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Most predators lurk in plain sight, not at dark streets corners

Julia Molony


The Sarah Everard case mobilised women as it speaks to a primal fear - but threat is usually closer to home

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Female fear is hardening into noisy, righteous anger. In the UK last week, the din broke through to the corridors of power. Fear is passive. It takes anger, apparently, to be heard.

Women want to walk the streets after dark without feeling hunted. They want to move through their lives, at work, at home, in the pub, without facing intimidation and harassment.

The murder of Sarah Everard in London released a pressure valve and, now, the UK government has announced new measures as a response to a groundswell of female rage. A budget has been set aside for better lighting and CCTV, as well as a pilot scheme for plain-clothed police officers in pubs.

Will surveillance and street lamps improve the lives of women most at risk of violence? I doubt it. The unthinkably brutal fate that met Sarah Everard is, blessedly, extremely rare. We don't know enough details of the case yet to judge, but it seems unlikely lighting or CCTV would have made her safer. As for the other end of the spectrum of threat, the daily assaults of flashers, gropers and lurkers that all women are all too familiar with, well, perhaps it might help.

But harassment and intimidation thrive even in the light - a quick look at Twitter will show you that.

In any case, most of the real violence against women doesn't happen on the streets. It happens in suburban living rooms and bedrooms. It happens in student halls and in the homes of family friends.

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TERRIBLE CRIME: The killing of Sarah Everard in London released a pressure valve. Photo: PA

TERRIBLE CRIME: The killing of Sarah Everard in London released a pressure valve. Photo: PA

TERRIBLE CRIME: The killing of Sarah Everard in London released a pressure valve. Photo: PA

#WeAreAllSarahEverard

was the social media hashtag that started circulating shortly after it was announced that the 33-year-old from York had likely been abducted and murdered. We're not though. Not really. The unthinkably tragic circumstances of her death are the worst-case scenario lodged in the mind of every woman walking home after dark, of course. But often the things that we fear the most - the abductions and murders, the airplane crashes - are the dangers we are least likely to actually encounter.

This is what the criminologist Marian Fitzgerald of the University of Kent was alluding to when she spoke on BBC Radio last week. In a much- derided attempt to quantify the risks women face on the streets, she used excruciatingly tone-deaf language to make the point, telling women they shouldn't "pander to stereotypes or get hysterical" as a result of the case. She might as well have said "calm down, dears". After all, hasn't the accusation of "hysteria" always been levied in order to discredit female accounts of their own experience? After that, unsurprisingly, almost nothing of what she was trying to say could be heard.

The data, though, is on her side. On the streets, men are more likely to be the victims of "stranger danger" than women - more likely to be violently mugged, stabbed or beaten up. In the UK, men are two to three times more likely than women to be killed by someone unknown to them, with the 16-24 age group at highest risk.

But as any woman will tell you, data is cold comfort when you are walking alone down a darkly lit street and a passing car slows down to a crawl at the kerb, or a burly figure crosses the road to fall into step just behind you. These threatening experiences are so commonplace to women that they barely warrant a mention. And yet they lodge in the mind - those few moments when seconds stretch out endlessly and all of life suddenly telescopes down to one single critical dynamic, that of predator and prey.

Despite the fact that women are safer on the streets than men, they are afraid.

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Experts in criminology have coined a term for the phenomenon - that women report more fear of violent crime, despite being less likely to fall victim to it. They call it the fear of crime gender paradox, and it works both ways. Men walking around at night tend to feel safer than they actually are.

Women were mobilised in such numbers by the case of Sarah Everard because it speaks to a deep, primal fear. Female fear of men is not "panic" or "hysteria". Predators are real. But they're mostly not lurking in shadows, they're sitting beside you at the bar, or drinking a cup of tea on your couch.

The danger that men pose to women is real. But if we are to be better protected, we need to shift our focus. In Ireland, domestic murders outstrip gangland murders two to one; 80pc of women who are murdered know their killer.

A little over a year ago, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris called domestic abuse "probably one of least prosecuted crimes and one of the greatest threats to family life".

By concentrating our energies on street harassment and violence, we're missing a chance to address the places in which women face the most risk.


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