What Sarah Everard’s Murder Illuminates—And Might Obscure
We must consider why this one case has attracted so much attention, to the exclusion of many others.
Updated at 9:50 a.m. on March 17, 2021.
On the evening of March 3, Sarah Everard did everything right: She went home at a reasonable hour and traveled the long way, along well-lit London streets. As she walked, she checked in with her boyfriend on the phone. Then the call abruptly cut out.
Everard never made it home that night. Her remains were recently discovered in the Kent woodlands, some 50 miles from where she was last seen alive. A police officer, Wayne Couzens, has been charged with the 33-year-old’s kidnapping and murder (and also faces separate allegations of indecent exposure three days prior). The two do not seem to have had any previous contact.
Everard’s murder has touched a nerve—protests have broken out in Britain, and her case has sparked a wider conversation about male violence, sexual harassment, street harassment, and women’s safety. This conversation is well worth having. But we shouldn’t focus too narrowly on the threat women face on the street, from strangers, to the exclusion of the even greater threat posed by the men women know.
Most, if not all, women, as well as many nonbinary people, can relate to the experience of feeling acutely unsafe while out in public. Everard’s murder moved me to tweet about one of my own, particularly vivid, experiences. Just after dusk, I left my flat and walked mere steps to wait at a well-lit tram stop, on a busy main road in Melbourne, Australia. A strange man pulled up on the side street, exited his vehicle, and proceeded to masturbate to completion while staring straight at me.* I stood there dumbfounded; the threat was unmistakable. And yet, at 21, I blamed myself. I was dressed up for a date and hence (in my young and guilt-prone mind) asking for such attention. I still feel a residual shame while writing about this incident.
Everyone deserves to live safely—even if they don’t do “everything right,” whatever that amounts to. The fact that a police officer was arrested for Everard’s murder adds an extra layer of poignancy to her case. The very people who are supposed to protect us may be a threat themselves. Police violence against women is not an anomaly. The second-most-reported complaint against police officers in the United States is for sexual misconduct. They are also disproportionately likely to commit intimate-partner violence.
We should absolutely mourn Everard’s death and protest the horrific violence that she suffered. We must also consider why this one case has attracted so much attention, to the exclusion of many others.
The problem is partly due to what the philosopher Audrey Yap has described as inadequate stories. People are most—and sometimes only—willing to accept scenarios of male violence that conform to a narrow paradigm. The public can easily understand, and be moved by, the narrative of a young, attractive, white, blond woman walking home and being abducted and murdered by an apparent stranger. People may imagine him as a monster, pathological, as “sick”—attributing to him conveniently vague yet sweeping moral maladies. (Notwithstanding the risk in so doing of perpetuating ableist stigmas against the mentally ill, who in general are no likelier to be violent than any other member of the population.)
The public can cognize Everard’s story, and therefore mourn her, and protest the violence that took her so wrongly and prematurely. However, people are often unable or unwilling to react similarly to stories that involve less prototypical or “perfect” victims, more sympathetic perpetrators, or situations that unfold in a more complicated manner. As Yap argues, when presented with a scenario, people tend to assume that all of the causal factors are present, and that the story forms a “closed system.” When they hear of a woman raped or killed not by a stranger on the street, but by her male partner, many people wonder, Why would he? and sometimes even skeptically ask, What could have driven him to it?
Even though these cases may be more difficult to grasp, they are more common. Three-quarters of rapes are committed by men known to their victims, who are disproportionately girls and women, though boys are also fairly vulnerable (as are, presumably, nonbinary people, on whom researchers unfortunately tend to have less data). Two to three women are murdered every day in the U.S., on average, by current or former intimate partners. In England and Wales, two women a week (again on average, and bearing in mind the much smaller combined population) meet the same terrible end—and gross, systemic injustice. More than 90 percent of female homicide victims knew their murderers.
While kidnapping cases involving young, white, cis, and—it must be said—photogenic female victims routinely make headlines, other cases receive relatively little media attention in America and Britain. In the U.S., Black women comprise less than 7 percent of the total population, and represent nearly 10 percent of missing-persons cases. In 2014, the FBI estimated that some 64,000 Black women were missing in America; many of these cases remain unsolved today, and investigations of missing persons involving Black victims are about four times likelier to remain open than those involving white and Latino victims (who are, regrettably, lumped together by the relevant statistics).
None of this is meant to detract from the harms and injustices faced by those victims who do receive media coverage; it is simply to encourage the media and the public to expand their concern and enlarge their focus. If people are angry about Everard’s tragic death, they should be similarly enraged about the violence faced by women of color and trans women, particularly trans women of color.
Earlier this week, the British television presenter Davina McCall tweeted, “Female abduction/murder is extremely rare. Yes we should all be vigilant when out alone. But this level of fear-mongering isn’t healthy. And men’s mental health is an issue as well. Calling all men out as dangerous is bad for our sons, brothers, partners.” This tweet received a lot of negative feedback, and for good reasons: It sympathized with precisely the wrong group of people. And although obviously not all men are committing such acts of violence, it is almost only men, and this fact surely matters. McCall’s tweet also misconstrued the issue as abduction and murder in particular, rather than harassment and violence much more broadly. It thereby labeled women’s fears of being alone in public as fearmongering, not prudence, and it misrepresented this fear as plain fear, rather than fear mixed with righteous anger—at having to take precautions and devise safety plans that few men ever have to devote so much mental energy to making. And that’s even before women are chastised for what they were wearing, or for exercising their basic freedoms to move around in the world—or, for that matter, for protesting.
But most of all, McCall’s tweet missed the fact that many of the men who attack women seem, on the face of it, to be very ordinary. And they are very much among us—they are our sons, brothers, and even partners in some instances. In Everard’s case, the alleged perpetrator owned a home in Kent; was somebody’s partner and a father; had a pet pug; and was described by his neighbor as a “family man,” a “nice, friendly bloke” who was “well spoken.” He will stand trial for Everard’s abduction and murder in October.
*Due to an editing error, this article previously misstated where a man stopped his car before threatening the author.