Content warning: discussion of sexual violence and violence against women and girls.
Image: Himanshu Singh Gurjar
What happened to Sarah Everard is quite clearly horrific. But I am also kind of frustrated by our collective reaction to this case of femicide specifically. Not because it does not warrant public outrage or because her family and friends do not deserve our sympathies or deepest condolences. In truth, I regret having to use this case as an example at all. But in discussing sexual harassment and assault, we often speak about the perfect victim.
Sarah Everard was conservatively, even luminously, dressed, in a monogamous heterosexual relationship; white, sober, young, fit, healthy, pretty, a Durham University graduate working in marketing. One of the photos which circulated of her is described as a “professional LinkedIn photo… wearing a sleek grey jumper”. Stereotypically 'British' sounding and looking. Though it was definitely dark out, it wasn’t even that late, only 9.30pm. She was on the phone with her partner at the time of her abduction. He is also a marketing director. She is described by her friends and loved ones as “popular, beautiful, strong and incredibly kind”.
By and large, Sarah is the perfect victim because there is not one spot on her record. Not one thing that even our deep-seated prejudices ingrained into us at a societal level would lead us to believe she was irresponsible or erratic. The only thing she did ‘wrong’ was walk home on the evening of March 3rd 2021, and many have indeed taken to criticising her on that. Ideally, she would have been abducted in broad daylight. Then we would not have a singular reason to blame her for the terrible pain that was inflicted upon her on the leadup to and including her death. Because had she taken the bus or a tube, we would criticise that decision. Had she taken an Uber, we would, once again, be having the same conversation.
I am not so naive as to not recognise why her story resonates with so many of the people in my circles. Most of my friends are also white, pretty, young women who go for runs every now and again, or at least think about going on runs. I have a lot of friends at Durham. Family members and friends of mine live in Clapham. Lots of people living in Clapham probably work in marketing. Lots of those people may do the same job as their partner, my parents met at work, for example. Her life was normal in that it was comfortable, like so many of our lives are, and it was stopped short, violently and brutally, for no reason at all.
But sometimes victims are drunk. Sometimes they wear short skirts and high heels. Sometimes they’re wearing headphones on their walks. Sometimes they forget their phone at home, or go on a Tinder date, or travel the world on their own. These victims we judge indescribably harshly because, knowing their vulnerable position as women, they should know better. Knowing their vulnerable position as women, it is not reasonable for them to have taken these risks. Knowing the threat of men outside looms, they should drink less, cover up, remember their phone, not download a dating app, and stay home. But what happens when they are being harassed via text message or raped at home by their uncle? Can they forget their phone and leave home then?
Our bias and prejudice is also structural. Sometimes victims didn’t go to university. Sometimes they work at McDonald’s. Sometimes they’re Black or Brown. Sometimes they’re East Asian or Latinx. Sometimes they’re Muslim. Sometimes they’re trans. Sometimes they’re immigrants, or sex workers, or both. In these cases, grounded in prejudicial stereotypes, there is often a collective expectation of dysfunctionality, such as drug usage, immoral behaviour and violence, used to diminish the severity of the crime by partially, if not entirely, implicating victims and survivors as much as if not instead of perpetrators. Of course that Muslim woman was murdered by her Muslim husband. Of course the sex worker was raped and killed. Of course a trans woman was assaulted.
The fact of the matter is that more often than not, victims of gender-motivated harassment or violence are not as palatable as Sarah Everard.