The deeply saddening and tragic death of Sarah Everard compels us to think again about our personal safety, perhaps even more so if we are single and living alone. Lyndsay shares her personal experience and caution as a single woman living alone in her thirties.
Sometimes it feels like this planet is not our own. It’s a callous place devoid of human feeling. That’s how I feel this week after Sarah Everard’s murder.
Most women live in fear of being assaulted. It’s a situational fear depending on where we are and what we are doing, but it’s a thought living in the back of our mind, constantly reminding us that when we are out alone, we may not be safe. We must always have our fight or flight sense on, ready to defend ourselves if the need arises.
But it’s not just the physical assault we fear. Women know it’s also the anxiety and stress in the aftermath of an assault, being made to relive the experience over and over again, and being treated as if we were somehow at fault. These are a few of the reasons why a huge number of assaults, sexual or otherwise, go unreported.
If a case does make it to court, it’s the victim who usually ends up on trial. Was she drinking or doing drugs, what was she wearing, what is her sexual history? Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the motivation behind rape and sexual assault. It’s not about sexual satisfaction. It’s about power. The kind of rape cases that go to court are ones where the victim fits a certain profile, as does the suspect (not always, but regularly). Try convincing a jury that a rich, good looking, married man is guilty of rape. It doesn’t happen often.
All my life, I have been taught to be self-aware, not get so drunk in public because someone could take advantage of you, not walk anywhere after dark on your own, or not wear clothes that are too revealing. I remember a friend of mine in the police advising me to walk with my keys threaded through my fist if I had to walk anywhere alone.
The fear women experience trying to exist safely out there in the world is a very real thing. Having spent much of my adult life single, my fear has stunted my ability to feel safe, even going out for a day in London or travelling alone. Because of this, I have a long list of things I have still not done because I don’t feel safe doing them by myself (my friends being coupled-up from our early to mid-twenties, were less available for adventures).
I spent most of my University experience sober, choosing to drive to clubs and bars with well-lit car parks safely. I didn’t want to rely on taxis because it felt like putting too much of my safety in someone else’s hands. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to get a taxi with a group of people, but I hate getting into a taxi by myself. It ends up being an anxiety-filled journey, with me checking I recognise and know precisely where I am at all times.
What surprises me is, on the off chance a guy offers to buy me a drink in a bar (pre-pandemic), and I ask for a diet coke, they don’t always return with my drink. I guess the lack of alcohol makes me less of a ‘sure thing’.
Even following all the rules, I still ended up a victim of sexual assault. As women, we are taught to be fearful of strangers and to stay away from dark places on our own at night. The sad fact is, we are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone we know, as was my experience.
The first time (that’s right, it’s happened more than once) was at a Christmas work do. Having previously lost some weight, I bought a beautiful 1950’s style dress for the event. As someone who at the time didn’t have many opportunities to get all dressed up, I grabbed the chance with both hands. Now, I am quite well endowed in the up top department, and the dress definitely accentuated it. I left my house that night feeling beautiful until one of my co-workers decided to change that.
I remember standing on the opposite side of the room to said individual, deep in conversation with another co-worker. He walked over and shoved his head in between my breasts ‘motorboating’ me, and then walked off laughing. I remember standing there, not really knowing what to do. Do I laugh it off or just burst into tears? Safe to say, I left shortly afterwards and drove myself home.
The weekend that followed was one of the lowest in memory, spent chiefly locked in my bedroom watching time tick by. I felt violated, dirty and cheap. One thing I was sure of though was, I had definitely not been asking for it.
I lodged a formal complaint at work, but because it occurred out of hours and was not an official work do, they couldn’t enforce anything. My colleagues were not happy with me complaining and was told his behaviour was harmless male bravado. Not to me, it wasn’t. The co-worker involved was asked to write me a letter of apology in which he basically said he was sorry, but I was being oversensitive.
In the end, I dropped my complaint. My peers’ judgment and my own guilt (that’s right, MY guilt and shame!) made me want to close the book on the incident and move on. I was made to look like a drama queen, what had happened wasn’t serious, and I was causing an unnecessary fuss. My company should have taken the decision out of my hands. It shouldn’t have been up to me to tell my co-worker what he did was wrong.
I remember telling my story to a female co-worker in a different company I worked for, and her response was to ask what I was wearing?! This is not a narrative we women need to be enforcing with each other. On more than one occasion, I felt some female co-workers thought I should stay more covered up than other women in the office because having a larger cup size was distracting.
The second time was on a date. I don’t remember every detail because my brain has blocked out some of it. I remember we had a nice night, nice dinner and good conversation. Afterwards, he would drive me home (unusual for me because normally I drive myself to and from dates – another way I like to control my environment). He decided there was a nice place near the restaurant to watch the sunset and drove us there.
I remember kissing him and pulling back only for him to grab my arms and hold me firmly still, his other hand roaming places I had not given permission, nor the impression that I wanted him to touch. I tried pushing him away, but he was over a foot taller than me and at least twice as strong. That’s when the icy realisation washed over me. I was helpless and completely at his mercy. We were alone, and I knew I didn’t have the physical strength to stop what was happening.
I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to get out of the car and put enough space between us to demand he take me home. He made his apologies afterwards, but irrevocable damage was already done.
Experience has taught me that when giving up my control, bad things can happen. Now, I very rarely drink in work social situations, preferring to remain in complete control of myself. Unfortunately, this has led to people assuming I’m boring or not knowing how to cut loose and have fun. In some ways, they are right. The more carefree girl I was in my early twenties is gone.
I carry these experiences with me every day, knowing that it didn’t matter how much I had amended my behaviour to avoid risk. I still ended up in a situation where a man was able to exert unwanted power over me. The memories of these events play a part in every decision I make. For instance, every time I decide to go on a date or go to a social event, those events are always there at the back of my mind playing out mini-scenarios of what could happen if I let my guard down.
Since living alone, dealing with this anxiety has become a more regular occurrence because I’m on my own far more regularly. I’m fortunate. I live in a safe little village rather than a big city like Sarah did, but I still wouldn’t go walking after dark by myself. It’s a five-minute walk to the local pub from my house, and I will always drive if it’s after sundown and I’m alone. I lock my car door as soon as I am inside my car in any car park, day or night, and dread what would happen if anyone broke into my house.
I don’t hate men. The men I have chosen to surround myself with are wonderful people. What we do need is men learning how they could make us feel safer. This week, I have seen lots of women saying it’s not our job to educate men. True, it’s not our job. However, I’m all for any man open to dialogue and potentially adjusting their behaviour, so he doesn’t appear threatening to a woman out walking in the evening alone.
We should be able to live in a world where we feel safe going out for a walk or returning home in the dark.
I know my story is by far not the worst, but if you sit with a group of women, statistics and my experience say, a fair number in the group will have experienced unwanted sexual contact and advances at some point in their lives.
I am not a victim; I still have my voice, which is now one of many speaking up against sexual violence and unwanted sexual contact. I hope one day, all women will feel safer, going out into the world by themselves and living life to its fullest.