Flickr/Tim Dennell

Sarah Everard and the conversation about young women’s safety

Trigger Warning: this article discusses matters of sexual harassment and women’s safety.

ShameOnYouWarwick: “The reason why we’re so angry is because none of this is new and none of it is surprising anymore. We’re fighting so hard to keep everyone safe but it constantly feels like a losing battle. We want everyone to know that they’re not alone in any of this, that they’re so brave for lasting through any sexual violence that they’ve experienced, and that we’ve got their backs.”

The vigil by ‘ShameOnYouWarwick’ on 13 March 2021 was held in memory of the death of Sarah Everard. Held on the Piazza, this was a safe space where students came together and shared statements, thoughts, and stories. The event was socially distanced and masks were worn as in keeping with government guidelines at the time.

The vigil was a raw awakening into how many feel our university has failed us. Some individuals braved walking to the event alone at night to come together, all to support their fellow students and women like Sarah. Campus security, without masks, approaching students and urging them to leave made the otherwise supportive space feel uncomfortable and distressing to some in attendance. This decision helped to solidify perceptions of the university’s seemingly unsympathetic attitude towards events expressing compassion and solidarity towards victims of gender-based violence.

The pressure on women to self-protect to prevent attacks does not only hold predators unaccountable but also normalises victim-blaming

Since 33-year-old Sarah Everard’s disappearance, social media has become overwhelmed with accounts of assault and harassment from countless women across the UK. The harsh reality that women are compelled to alter their behaviour has been exposed. It simply doesn’t work like we have all been led to believe. The reduction of risk and the pressure on women to self-protect to prevent attacks not only fails to hold predators accountable but also normalises victim-blaming. People often question, when a woman is attacked, what tips were followed and how the victims could have done more.

The University of Warwick has faced serious criticism in the past for not doing enough to ensure women’s safety on campus

The majority consensus online since Sarah’s case is that it should not be up to women to do more. That responsibility, many believe, should be placed onto workplaces and schools to ensure that colleagues and students feel supported if reporting an assault or harassment, but also to hold responsible the perpetrators. 62% of undergraduate students experienced sexual assault in 2018, yet only one in 10 reported the incident to their university. This is evident of the chasm of trust in institutions.

The University of Warwick has faced serious criticism in the past for not doing enough to ensure women’s safety on campus. Over the past years, there have been greater calls for the University to educate and compel all individuals to be aware of the impact they have. With an already poor reputation when it comes to supporting women and holding men accountable, it is no surprise that some people feel there is a lack of agency and effort when it comes to student compassion and support.

Students have expressed how painfully aware they are of the lack of safety provisions in place on campus. Many have protested for women to be offered rape whistles through sit-ins and petitions. These are basic deterrents to crimes which students shouldn’t have to worry about.

We have made significant progress in the last 18 months with a £2.6m-a-year package of support now in place for our students, preventative training has been delivered to thousands of students, and a strengthened disciplinary processes has been implemented

– University of Warwick

A spokesperson for the University of Warwick made the following statement:

“Those who contact Wellbeing Support Services via WID, Warwick’s online wellbeing portal, during working hours have a current average wait time of 15 minutes before speaking with a wellbeing professional. Those in urgent need of professional support will receive it that day, and all those wishing to see a counsellor will have an appointment within an average of three weeks; which is below both the sector average and the statuary services (NHS) average waiting time of 12-18 months.

“We have made significant progress in the last 18 months with a £2.6m-a-year package of support now in place for our students, preventative training has been delivered to thousands of students, and strengthened disciplinary processes have been implemented.

“As soon as someone makes a report of sexual misconduct, bullying or harassment through Report and Support they will be assigned and contacted by a dedicated Student Liaison Officer. However, we know there’s always more we can do, and we are committed to looking at ways of further improving our approach, through listening to students, working with specialists and implementing best practice guidelines.”

