All day, you’ve been working indoors in a stuffy office. In the evening, you decide to take some exercise and fresh air. Darkness is starting to fall, but it’s not particularly late. You’re strolling along, mind elsewhere, when suddenly your antennae start to twitch. Footsteps behind. Heavy. Walking quickly.
You glance over your shoulder – a man. He’s closing in. Is he trying to overtake you – or catch up with you? All at once, you realise no one else is on the street. There isn’t even a car to wave down, a doorbell to ring. It’s just him and you.
Hairs prickle into life on the back of your neck. Your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth. You can hear your heartbeat thudding. You speed up your pace and he does too. You’re afraid to look back again, to show you’re frightened, in case it provokes a response.
But your brain swings into overdrive, calibrating risk. What should you do? Maybe flush out his intentions by crossing over to the other side of the road? But this is the brighter end. You chose it because it seemed safer.
Is it time to start running?
You remember your phone in a pocket. At least that’s something. You take it out and hit a number. No answer. Pretending someone’s answered, you speak over the automated message. Pitch your voice loud so he hears every word. “It’s me, I’m just out for a walk and realised I’m almost at your place. Any chance you’d come and meet me? I’m at the bottom of your road. Really close now. Great, see you shortly.”
You’re bluffing, but he might be fooled. You hold the phone in your hand like a talisman. Think about dialling 999 – but to say what exactly? You rummage in a pocket for your keys. They represent home and safety. Worst-case scenario, these pointed slices of metal might offer a tiny amount of protection if he attacks you. A trickle of sweat inches down between your shoulder blades.
Suddenly, you realise the footsteps have gone. He has turned off somewhere. The relief is overwhelming. Your stomach churns, your knees start to buckle. You want to lean against a wall and rest, but force your legs to continue walking. Just get home. Keep going. Keep going.
Next time, you’ll think again before leaving the house. Just as you learned to think twice about wearing those clothes, taking that shortcut, going places on your own. This is how it is to be a woman. You curfew yourself.
The world is full of kind, upright men. But outdoors, in the evening, women can’t separate the many decent ones from the few violent ones. And their lives may depend on it. Women are dying at the hands of men as they go about their daily lives, sometimes in public places.
It doesn’t even have to be a stranger-danger situation. Women can be – and are – raped, pummelled, choked and stabbed by partners and former partners.
Why do we treat the notion of women’s safety as a puzzle? As a problem for women to cope with rather than society to stamp out? And why are lone women somehow accepted as legitimate targets? (What on earth was she doing out so late/walking there/wearing that dress?) Sexual harassment, by the way, is an entry point to violence.
More street lighting won’t solve the problem. Nor will extra police officers, or fitting more CCTV cameras or distributing pepper spray or handing out free rape alarms. Not even Walk Me Home, a new GPS tracking service suggested to the British government and attracting interest in Ireland, will solve the problem.
There is nothing wrong with any of those ideas. But they are part of a mindset that puts the onus on women to arrange for their own safety, rather than address why violence against them is tolerated. That’s the core mistake.
Violence against a woman is framed as a risk that can be mitigated by sensible behaviour on her part. And therein lies the core mistake – it’s a failure to recognise that male behaviour must change, not female. A fundamental shift in cultural attitudes is essential.
A start could be made by stamping out locker-room culture: misogynistic comments and jokes create a climate in which women are asking for it. Then there’s pornography: it objectifies and dehumanises women, while some porn depicts them coerced into violent sex and enjoying it. “No” is taken to mean “maybe”. And let’s not forget online violence: rape threats spew out from social media content. All of this is cumulative.
Ireland is not inherently an unsafe country. But women do feel unsafe, and with good reason. On Monday, gardaí began searching woodland on the Wicklow-Kildare border as part of an investigation into the murder of Deirdre Jacob, missing for more than 23 years. Detectives believe the search may bring to light information on other missing women, including Jo Jo Dullard, who disappeared in 1995.
A recent, powerful image showed cut-out figures of women outside the Metropolitan Police headquarters in London, put up by domestic abuse charity Refuge. They commemorated women such as Sarah Everard, and #ENOUGH-
ISENOUGH was printed on each silhouette. There is no doubt women believe enough is enough – but do sufficient men? This is not a problem women can solve alone, nor should they have to.
Sarah Everard was murdered by a police officer who put her under false arrest for breaching Covid-19 regulations – he kidnapped, raped and strangled her, burned her body and dumped what remained in a pond. Her killer, given a whole-life sentence last month, blamed his behaviour on stress.
Men advance all sorts of excuses for their violence. But they were not provoked, it wasn’t deserved, their rage is their own responsibility to control, there was always a choice not to do it. Sometimes, judges takes these so-called mitigating factors into consideration when sentencing.
One girl or woman in three experiences violence, physical or sexual, during her life, according to EU estimates. Most commonly, an intimate partner is responsible. But violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s a manifestation of chauvinism taken to extremes, embedded in our culture.
Women do what they can. We teach our daughters to be careful when they go out, as our mothers taught us. Stay with your friends, don’t get into a car with strangers, text home when you get there, phone for a lift rather than walk. This is risk reduction, the poor best we can manage for now, but what’s needed – and urgently – is radical change.