When I moved to London, from a small town up north, one of the main things my mum worried about was if I’d ‘be safe’. She meant avoiding getting raped or murdered (as though that doesn’t happen in places where there’s a much less frequent bus service and more big industrial estates). But she also meant whether I’d behave ‘safely’: not walk home alone at night, take out a rape alarm, not wander off with strangers.
For the ten years I’ve lived here I’ve pretended to her that’s largely the case. ‘Yes, of course I got a cab with a friend,’ I’ve often lied down the phone. But the truth is that I like walking around the city alone at night. It’s beautiful. In fact, I’ve behaved in a way that many people would describe as ‘unsafe’ and ‘dumb’. I’ve arguably been ‘lucky’ that nothing that bad has happened to me. But isn’t it weird that we talk like that? We rarely tell straight men to stick to well-lit roads, and guys are actually statistically more likely to get murdered than women.
I know that many women and non-binary people, including some of my friends, do not feel that it is safe to act like I do. I totally understand why. Horrible things happen to women very often – we’re always aware it might be us next. In fact, I remember going to a female crime writers’ convention and hearing how women make better thriller authors because we live with the tension you need for a good book – ‘Are those footsteps behind me?’ – every day.
What I hope we learn from the Sarah Everard case is that telling women to ‘be safe’ is useless. Everard was falsely arrested, raped and murdered by serving police officer Wayne Couzens. None of the advice that’s doled out to us like vitamins would have saved her. The feeling of safety it offers is just a placebo.
If we want London to feel safe enough that we could all fearlessly amble across London Bridge alone at 2am, eating a Maccies and looking at the lights of the City, we need the government to invest in protecting vulnerable Londoners. I don’t mean by launching an app that women download to track themselves. (Again, imagine suggesting to a straight man that he voluntarily goes under government surveillance on the off chance he’s ever murdered.) I mean opening specialist rape units at the two-fifths of police forces in England and Wales that are missing them. I mean by finding and stopping perpetrators of crimes such as flashing before it escalates to violence. I mean by taking all sexual harassment seriously, including against teenage girls. (Couzens was accused of indecent exposure back in 2015.)
Whoever you are – if this case has opened your eyes to how little we as individuals can do to protect ourselves, if it’s made you feel scared, angry and see our city in a new light – know that, in many ways, what you’re feeling is exactly what all that ‘be safe’ chat was supposed to suppress. If women carry the burden of their own safety then they can’t blame the government or the police or the structure of society when bad things happen. But now we know the truth and it’s time to use our rage to demand better.
This is how experts think we can make women safer in London.
Women are calling on TfL to bring back the night tube.