I will always dread to think about what could have happened if I had not faked being on the phone

In my first year at Warwick, I experienced two men (I do not know if they were students) follow me while I was walking to my on-campus accommodation at night. I instinctively, like many women who have had ‘tips’ ingrained into them to prevent attack, pretended to be on the phone. These men proceeded to U-turn and said, “never mind she is on the phone.”

This is something that will stay with me. Even on campus with fellow students, I have felt unsafe. I will always dread to think about what could have happened if I had not faked being on the phone. Why did I have to do it in the first place? Is university not somewhere we should feel safe without question?

But what about women like Sarah? She followed the advice. Instead of focusing on how women should be acting, protests in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death have sought to change how men and society at large think about sexual assault and harassment.

The evidence is conclusive; to some it is shocking, for women it is not. It does not matter how many ‘correct’ steps women follow, or meticulously remember. Women are tired.

We should not be constantly protecting ourselves, especially not within institutions that we should be able to entrust with our safety and wellbeing. Normalised is the fact that women are unsafe at night, at risk when alone or that when we wear clothing deemed to be ‘provocative’ we risk our life and our ‘virtue’.

We have been normalising women being unsafe for years without ever thinking about the assailants

Sarah – just before her kidnapping – wore bright clothing, was on her phone, and was walking along a main road. How can we continue to berate women into self-protection when instances like this show that no number of protocols enacted by women will ensure safety?

Campaigns like ‘Reclaim the Night’ have expressed how it is now time that we place focus on those committing crimes rather than the victims. Many individuals highlight the fact that discourse has created an environment where predators are the ones who currently remain protected and their victims unsafe. We have been normalising women being unsafe for years without ever thinking about the assailants.

When 86% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed without reporting it, it is clear that flawed systems and societal victim-blaming have failed women. Failed to the point where they no longer feel that they can report incidents without being met with significant rebuke.

Sarah is representative of every woman that society has failed

The generation of conversation and community that has erupted recently in response to Sarah has unfortunately been met with reproach, seen online from both men and women.

In response to individuals expressing their experiences, the reality of ignorance and lack of want to understand is clear. Faced with mountains of futile ‘not all men’ responses, along with declarations that being catcalled is a compliment, is something women are distressingly used to. These pitiful responses and lack of support by not just trolls on the internet but universities too, who fail to accept accountability for their students, are unfortunately expected.

Sarah is representative of every woman that society has failed. This should not be a resurgence, instilling fear into women, but a spark – instilling fear into men who harass and harm.

Enabling the existence of ‘grey areas’ and euphemisms such as ‘grope’ only serve to harm our perceptions of women and each other

Enabling the existence of ‘grey areas’ and euphemisms such as ‘grope’ only serve to harm our perceptions of women and each other. There is no such thing as ‘groping’, there is only sexual assault. It is clear that with the current violence faced by women it is not enough for men to say ‘I’m not a rapist or murderer’, or that they’re not aware of the issue.

Furthermore, after this mass movement and education of women’s safety all over social media, male silence can be seen as a choice to ignore the effect of their actions. Men online have been encouraged to carry out some of the subconscious behaviours that women have had to enact for years.

There is a lot more to be done to begin healing things. Foremost, accountability is vital. It may not be the university that is assaulter, but their silence and lack of care can be seen to facilitate narratives that predators can and will win with minimal, if no, consequence. It is therefore unsurprising that there is now significant distrust leading to a mass sit-in enacted currently by ‘ProtectWarwickWomen’.

The improvement of policies and actions when dealing with reports of sexual assault, as well as measures to be put in place to protect students, is now what has been demanded. Now more than ever, it’s pertinent that individuals feel that they can freely confide in others without judgement. Trauma does not end just because the abuse stopped.

With this in mind, we should remember the confidence and bravery individuals must build in order to speak up about their personal incidents. As a university, students and staff must be conscious in their handling of individuals’ pain and retelling of incidents – and react with consideration before integration. The protests on our campus in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder were a shocking symbol of the problems and fear so prevalent in our society, and in the everyday lives of women. But they are also a beacon of hope for change.

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