How can men help women feel safe?

The perennial question of how women can keep safe when travelling independently has been a huge focus of media attention following the tragic death of Sarah Everard, and a rise in street harassment following the coronavirus lockdowns. However, a communal effort to combat this culture of fear can empower women to return to public life without constantly looking over their shoulders.

The murder of Sarah Everard has catapulted the question of women’s safety into sharp media focus. A recent ONS survey reveals that one in four women in England and Wales have experienced sexual assault from the age of sixteen, while the WHO reports that this number rises to one in three worldwide. While Met Commissioner Cressida Dick has emphasised that it is ‘incredibly rare’ for an individual to be abducted from the streets, this comes as little comfort to many women following the arrest of a member of the Metropolitan Police, whose job as outlined by the Commissioner herself was to ‘patrol the streets and to protect people’.

Public life has been further complicated by the rise in street harassment following the implementation of government lockdowns. According to Plan International UK, one in five women have experienced street harassment since the lockdowns began. While catcalling and other non-physical forms of harassment might seem like mild difficulties in comparison to the events haunting the news these days, it’s important to recognise that they’re part of a wider culture of negative behaviour towards women.

Unsurprisingly, the answer probably isn’t more self-regulation from women, who are told to dress modestly and wear flat shoes in case they need to run away. Sarah Everard disappeared midway between Clapham Common and Brixton, two well-frequented areas in London, wearing a bright green coat and blue trainers: this formula doesn’t work. A better answer rests on the way in which men interact with women.

To clarify, this is not an attack on all men. Or even most men – nobody’s pointing the finger at an entire gender. Most would no doubt be horrified to realise the sheer level of calculation women have to do to make sure they get home safe at night, but the problem is that our experiences are vastly different; many women on Twitter have acknowledged an unwritten curfew that has to be obeyed in order to keep safe – few go out after dark alone if they can help it. For men, it can be bemusing to be told this because the same dangers just aren’t as evident; in the year ending March 2020 ONS reported that 4.9 million women had been victims of sexual assault in their lives, compared to 989,000 men, with 98.5% rapists identified as men in both cases. With women approximately five times more likely to experience assault, it’s understandable that men aren’t always as aware of the issue. However, recent media focus has meant that it’s become impossible not to be aware of it.

How can men help women feel safe in the streets and on public transport?
  • Take it seriously: an investigation by UN Women UK has revealed that 97% women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, with 96% not reporting these incidents due to lack of confidence that anything meaningful would be done. Believe women when they say that there’s a problem.
  • Leave some room: even when the need to stay socially distanced has become a thing of the past, it’s important to consider personal space. Women walking by themselves are often nervous, and allowing them some space will ensure that there’s no need to panic. Even when we’re just minding our own business, we can still come across as threatening.  Food critic Jay Rayner said it best with ‘I am…absolutely aware what my silhouette looks like in the darkness’. This is particularly appreciated if you’re out running after dark. While an evening jog is to be applauded, running footsteps after dark are definitely alarming and crossing to the other side of the road is a simple way to avoid unnecessary panic. When travelling on public transport, take a seat or stand some distance away from a woman travelling alone.
  • Walk your female friends home: while the Metropolitan Police’s warning to women in Clapham not to walk home alone after dark provoked outrage at another demand for female self-regulation, the fact remains that it’s safer to travel with a male friend.
  • Perhaps the most difficult step of all, however, is to have these conversations about women’s safety with other men, and to be an active bystander when present for instances of harassment. You might not be causing any harm, but if negative behaviour goes unquestioned it becomes normalised, and it’s harder to help people understand that what they’re doing is wrong if they’re never called out for it. These conversations can be challenging, and often uncharted territory, but it’s crucial that we engage with them in order to finally put a stop to this problem.

Thank you to Your Employee Wellbeing contributor Grace Bartlett for this article.


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