Last week, stand-up comic Eurydice Dixon, 22, was killed as she walked home through a Melbourne park after a performance. A 19-year-old man has been charged with her rape and murder, thought to have taken place immediately after Dixon had sent a friend a safety text, to say she was nearly home, asking him if he was OK, too. Since Dixon’s death, campaigners have stood vigil in Melbourne’s Princes Park, with an estimated 15,000 attending on Monday night alone. The vigil has been peaceful, but many of the attendees are furious about how Victoria police officials handled the alleged crime. In its immediate wake, police stated that women should make efforts to stay safe after dark. While they’ve now acknowledged they should have been more careful with their wording, their initial response will be familiar to women everywhere, many of whom feel exhausted at perceived excuses for the behaviour of sexual harassers and assailants, and at the persistent instructions for their victims, not the perpetrators themselves.
One cannot draw equivalence between the extreme violence and brutality inflicted on Eurydice Dixon and the common experience of many women, who are subjected daily to harassment and intimidation, but there are undeniable parallels between how the authorities treat sexual harassment, from mild to severe, and out-and-out sexual assault. And they exist not only on the other side of the world.
High-profile Manchester-based lawyer Nick Freeman, aka the self proclaimed “Mr Loophole”, responded on social media to last week’s vote on a government-backed proposal to make the act of “upskirting” – the taking of upwards photographs of women’s underwear without consent – unlawful (Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope blocked the proposed legislation). Freeman said, “In life you cannot completely absolve yourself of all responsibility for everything. We do not leave our cars unlocked and say it is only the thief’s responsibility if it is stolen. We lock them to defend them from thieves. … But just like a burglar alarm protects a house, I’m saying women can reduce the probability of these perverts targeting them by taking steps to protect themselves.”
I’ve pretended to wave at a non-existent boyfriend in the distance because I know dreadful men will often respect another man’s boundaries, if not mine
Culpability, it seems, lies with the reckless mini-skirt wearer for not properly deterring some poor, hapless pervert who finds himself holding a smartphone horizontally beneath her hem, unable to resist the temptation to snag a picture of her pants. Why legislate him when we can legislate for her wardrobe instead? Women who experience sexual harassment are not engaging in due diligence and putting themselves at risk. Freeman would, it seems, like us to add long skirts to the by no means exhaustive list of things that I and many women I know have already done or continue to do as though normal:
Held my keyring in the palm of my hands, a splayed bunch of sharp keys protruding tightly from my finger gaps, optimistically ready to maim any man who tries to attack me.
Taken out a ponytail before heading home after dark, so an attacker doesn’t have a handle to grab me with before dragging me down a side street.
Walked with one earbud or headphone out, so one ear can still hear for strangers approaching me from behind.
Crossed a dark, quiet road because a man is walking too closely behind me.
Walked down the middle of a busy road, so I couldn’t be dragged off a dark pavement undetected.
Pretended to wave at a non-existent boyfriend in the distance to see off another man who, so far, won’t take no for an answer, because I know dreadful men will often respect another man’s boundaries, if not mine.
Taken a photograph of a taxi licence plate and sent it to my friends.
Taken a photograph of an in-car taxi licence because the driver has gone a bit creepy.
Spent far more money than I could afford on taxis, because my shop job finished at 10pm.
Moved carriages on a train because a man was making me feel unsafe or uneasy.
Got on a less convenient train because I needed to get off the platform and away from a nuisance – and fast.
Walked into a shop or pub I didn’t need to, purely to get away from a hassling weirdo on the street.
Made a joke to a person I was frightened of, in the hope of charming him out of attacking me.
Ignored a person who was behaving frighteningly, because that’s what everyone tells me I should do.
Taken his aggressive insults because I ignored him.
Called the police and waited in a phone box for them to arrive, because a man had followed me off the bus home from work and was asking me where I lived.
Carried hairspray I didn’t need, in the hope it would blind him for long enough for me to get away.
Thought about the best place to kick him if that didn’t work.
I daresay some or perhaps even all of these tactics are familiar to you. This is the reality of being a woman, not just in Britain or Australia. It is part and parcel of the female experience everywhere, in short skirts or long. We shouldn’t have to go to such lengths to feel safe and yet still we spend a disproportionate amount of time and nervous energy on taking convoluted and ultimately ineffective precautions. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that they’re akin to popping on a coat for the snow or locking our cars to avoid theft. Freeman may compare sexual harassment to house burglary, but in cases of burglary or theft, we by default blame those who cause harm to others, not wonder how the victims could have better avoided what was an abuse of power and a calculated cruelty.
Inevitably, Freeman has his supporters, as do the Melbourne police. Men are getting a cultural kicking, they say. Feminism exaggerates, vilifies indiscriminately. But this isn’t about hating men – I was raised by a single dad and big brothers. All of them would sooner lose a kidney than intimidate or frighten a woman. Nor is this about thinking all men are rapists. Any fool knows they’re not. It’s about knowing that, as women, we are literally always vulnerable to the small but significant minority of men who consider our safety, comfort and blood pressure to be of lesser importance than their desire, sense of humour, sexual impulses or demands. That is not on us. That is on them. It is exhausting to constantly be told otherwise. Just once, it would be a relief to see anger, energy and solutions channelled towards those who are truly responsible.