almost exclusively male spaces. State ordinances forbade women from entering, or segregated them off into “ladies’ snugs”. In 1941, one male British pub-goer refused to use the word “pub” to refer to a mixed-sex establishment: “pub” was short for “public house”, and he reasoned that women therefore didn’t belong in a “pub”, in the same way they didn’t belong in “public”.
In formally segregated spaces, women were generally only tolerated if they were there to serve men: as prostitutes or waitresses. Men applied a similar logic to all public spaces: if they treated all women on the street in the way they treated servants or prostitutes, it marked out those spaces as male domains, and suggested that women entering them consented to their own abuse. As the zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester, the third director of the Natural History Museum, wrote, if women “really do wish to be left alone”, they should “avoid the haunts of men”. The haunts of men were all public spaces, and it would therefore be “comic” for a woman to “object being spoken to in the street”.
Many men today still appear to believe in a similar social contract. By abusing and harassing women, men make public spaces their own – and by entering those spaces, they perceive that women acquiesce to their abuse. Frequently the onus to prevent these behaviours falls on women rather than men. Many women will be familiar with advice such as holding your keys when you walk home, avoiding listening to music, not getting drunk, travelling on well-lit roads, or shouting “fire” rather than “rape” in the case of assault, because the former is taken more seriously. Rather than taking boys and men aside and teaching them not to harass, assault or murder us, the responsibility for preventing male violence has been placed on women’s conduct.
We know that it’s a minority of men who rape and murder women. But a great many engage in continual, low-level, unrecorded intimidation that hints towards assault and is threatening to women who they believe to have “strayed” into their territory. It is difficult to overstate the damage this has done to women. Is it any wonder that we are much more likely to suffer anxiety and agoraphobia than men? Fear of male abuse has led women to give up once-loved activities, or stop walking or running alone. Women’s experience of street harassment rockets during adolescence, when many teenage girls retreat to their bedrooms, as “the only place in the world [they] feel safe”, as one told a researcher in 2001. Too often, women feel unsupported by authorities who are supposed to protect us. It’s difficult to feel that much has changed since a US judge refused to prosecute street harassment in 1976, because it was “generally accepted behaviour [that is] too frequent for a justice system to handle”.
What’s missing from discussions about women’s fears is a focus on men. Men’s harassment and assault of women is part of a sustained, long-term attempt to roll back advances in women’s rights and restrict our presence in public spaces. Some well-intentioned individual men ask how they can change their behaviours to make us feel calmer and safer, and are advised to cross the road to ensure they do not walk behind us at night. But we need solutions that rise above individual behaviour, and tackle men’s abuse and intimidation of women as a systemic problem. This is an urgent frontier for women’s rights.