Fifteen months ago I was walking home from work and a man riding his bike on the pavement cycled towards me and smacked me so hard on the breast that I slipped backwards and nearly fell.
I was hugely upset at the time, but I didn’t tell anyone – certainly not the police. What would be the point? It was raining, I was looking down to avoid it getting on my glasses, he was wearing a hoodie with the hood up like everyone else, I didn’t get a good look at his face, just a sense of his leering joy at having caused me to feel so upset.
After that, I stopped walking home from work. I got the tube, which meant that I ended up on the other street on the way home, the safer street. I carried my keys in my pocket, just like I was taught in year seven – keys between fingers, lanyard wrapped around my hand to keep them straight.
Whenever I walk home alone, I put my headphones in but don’t turn the music on. That way, people won’t know I can hear them when they approach. I keep my phone in my pocket ready to dial the emergency number. In my other pocket, I keep my keys. If I ever go out in summer and it’s too hot for a jacket, I carry a light scarf with me so I can wrap it loosely around my upper body and hide any skin and any glance at my figure that might attract the wrong attention.
This is quite simply the reality of my life, and any other woman’s life. Which is why I am sick and tired of two things: first, men telling me that I am paranoid. I’m not paranoid. As I write, a man is in court charged with committing a string of sexual assualts in the Clapham/Brixton area over the last month. That’s my area. My home. My safe, middle-class area that I can barely afford to live in. A shocking percentage of women (and some men) have experienced sexual harassment on the tube. It’s not paranoia if it’s really happening.
There was a particularly infuriating incident the other day when a man wrote to a popular facebook group (and it was picked up by the Metro) complaining that he was offended that women were afraid for their safety while walking home alone at night in front of him. His response was to blame the woman, angry that she was afraid of him. Not to blame a society that doesn’t teach men to behave better, not to blame a police force that repeatedly treats victims with more suspicion than perpetrators, not to blame a world where crimes like this can happen. No, it was the woman’s fault, because she was afraid of him.
This leads me on to the second thing that infuriates me: a response, from police, the media, and individual men, to say “women shouldn’t walk home alone at night”. It’s the cousin of “don’t drink or wear short skirts if you want to avoid being raped”. It’s ignorant, and it’s dangerous.
For a start, all the attacks in Clapham took place between 5.30 and 9.30pm. Hardly late at night. And night in Britain starts at 4pm in winter – girls aren’t even home from school at that time, let alone women home from work, or mothers from the school run.
Second, telling women not to walk home alone at night puts the blame on them. You’re telling them that they are doing something wrong, making it more likely that juries, and the general public, will feel it’s their fault that this happened to them. When it’s not. Telling women not to walk home alone to avoid being attacked isn’t like telling people not to leave their windows open if they want to avoid being burgled. It’s like telling people not to have windows.
If we want to create a society where women aren’t afraid to walk home alone (but have to, because a personal chauffeur isn’t a reality for 99.9% of us), aren’t taught at the age of eleven to walk with their keys between their fingers, aren’t harassed doing something as simple as using the tube, then we need to stop giving out bullshit advice and starting tackling the real problem: that there are some men out there who feel women’s bodies are their property, and that it’s okay for them to behave in this way. Only then will we actually solve the problem.