Louise O'Neill: 'I cried, not just for Sarah Everard, but for every woman who never made it home'

In the aftermath of Sarah Everard's death, Louise O'Neill talks about how she was a 'Perfect Victim', yet people on the internet still tried to blame her for her murder
Louise O'Neill: 'I cried, not just for Sarah Everard, but for every woman who never made it home'

Messages and floral tributes left by well-wishers to honour murder victim Sarah Everard at the bandstand on Clapham Common in south London on March 14, 2021, a day after Metropolitan Police officers scuffled at the spot with some members of a hundreds-strong crowd that gathered for a candlelit tribute. Picture: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a line in my last book that says, “women had always been taught to be afraid; it was embedded in their very DNA, passed down from mother to daughter, a poisonous heirloom.” 

That’s what I kept coming back to when I heard of Sarah Everard’s murder – how afraid she must have been. 

I thought of her family, her friends, the almost un-survivable pain they’re experiencing right now, and my breath drew short as I imagined how I would feel if it was my sister, my best friend. 

I cried, not just for Sarah Everard, but for every woman who never made it home. For every woman who died feeling afraid. 

This is what women do when we hear stories like this. We imagine ourselves in her place, we can almost see the shadow creeping up behind us, the sound of footsteps. 

Oprah’s advice to never allow them take you to a second location echoing in our ears– there’s no way back from that, she said – and isn’t there some sort of trick with our iPhones to sound an alarm, what was that again? 

The abject terror cut through with a devastating sense of inevitability for on some level, we had been expecting this. 

Police officers form a line as people gather in Clapham Common, London, after the Reclaim These Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was officially cancelled. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Police officers form a line as people gather in Clapham Common, London, after the Reclaim These Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was officially cancelled. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

What else have you been training us for? Have your keys between your fingers, don’t walk alone at night, tuck your ponytail into your coat, leave one ear bud out, wear sensible shoes if you need to run. 

That’s what we’re teaching our girls – be ready to run. But what we’re really teaching them is this – be ready to die.

Women took to social media this week sharing their stories; the near-misses and the times they weren’t so ‘lucky, the assault, the rape, the violence. 

It’s almost like a bonding experience at this stage, how we show each other our scars. This is what it means to be a woman, I guess. 

I remember nights on the subway to Brooklyn, men sitting next to me or opposite me, trying to make conversation, the mood souring quickly when they see I’m not interested. 

I have a boyfriend, I try weakly because sometimes that works, you’re safe when they see you as another man’s property, but sometimes it doesn’t. 

“I’m only trying to be friendly, you fucking bitch, you stuck up whore, you stupid c**t,” and I don’t say anything, I am completely silent, because I don’t want the situation to escalate.

I suppose the truth is I don’t want to die. 

People view floral tributes left at the band stand in Clapham Common, London, after clashes between police and crowds who gathered on at the common on Saturday night to remember Sarah Everard. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
People view floral tributes left at the band stand in Clapham Common, London, after clashes between police and crowds who gathered on at the common on Saturday night to remember Sarah Everard. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

I said to my boyfriend this week, I’m glad I don’t live in a city anymore, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that now, and then I remembered I was assaulted in my hometown, that this is where I first learnt how to dissociate when someone touched me without my consent, the place where I first began to see my body as the battleground upon which the wars would be fought.

 Where are we safe then? Where? Sarah Everard did everything she was supposed to – she phoned her boyfriend as she walked home, she left her friend’s house at a reasonable hour, she wore the goddamn sensible shoes. 

She was as close to that harmful stereotype of the ‘Perfect Victim’ as you could get. (This includes being white. Women of colour rarely see such a public outpouring of emotion when they are abducted.) 

And still, still, there were people on the internet trying to blame her, ‘just asking questions’ about why she was out by herself, didn’t she know better? As if women aren’t buried with the weight of things that we know. 

The speed at which the conversation descended into a mess of victim blaming and #NotAllMen backlash was wearying in its predictability. 

Yes, we know that statistically we’re more likely to be attacked or assaulted within our own homes and by people we know (is that supposed to bring us comfort? Again, where are we safe?). 

A woman holds a candle at the band stand in Clapham Common, London, after the Reclaim These Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was officially cancelled. 
A woman holds a candle at the band stand in Clapham Common, London, after the Reclaim These Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was officially cancelled. 

You tell us to get taxis but what if we can’t afford them? Our male peers get paid more than we do for the same job, should they pay for our taxis? And what about the stories of women who have been assaulted by taxi drivers? Where are we safe? Women have made our lives smaller and smaller in order to protect ourselves and it isn’t working.

 I am tired of this being framed as a ‘woman’s issue’. We are not raping and murdering ourselves. 98% of the preparators of these crimes are male. 

By refusing to acknowledge that reality, we are unable to move forward. We are constantly centring male egos in this conversation, rushing to reassure those listening that we know most men are good, most men would never do such a thing.

“I love my dad! I love my boyfriend! I’m not a man-hater, I swear!” 

And yet one in four Irish women will experience sexual violence. The UN estimates that one in three women globally will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. 

If 98% of the people doing the raping or beating are men, why are we not addressing that? Why are we still raising our boys to believe that the only appropriate emotion they can express is anger? A girl limps home from a party, bleeding, a 2cm laceration in her vagina wall, and hey, it’s just banter, right? Lads, lads, lads. Boys will be boys. 

But the problem is, those boys become men who hurt people. And until we speak that truth aloud and do something about it, nothing will change.

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