Keys Out

Arianne Shahvisi

When I was eleven, my mother sat my older sister and me down and told us a man had attacked a girl in our neighbourhood. From now on we were to be careful walking to and from school. She didn’t use the word ‘rape’ but my sister told me afterwards that was what she meant. It wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do to be more careful, but that wasn’t my mother’s point. She was training us in a grim new way of life: be fearful, be alert, treat every man as a potential threat.

It was the first of many warnings. ‘Be careful,’ like ‘text me when you get home,’ is another way of saying ‘I love you’ in a world wired by the threat of men’s violence. In Aftermath (2001), an exploration of the trauma of her sexual assault and near-fatal strangulation, the philosopher Susan Brison wrote:

When I started telling people about the attack, I said, simply, that I was a victim of an attempted murder. People typically asked in horror, ‘What was the motivation? Were you mugged?’ and when I replied, ‘No, it started as a sexual assault,’ most inquirers were satisfied with that as an explanation. I would have thought that a murder attempt plus a sexual assault would require more, not less, of an explanation than a murder attempt by itself.

The violent sexual assault of women is axiomatic, a fixed point around which the rest of our lives must acculturate. We do not ask for explanations. Last week, a YouGov poll showed that 97 per cent of women aged between 18 and 24 have been sexually harassed, which not only gives the lie to the notion that things are getting better, but indicates an experience so universal that womanhood could reasonably be defined as vulnerability to sexual violence. (Such a definition would be inclusive of trans women, who are especially vulnerable to harassment and assault.)

The business of staying safe is riven with contradictions. Walking home has its risks, but the expensive alternative is getting in a taxi whose door locks are controlled by a stranger, and I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been harassed in a nearly empty train carriage. Charting a route along busier roads is thought to be most prudent, but sometimes it’s smarter to choose streets that almost no one uses rather than those with a higher density of potential attackers. Headphones and sunglasses deter unwanted attention in some contexts, but dull the senses against potential threats in others. Reporting incidents to the police could help other women, but more often leads to retraumatisation, humiliation, disbelief and inaction.

As a teenager, I carried a knife. It was a comically slender flip-blade, but its weight against my thigh was a comfort. At university, every new arrival at my women-only college was issued with a rape alarm. High-pitched yowls rang through the walls as people tested them in their bedrooms. Nowadays, I carry my keys fanned out so the sharp ends protrude between my fingers (actual knuckledusters are illegal in the UK, as is pepper spray). I know that I must go for the face so he’ll be recognisably disfigured afterwards, and try to scrape his DNA under my fingernails. There are apps that turn phones, at a tap, into digital flares and black-box recorders, summoning emergency services, releasing GPS positions, initiating audio recording. The most fun nights of our lives routinely end with the sorts of calculation that ought to be necessary only for the navigation of major disasters.

Sarah Everard and I were the same age. At the weekend I turned 34, and she never will. Not only has a police officer been accused of abducting and murdering her, but other police officers were then ordered to block the vigil that marked her death, and many of the women who showed up anyway were pinned to the ground, separated from those they arrived with, and arrested. (Anyone who finds it hard to imagine an arm of the state being so unconcerned about the optics of such tactics is not paying enough attention to the experiences of people of colour.) Commentators defending the actions of the police on Clapham Common have objected that it was an angry protest, not a vigil. But that is just another way of saying that we were supposed to light a candle and hurry home with our keys between our fingers.

It is only reasonable to consent to be policed if you are thereby protected. If there is any justification for policing (and whether there is should remain an open question) it is to keep us safe. We are not safe. Men keep murdering women and the police have offered us no exit strategy. Rape convictions fell to a record low in 2020. That only counts the incidents that are reported: 83 per cent of sexual assaults are not. Women are socialised to have a finely tuned sense of whom to trust, and we do not trust the police. A Freedom of Information request in 2019 revealed that, over a six-year period, nearly 1500 accusations of sexual misconduct were levelled at police officers.

Covid-19 remains a grave threat, but so are those tasked with enforcing the pandemic restrictions. They look set to become more so. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons this evening. It would give the police powers to take a ‘more proactive approach’ to shutting down protests, including the ability to detain protesters who depart from pre-agreed conditions on permissible actions, and increased scope for stop and search. Actions that are noisy or cause ‘serious annoyance’ may also be outlawed. In other words, anything other than quiet, ignorable, choreographed marches will be aggressively policed. The effects of this clampdown will be predictably uneven. Protest is not only the last resort of those whom the state has failed, but also the nexus at which state violence is unmasked.

‘We do not have time,’ Andrea Dworkin said in 1983, in her speech asking for a ‘Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape’:

We women. We don’t have for ever. Some of us don’t have another week or another day to take time for you to discuss whatever it is that will enable you to go out into those streets and do something … And I want one day of respite, one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me. And how could I ask you for less – it is so little. And how could you offer me less: it is so little.


