She Was Just Walking Home
The cause of death for far too many around the globe can be boiled down to “living while a woman.”
Like many around the world, I’ve found it difficult to move past the recent events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard. Her story is not unique. Despite this happening “across the pond,” it’s an alarmingly familiar tale. Not just in the abstract, but in an intimate way.
Sarah Everard was just walking home. And it cost her her life.
I’ve been lucky enough to never become a global news story because of the harassment and assault I’ve faced. Most women count themselves that “lucky.” But when not getting murdered is considered a win, perhaps a dramatic system overhaul is needed.
We don’t yet know many of the details surrounding the Everard case. There’s been no reporting to suggest she was sexually assaulted. However, her death has brought to the forefront the persistent fear of sexual violence many women carry with them.
I’m not given to writing personal essays inspired by the news—I tend to let cartoons and illustrations do that work for me. But this story felt different.
This is a map of my main homebase in lower Manhattan, where I have spent most of my time over the past 13 years after moving here at 18 to attend NYU. And in this area I love more than any other place in the world, I’ve been sexually assaulted at least eight times (that I can remember).
These instances are more than harassment. These are moments when a stranger tried to pull me into his car after he asked me for directions when I was walking home; when a man hid under my seat during (likely not coincidentally) the movie Battle of the Sexes and touched, smelled, and fondled my feet for nearly two hours, all while my boyfriend sat next to me completely unaware, as I was frozen with both confusion and fear over what to do; the time when a man stuck his hand up my shorts in broad daylight in front of 10 outdoor diners when I was walking past with a folded bag of laundry; when I was walking home from a friend’s house—just like Sarah Everard was—down a crowded 6th Avenue right after sundown and I saw a man notice me, turn around as I walked past, follow me in the direction from where he came, cross the street when I tried to casually get away, and then corner me in front of a church, physically threatening me unless I indulged him in a date.
I didn’t get help any one of these times. I had onlookers walk past not wanting to get involved. I’ve heard gasps and perhaps a quick “are you ok?” after it was all done. I had friends who listened and maybe laughed nervously when I told them about it, probably as I was laughing and making jokes about the experiences myself.
And yet, not a single one of these moments is a defining one in my life. I—and most women, I imagine—have not been afforded that luxury.
If I let any of these traumatic experiences permeate too deep, my entire life becomes derailed. So instead, they become stories that are told to a select few every so often (or an eventual personal essay). They become lessons I hold onto and will pass on to others. They’re simply just a handful of unpleasant memories that I’m reminded could have turned into something much more and finite if I wasn’t so damn lucky.
It’s important to acknowledge my privilege, not just my luck, as another complicating factor in digesting my feelings surrounding the murder of Sarah Everard. For as terrified, aware, and cautious I have to be on a daily basis as a woman, I have no idea what it is like for women of color, trans women, and trans women of color, in particular, who face far greater threats of violence and have access to less care and resources, and painfully receive far less empathy from a vast swath of humanity. This privilege of mine that a case like Sarah Everard’s is the one that triggers this level of fear in me is made particularly stark after the tragic murder of six Asian women this week in Georgia.
I first posted a version of these words and some of the graphics on my Instagram and Facebook a few days ago. I figured it would receive some engagement as the statistics themselves are painful if not obvious to most women. I also thought it was important to include a bit of my own experiences in the post to explain why Sarah’s story has been so hard for me to forget. I suppose I also expected some of the responses I received, thanking me or calling me brave.
What I did not expect, however, was my reaction to reading these expressions of gratitude. Maybe this is because I’ve grown into a bitter and jaded person (despite my best efforts to stave off that level of New Yorker persona), or perhaps it’s directly because of the socialization I received growing up as a woman to never feel worthy of any praise you receive, but I feel so undeserving of these kind words. Like a version of imposter syndrome.
None of these events are the worst things to ever happen to me, nor even close to the worst sexual experiences of my life. In fact, that’s kind of the point. Most are relatively innocuous in my life, all things considered. I carried on with my day after every one of these. I maybe cried about one or two one time (and I’m a definite crier), but that’s pretty much it. I think the strangest parts for me are any time anyone viscerally reacts to an experience that I’ve been forced to consider mundane in order to survive in this world, thereby snapping me out of my coping mechanism, even if temporarily.
I think this is why Law & Order: SVU has been a consistent binge of mine (I just finished my seventh full rewatch in preparation for Stabler’s return), despite the fact the show premiered before I even hit double digits. Or why I find so much comfort in listening to murder podcasts like Crime Junkie to the extent I have been a devoted Fan Club member since its inception. Fortunately for me, I cannot relate to the exact events in even most of these stories, though I do find mirrors of my own experiences more than I would like. But the reason I and many other women, in particular, keep coming back to watch and listen to the trauma of these victims and survivors, I suspect, is because we’re also able to see allies and advocates. We receive validation of our own trauma. We see the bad guys facing justice—not always, so that it’s dishonest to the reality of our world, but enough to provide a brief respite from the daunting knowledge that our experiences are not enough to provoke real change.
Sarah Everard was just walking home. She had listened to the advice those around her gave. She was being safe. She was just trying to lead a normal life of a young woman during a time that has been anything but. Unfortunately for her and all who loved her, she was the victim of something far too normal in this world.
Sarah Everard was just walking home. And she never got there.
I’ve made it home every time I’ve tried. But I’m lucky. I just hope my luck doesn’t run out.