Discover more from For the Sake of Argument
There's No Utopian Solution (Worth Having)
The murder of Sarah Everard was tragic. But it's an exaggeration to claim women can't go out after dark. Utopian counterfactuals will not protect women. Learning to navigate the world we live in will.
Last week a Metropolitan police officer was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Sarah Everard, the 33-year old living in London who disappeared on March 3rd as she was walking home. While the investigation into the kidnapping and murder is still ongoing, many on social media expressed their shock at the incident and lamented that such casual violence towards women still occurs today. But alongside the expressions of grief, many women also shared their experiences of feeling fear when walking alone at night, and the many tactics they use to try to ensure their safety: crossing the road if a man is walking on the same side of the street, pressing keys between fingers, or pretending to be on the phone. Many women, especially those who live in large cities, will have adopted these strategies at one time or another, and many can relate to the anxiety of wondering how you could get out of the situation should the approaching figure suddenly turn aggressive.
Yet, some on social media took this rhetoric to extremes. The writer Caitlin Moran tweeted: “Being a woman: my "outside" day finishes at sundown. If I haven't taken the dog for a walk/jogged by then, I can't. In the winter, it often means the choice between exercise and work. Today, I had to stop work at 4 to exercise. My husband worked until 6, and is now off for a run.” Others responded in a similar vein: “How cool would it be to be able to go running in the dark.”
It is a tragedy any time a woman is assaulted, but it’s imporant to remember that incidences such as these are rare. As of 2018, the rate of female homicide was 2.2 per 100,000 in the US, and less than 1 in many countries such as Japan, the UK, Italy, and Afghanistan. The implication that women in general cannot go out after dark for fear of death or assault, especially in places like London, is a gross and infantilizing exaggeration. This is certainly not to downplay the tragedy of Everard’s death, or of analogous cases of assault. It is rather a call to be wary of heuristic bias. Indeed, the pretense that women today fear going out unchaperoned is not only inaccurate, it reinforces the very stereotypes (that of the hysterical, anxious woman) that feminism has fought to overcome.
To the extent that we do have data on the matter, studies conducted in the UK and the US both show that men are in fact far more likely to be the victims of both fatal and non-fatal violent crime than women. In 2007, the overall rate of female homicide in the US was roughly a quarter of the rate of male homicide: 2.38 versus 8.94 per 100,000. This means that to the extent that strange men inflict violence on other random strangers, those victims are far more likely to be male than female.
Furthermore, violence against women is primarily domestic violence, where the perpetrator is an intimate partner or close acquaintance. For example, among female victims of stalking in the US, the perpetrator is a stranger in 21.1% of cases and an intimate partner in 59.5% of cases, whereas among male victims, strangers account for 35.3% of stalkers and intimate partners 30.6% (link above).
The fact is that life for women and people in general, particularly in rich, industrialized countries, is safer today than it has been at virtually any other point in history. When people decry the fact that sometimes walking alone at night can be an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation, they are assuming that a specific counterfactual world is plausible – one in which a person living in a city of a million or many millions of people would never encounter aggression or the threat of violence at night. This is simply fantasy. Once again, this is not to say that aggression or assault are permissible - they should be punished in both the courts of law and of public opinion. But we must acknowledge that living in a free society means accepting both one’s own freedom to act and speak as one wishes (within the legal limits), as well as the freedom of others to do the same.
Those who argue that it would be nice to put a curfew on men to prevent them from going out at night, or who suggest women ought to be able to both dress how they like and receive no commentary on their appearance are asking to have their cake and eat it too. The freedoms you want for yourself extend also to everyone else. (And no, quelling male aggression is not simply a matter of teaching young boys to respect women, though we should of course do that too.)
A feminism that respects the dignity of women is one that acknowledges the world we live in an as well as all plausible counterfactual worlds. In this world and in any world we would ever inhabit, we can police violence and impose social norms that encourage mutual respect between the sexes. But at the end of the night, you are ultimately responsible for your own safety and any utopian solutions are unlikely to change things for the better - neither for women, nor for men.
(Image © Mohd Sharizal)
Want to share your thoughts on this essay? Leave a comment below.
Subscribe to the newsletter to receive new essays directly in your inbox.