  • 15 March 2021 at 3:34pm
    staberinde says:
    Every man has a mother, and often also sister(s), a spouse, and daughter(s).

    What saddens me most is the fact that despite this, so many men are still misogynistic and violent to other people's mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.

    Do they see all women as means and not ends? Or just those who aren't kin?

    Whether it's nature or nurture, the shocking prevalence and history of violence against women suggests there is simply no hope. Fuck this species.

    • 16 March 2021 at 10:55am
      Gardiner Linda says: @ staberinde
      Men rape and murder their mothers, sisters, spouses and daughters. There is overwhelming evidence that the home is the most dangerous place for women; far more rapes and murders are committed by male relatives than by strangers. The fact that you don't know (or don't believe?) this says a lot about the need for educating men about the reality of women's lives. I've followed this subject for decades, and I would say that among the things that have not changed one iota is the obliviousness of men to the level of violence in women's daily experience.

    • 16 March 2021 at 11:20am
      staberinde says: @ Gardiner Linda
      You misunderstand me. I'm not oblivious to male violence against female relations.

      In many areas of social relations we posit that exposure to the other creates empathy. For example, that living in a diverse area makes you more tolerant of difference. Or that educating the children of Protestants and Catholics together reduces the likelihood of future sectarian conflict.

      But it looks like this isn't the case with misogynistic violence.

      I you can't see all women as having the same human dignity as your own female relations, there's little hope. If you can't even ascribe human dignity to your mother, sister, wife or daughter, there is no hope at all.

      If I were disbelieving or oblivious, I wouldn't be so saddened.

      What is there to be fixed? What good is education to someone who considers their sister less human than he? It's like trying to install software onto an operating system that doesn't support it.

  • 16 March 2021 at 1:06am
    JonathanDawid says:
    Murder is not a feminist issue. Yes, most murderers are men, by a long way. But so are most murder victims. The teenage boy walking home at night alone has far more reason to be frightened than the 30 year old woman. Knifings in London are now so common they barely make the headlines. Where are the vigils and protests for their victims?

    • 16 March 2021 at 1:45am
      Graucho says: @ JonathanDawid
      To underline your point.
      23 murders 19 men 4 women at time of posting. This site is regularly updated so the figures will change.

    • 16 March 2021 at 8:53am
      Joe Morison says: @ JonathanDawid
      ‘Yes, most murderers are men, by a long way. But so are most murder victims.’ That is true but in a rather distorting way; a better picture is given by pointing out that while men are about 1.8 times more likely to be murdered than women, they are overwhelmingly more likely to be murderers.

    • 17 March 2021 at 8:06pm
      freshborn says: @ Joe Morison
      Joe, she wasn't murdered by a man. She was murdered by a cop. Regardless, what are you trying to say? That a male victim of murder is less important since he is demographically more likely to be a murderer? That I strut merrily through South London at night, the profound weight of my genitalia resting comfortingly against my thigh, reassuring me that I am more likely to be killer than victim?

      Graucho - thanks for that. I was wondering about that. I found the response to this murder to be strange, since I don't really see the connection with the experiences of sexual harassment. Not that I object to people discussing it, it's just strange.

    • 19 March 2021 at 7:25am
      Joe Morison says: @ freshborn
      I am challenging Jonathan’s assertion that murder is not a feminist issue, seemingly on the ground that there’s an equivalence between the proportion of men who are murderers and people who are murdered. Of course, murder is not exclusively a feminist issue; but it is an issue for feminism because male violence against women, up to and including their murder, is so much massively greater than contrariwise.

      And as for wandering around rough areas of London late at night, it is undoubtedly a lot less risky for a man out of his teens than it is for a woman. The worst we are likely to face is a mugging, which might not be pleasant but in the end is nothing more than the loss of property; women, on the other hand, face the constant threat of rape and worse - and not just in rough areas and at night, it’s all the time and everywhere.

      (Finally, I’d say that sexual harassment and murder are discussed together because, albeit at different ends, they are both on the scale of male violence against women.)

  • 16 March 2021 at 7:05pm
    gary morgan says:
    I read 'The Female Eunuch" st college in 1977 and for some reason one sentence really stuck: "Women have no idea of how much men hate them". At the time I though Ms Greer was trying to provoke that it stayed with me convinces me that at some level I realised how disturbingly common misogyny is.

  • 17 March 2021 at 4:01am
    neddy says:
    Cloth ears are everywhere here in Australia. Recently our Prime Minister commented, in response to women marching protesting against sexist conditions in workplaces - including the National Parliament - that Australian women should, in effect, be grateful their protests are not met with bullets as they are elsewhere in the world (I assume he was referring to Myanmar). To add insult to injury, he refused to meet with the mass of marchers, offering only to meet with a small delegation. The Conservatives have a lot to learn here in Oz.

  • 21 March 2021 at 1:15pm
    R Srinivasan says:
    For an explanation (of male violence against females) and a plausible solution (infants should be cared for 24/7 by both parents),

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