When I was a pre-teen, my dad sent me to a convenience store to buy milk. I went on my bike with a backpack and the single-minded determination of someone with an important job—we had mouths to feed! It was getting dark but the roads were quiet so I biked on the sidewalk the few minutes to the store. I purchased the wobbly bags of milk and let them settle in the bottom of my pack. It settled, cool against my back, as I left the store.
Outside, I walked past a young man on his bike and his friend. One of them said something incredibly disturbing to me, and my entire body turned as cold as the milk against my spine. (Imagine my horror when years later I heard the song that he was apparently quoting, a classy Nine Inch Nails ditty called “Closer”; you’ll know the lyrics I mean.)
Although I didn’t have the context for the comment, I knew it was a threat and that I was in danger. But I also knew that if you can’t fully defend yourself, it’s better to ignore things that boys do so they don’t escalate and hurt you. Yes, I had already learned this. I bet your daughter has too.
They followed me home on their bikes, and when I crossed the road, they did too. I crossed again, thinking that if they had crossed coincidentally before, they wouldn’t again. But they did.
When you know you’re in trouble, it is a very different feeling than thinking you might be in trouble. It’s unforgettable. I started to feel it.
My dad’s house was the first on a side street, so I waited until the last moment, then whipped down the street into the driveway and raced into the house, backpack swinging wildly. I wish I could say I felt safe once inside, but I’m not sure I have since.
I learned there were different rules for boys and girls. I learned, very young, that girls were often victims of horrendous crimes, and that the male perpetrators were rarely caught, and that the legal system was committed to failure when it came to rape. I saw this in every type of media—so not only was it being reported on in the news, it was being explored and exploited in ‘pleasurable viewing’ for the masses. Imagine being a kid who’d been molested seeing their parents watch Law and Order: SVU. Would it say anything other than ‘this is completely normal’?
As I’m writing, more and more anecdotes of threatening male behaviour come to mind, as I’m sure is happening to female readers right now. The time I was 12 walking with my friend and a truck full of men yelled obscenities at us on Main Street.
This happened to me again on a late-night walk this January, by the Summit Centre.
I would be unable to count the number of times it’s happened between the two incidents. Men yelling from cars is part of the background noise of women’s lives. The work I’ve done in this community means I know the names of more rapists and abusers than I would like. I can tell you right now, you know some. Harassment, stalking, abuse, and assault all happen in every town, an iceberg of violence against women, most of it well beneath the surface.
It took me about twenty years, but I started to feel like I was doing everything right when it came to moving through the world cautiously. I took courses on self-defence, assertiveness, empowerment, and learned strategies for defusing high-tension situations. With a friend, I eventually started to give workshops on these subjects—literally called I GOT THIS, all about knowing, and owning, the space around you.
I did for two reasons: so that I would be better prepared if anything happened, and because maybe then I wouldn’t be blamed if something did.
But all the while, the rape and murder of women who did everything right was like an infection—we tried treating it with everything we had, but it’s too resilient, too ready to mutate.
At the end of every single day that I do everything right to protect myself, I feel a slow-burning rage at the fact that I have to do anything at all. I’ve been in women-only space with three thousand women and never once felt as unsafe as I do in my own community. I could have walked back to my tent naked, wasted, and singing at the top of my voice, and I would have been joined in song, and possibly lovingly escorted, but never assaulted. No, it seems the realm of sexually attacking women in the streets solely belongs to men.
Sarah Everard did everything right on her walk home.
People were expecting her. She called her boyfriend for much of the journey. She passed under bright street lamps and CCTV.
And a man abducted her and murdered her. We don’t know what else (but we do know).
Her name is echoing around the world right now. It reminds me of Jyoti Singh, the woman who was raped to death on a bus in Delhi in 2012. Her death sparked something in all of us. The realization that no matter what a woman does, with zero exceptions, rape is never excusable.
We can find ourselves empathizing with the motivations for every other crime, even murder. But anyone who feels that way about rape is a danger to be around. It is the only inexcusable crime and it is the most dismissed and disbelieved.
Sarah’s death reminds us we have not taken back the night and, in fact, it’s more dangerous than ever for women. In Mexico, men in trucks wait at bus stops to abduct women. Imagine that level of existential fear when you’re just trying to get home to your family after a long shift. In First Nations communities policed by RCMP, there are countless accusations of male cops harassing and harming Indigenous women. There is no patriarchal society in which women are safe, and as Audre Lorde says, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even if her shackles are very different from my own.” So please do not derail this by telling me how good white women or Western women have it in comparison to women elsewhere, because it is the same infection hurting us all. As Sarah Everard could attest, if she were alive. And the more privilege I have, the larger my responsibility to shout about this and shut it down.
We all know that feeling when things change in an instant. A car accident, a phone call, a diagnosis. The trajectory of your life changing unimaginably. Sometimes ending, unimaginably.
You’re going for a walk, like you always do. You hear footsteps behind you, because you only wear one earbud, always with the volume down low. You step aside to let him pass, not wanting him behind you.
It’s a police officer. There’s a moment of relief. If you’re a white woman who’s never had to report so-called domestic violence or sexual assault to the police, you might think cops are indeed there to serve and protect.
I wonder how long it was between when Sarah realized he was a cop and when she realized he was still going to kill her.
The horror in the slow, then too-fast realization that it won’t end at rape. Somehow, it gets worse. At the moment you realize this is the end of your life, because a man decided your value, the person your friends and family love, every birthday candle you blew out, every time you said “I miss you”, every seed you planted in the garden—he determined that none of it mattered and it was all disposable.
And when women tried to gather to hold a vigil for Sarah Everard? Women were thrown around by male police officers. The violence was described as ‘deeply disturbing’ and ‘neither appropriate nor proportionate‘.
There can be no more advice for women. We are already doing everything we can and so much more than we should have to, and it isn’t working. If curfews are discussed, I only want to hear about men being told to stay inside. If ‘be safe’ is called at someone’s back when they leave the house, it needs to mean ‘don’t rape and murder anyone’ not ‘don’t get raped and murdered’.
It is not enough to be a feminist mother raising good boys. It is not enough to teach consent in schools. It isn’t enough to use parental controls on porn. None of this is enough. It hasn’t been and it won’t be. At what point is it enough? I thought after Junko. I thought after Jyoti. I thought after Eurydice.
Maybe after Sarah?
I am tired of the onus being buried.
And I am really tired of women being buried.
This is a femicide and we have had enough.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.