This article contains discussion of violence, including sexual violence.
Last week, Wayne Couzens became the first police officer in the UK to be sentenced to a whole-life order, for the murder of Sarah Everard. This differs from a life sentence, in that the convicted is ineligible for parole.
Everard was kidnapped when Couzens used Covid-19 laws to arrest her under false pretenses, before raping her, and strangling her to death and burning her remains. Everard was a 33 year-old marketing executive, who, on the night of her death, was walking home from a friend’s house in south London. Couzens was arrested six days later before being charged with her kidnap and murder.
In March of this year, following Couzens’ arrest, vigils were held across England in memory of Everard. The largest, in Clapham Common, near where Everard disappeared, attracted international media attention following heavy-handed crackdowns from the Metropolitan Police, the force that Couzens was a member of. Pictures circulated online of young female protestors being tackled and restrained by police, merely for publicly mourning and holding signs with messages like “she was walking home”.
The scenes sparked rightful outrage, and when combined with the circumstances of Everard’s murder, prompted many to question whether police really do protect women from violence.
Indeed, revelations about Couzens’ past make the outrageous response from police all the more repulsive. We know now that Couzens had previously been accused of public exposure, and was nicknamed “the Rapist” while serving in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. The response of British police forces to these revelations only added more fuel to the fire. North Yorkshire Police Commissioner Phillip Allot claimed women need to be more “streetwise” about what constitutes a legal arrest, to pick just one stomach-churning example. The Metropolitan Police suggested those fearful of a police officer should run away or “wave down a bus”.
The reality is that it is not women who need to change their behaviour, but the perpetrators of violence. Every woman knows what it is like to walk home with their keys in between their knuckles; what it’s like to wait for the “I’m home safe” text from a friend; what it’s like to be followed, stalked, groped, catcalled and harassed for the crime of existing in public as a woman.
The problem is not, as Allott claimed, that women are ignorant of the law, or are not “streetwise” enough, or that they don’t take enough precautions. The problem is the existence of men who feel entitled to women’s time, attention, affection, bodies and, in the most extreme cases, their lives. The problem is a widespread and deeply-rooted culture of male violence against women, which much of society condones, accepts and encourages.
Male entitlement which escalates into violence is a direct product of a culture in which women and women’s bodies are objectified and commodified, and in which men not taking no for an answer is glamorised and glorified. Male violence cannot be separated from paternalistic laws which deprive women of the right to control their own bodies. The new blanket abortion ban in Texas, under which a rape victim could face a longer prison sentence for accessing an abortion than their attacker would for rape, is just one example of this. The same could have been said of Ireland before the repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018. Indeed, accessing abortion in this country outside strictly-defined parameters remains a criminal offence.
Several high-profile sexual assault cases in Ireland in recent years also serve as a grave reminder of how deeply-entrenched victim blaming and misogyny are in our society and our legal system. What became known as the Belfast rape trial involving rugby player Paddy Jackson, saw Stuart Olding’s barrister ask “why didn’t she scream?” because there were “a lot of middle-class girls downstairs – they weren’t going to tolerate a rape or anything like that.” When referring to oral rape, the same barrister asked: “Why didn’t she keep her mouth closed?”
In 2018, a case which saw a 27 year-old-man acquitted for the rape of a 17 year old in Cork saw the style of the victim’s underwear used as evidence in court that the girl was “open to meeting someone” by the defence barrister. Victims of sexual assault and male violence more generally are blamed for not reporting at the same time that Gardai are under fire for failing to respond to domestic violence calls.
The circumstances of Everard’s murder, the fact that Couzens lasted in the force given previous allegations of misconduct, and the reaction of the Met and other police forces raise serious questions about the role of police (or lack thereof) in tackling violence against women. In recent days, a UK court ruled that undercover police grossly violated the human rights of a woman by deceiving her into a long-term sexual relationship, and a Garda was arrested after allegations of severe sexual abuse by his daughters. Couzens used his police powers to abduct and murder Everard, and then his former colleagues used those same powers to attack and arrest women who were mourning her. Who, if anyone, do police protect? Who or what does the legal system serve?
As a newspaper, our thoughts are with the family and loved ones of Sarah Everard. We stand in solidarity with all victims of male violence against women, and we stand against a culture of victim-blaming. We recognise that the answer to male entitlement and abuse is not more police or more women’s self-defence classes. The answer is not to demand women be more “streetwise”, scream louder, walk home in runners, avoid ponytails because they’re easy for assailants to grab onto, not drink, or not wear a certain style of underwear. The answer is to stop the violence at its source.
She was walking home.