The issue of women’s safety has again been thrust into the spotlight following the disappearance of 33-year-old Sarah Everard as she walked home to Brixton from her friend’s home in Clapham, South-West London, on March 3rd. After extensive searches, Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick confirmed “human remains” were found in woodland near Ashford, Kent on the 11th of March — it is believed these are Ms Everard’s remains. The shocking story is that Ms Everard did everything ‘right’; contacted her partner, wore leggings and sensible shoes for running, walked past CCTV in fluorescent clothing. But in truth, women shouldn’t have to do any of these things: why is it still not safe for women to walk home?
This news came as a new study from the UN Women UK survey reveals 97% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed. Among the ages of 18–24, 97% of women were sexually harassed and among ALL age groups 80% of women had been harassed. It is important to note that sexual harassment does not equal sexual assault necessarily, it is roughly defined as unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which: violates one’s dignity, makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated, and/or creates a hostile or offensive environment. Regardless, this statistic is still unacceptable, but at the same time unfortunately not shocking — if you speak to any woman they will probably have a story of sexual harassment, possibly even multiple occasions. The strength of feeling saw dozens of women sharing their own harrowing stories online using the #saraheverard and #TooManyMen. A vigil called ‘Reclaim These Streets’ has been organised in a show of support that everyone should be able to walk in public without fear. Tips for men to make women feel more comfortable at night have also been shared on social media. But this begs the question, why do women receive so much harassment?
French Existentialist Philosopher Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Betrand De Beauvoir (or Simone De Beauvoir for short) famously argued in her book ‘The Second Sex’ that woman is ‘other’. Woman is not man, and man has historically defined what it means to be human. As such, woman lives with the reality of gender oppression. Unable to navigate the world free from oppression, women have to assert their freedom. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, De Beauvoir believed people are nothing but their actions: we are defined by the choices we make. But in the case of women, they’re identity as ‘the other’ is impressed upon them by a male-dominated world, or as De Beauvoir described it, “History has shown that men have always held all concrete powers, from the patriarchy’s earliest times they have deemed it useful to keep woman in a state of dependence […] their codes were set against her […] she was thus concretely established as the other.”
A woman’s facticity (that is the social and biological facts of her life she has no control over), limits her freedom: but that does not mean she is not free, or at least she shouldn’t be. De Beauvoir believes women flee from their freedom when they buy into feminine stereotypes dictated by a male orientated society. This acceptance, according to De Beauvoir, is a type of inauthenticity, and thus, a surrender: “The process of being subjugated by patriarchal forces and being told who and what they are is a part of the process of being a woman.” The masculine majority creates women as other — man defines himself by that which is not feminine, or what De Beauvoir calls a ‘Dialectical Process of Self Construction’. In this process, man is only what woman is not — man is a saviour, woman is a damsel, man is a subject, woman is an object and so on. By the othering of women, our society is primed to harass them — we don’t see women as equals, or to a greater extent, as human.
The patriarchy subjugates women through sexual harassment, but also through fear of sexual harassment. Women are not allowed express themselves in case they get harassed — the male-dominated world forces women to ‘cover up’, to live in constant fear, to change routes home, hold keys between their fingers, linger in front of shop windows. If one doesn’t comply they run the risk of being dominated via harassment, and even if they do, they still run that risk. The problem here then is not women — (trigger warning for the R-word) victims are not at fault for being raped, its the rapists fault.
“This is a human rights crisis. It’s just not enough for us to keep saying ‘this is too difficult a problem for us to solve’ — it needs addressing now,” said Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK, “ We are looking at a situation where younger women are constantly modifying their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being objectified or attacked, and older women are reporting serious concerns about personal safety if they ever leave the house in the dark — even during the daytime in winter.”
The YouGov survey of more than 1,000 women exposes a damning lack of faith in the UK authorities’ desire and ability to deal with sexual harassment — 96% of respondents did not report incidents, with 45% saying it would not change anything. As we’ve seen with the example of Sarah Everard, even if women modify their behaviour they are still vulnerable: having women adjust their individual behaviour does nothing. So yes ‘it’s not all men’, but it is the vast majority of women. Men need to alter their behaviour so that stuff like this stops happening. A woman should have been allowed to walk home.