There has been a string of sex attacks in north-west London. Ten women have been sexually assaulted in the Cricklewood/Willesden Green area, in a series of lone attacks that are thought to be linked. The police are searching for the culprit and have described the attacks as “shocking”, but, in the meantime, they’ve issued some advice for women to stay safe: don’t wear headphones.
Detective constable Laura Avery, of the Metropolitan Police, told BBC News: “Always stick to well-lit streets. If possible, let someone know when you are coming home and the route you are taking and always be alert in your surroundings, so don't use earphones or handheld devices.”
Most women reading this will be familiar with this advice. It’s something we’ll have heard from teachers in PSHE classes, police officers coming to our schools to give safety talks, worried parents, concerned boyfriends, and – unfortunately – media headlines suggesting that women were attacked because they WEREN’T following all of this advice.
By the time I was 12, I’d been told: don’t wear headphones when you’re walking home at night. Don’t put your hair in a ponytail because that way it’s easy for an attacker to grab hold of you. Keep your house keys in your hands, so you have something sharp to attack with in case someone comes up to you. Don’t wear heels on a night out; wear trainers so you can run if necessary. Pay for a cab instead of walking home.
I hadn’t even had the opportunity to go on a night out and wear heels with a ponytail (I was 12), but I still knew that this was all “dangerous” behaviour. By the time I got to the age when I started going out, I was filled with fear and anxiety. I felt guilty if ever I decided to scrimp on a cab and walk through the quiet, unlit roads to my home, and I always carried my keys between my fingers – just in case.
Imagine walking with your headphones in your ears and the music actually playing
“I remember being told in school not to wear a bra that can be seen through your shirt (so basically anything that isn't white) as it can distract the boys,” says Jessica. Similarly, Holly tells me: “When I was 19, I worked in an office where women weren't allowed to wear sleeveless tops even in summer as bare arms were too distracting for the men.” Janey adds, “As a schoolgirl, I remember being told not to walk on the road side of the pavement in case a man tried to pull me into his car.”
None of this advice is necessarily wrong. It all comes from a well-meaning place and, most of the time, it makes sense. You are more aware of your surroundings if you’re not listening to music and it is safer to walk in well-lit areas. The problem is that, as a woman, it just means you have a list of restrictive behaviour and rules in your head that play on repeat. If you don’t or can’t follow it, then it’s not unusual to feel guilty. Especially when society still blames victims for “asking for it”.
“When I was a victim of sexual assault – a man wanked on my foot – the first thing my boyfriend at the time asked was, ‘Were you wearing headphones?’” says Zoë Beaty, The Pool’s deputy news editor. “As if not wearing them might have deterred him.” Similarly, after student Laura Hendry was punched in the face by a man in the street in Paris, the police told her to “scream louder next time”.
It’s no wonder that, recently, a tweet asking women what they’d do if men had a 9pm curfew went viral. There was obviously never a suggestion that men should have a curfew – no one wants a reverse The Handmaid’s Tale situation. But the answers from women showed just how much we limit and restrict our behaviours out of fear of sexual assault. “Imagine walking with your headphones in your ears and the music actually playing,” said one. “I’d run at night,” said another. “Go to a grocery store. Go for a walk in the park. Drive out to where the light pollution ends and look at the stars. Go to bars and take a ride-share home while drunk. Go outside and forget my phone at home and not worry.”
These are such simple pleasures and freedoms. But they’re not truly available to women while sexual assault is still a threat – and they haven’t been for years. There’s no easy solution to this, but what does help is when people stop suggesting that a woman who dares to go out on her own at night in a park with her headphones in (God forbid) is “asking for it”.
Instead, the ideal response comes from men like Randall Stephens, who responded to the 9pm curfew tweet with self-realisation and empathy: “I’m a white guy who regularly visits other countries by himself, walking city streets after midnight while listening to music on my headphones while not speaking the language,” he wrote. “Never even occurred to me that this was a gender privilege.”