The keychain was made of glitter resin and looked like something I would have owned in the ’90s: a sparkly cat face with big eyes and stumpy whiskers. Cute, I thought. Then its owner, a woman I met while volunteering, showed me how the sharp edges of the cat’s ears doubled as a self-defense weapon.
“Kitty claws,” she offered in a peppy, friendly voice, before miming how she’d stab an attacker, no hesitation.
Since I was a teenager, my attempts to stay safe have looked like that cat keychain—sweet, creative, maybe a little frivolous.
Pre-pandemic, when I would say goodbye to my friends after a night out, we’d hug and demand a text once everyone got home. We punctuate those messages with dozens of heart emojis. What we really mean beneath it all: Thank god you’re OK.
We buy shirts blazed with phrases like “BEAT IT, CREEP” or “DEAD MAN CAN’T CATCALL.” (Popular feminism has caught on to our self-preservation tactics.)
Sarah Everard was used to the banalities of walking home at night. The 33-year-old London woman reportedly called her boyfriend while walking home from a friend’s house last weekend. Grainy CCTV footage shows Everard with a phone to her ear, wearing bright clothes on a well-lit street in a busy neighborhood. It wasn’t even that late: 9:30 pm.
Tragically, a number of precautions were not enough to protect her. British police confirmed on Friday that Everard’s body had been discovered around 50 miles from where she was last seen. A 48-year-old Metropolitan Police officer named Wayne Couzens was arrested in connection with her murder.
According to the BBC, the man is being questioned on suspicion of a “separate allegation of indecent exposure.” A woman in her thirties was also arrested and then released on bail; police say she might be an accomplice.
The case has spurred thousands of British women to share their experiences with street harassment online. As the Wall Street Journal reported, this week a United Nations study found that “70 percent of women and girls in the UK had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.” Of women between the ages of 18 and 24, only 3 percent said they “hadn’t experienced any sexual harassment.”
And it starts much younger than 18. In early high school, I discovered that nothing made me feel better than going on runs in a remote cornfield a few miles away from my high school. One day, a teacher pulled me aside to say that I was suddenly forbidden from exercising there. There were multiple instances of a man exposing himself to female runners, the teacher said.
I spent the rest of the school year jogging on an inside track, staring out of gym windows and dreaming of the fresh air.
Years later, on a crisp day last November, I went for a run in my local park. For some reason—perhaps it was the sun, or my disco playlist—I felt really good. So despite my better judgement, I veered off the main road and onto a more isolated trail. Seconds later, I realized a man had followed.
He never passed me, but was right on my heels—so close I could hear his panting over the sound of my headphones. I checked the clock; 4 p.m. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I haven’t gone for a run at the same time ever since.
So the Everard case is depressingly familiar. It’s an extreme, devastating example of what women face every day. And even if we’re not harassed outside, then we’re still always prepared for it.
As Caitlin Moran, the British author and columnist, tweeted: “Being a woman: my ‘outside’ day finishes at sundown. If I haven't taken the dog for a walk/jogged by then, I can’t. In the winter, it often means the choice between exercise and work. Today, I had to stop work at 4 to exercise. My husband worked until 6, and is now off for a run.”
Game of Thrones actress Nathalie Emmanuel wrote, “I have written and deleted so many tweets about Sarah Everard. I am just so angry... I am angry her full beautiful life was snatched away from her... I am angry because there are many who have blamed her... and I am angry we know her name because of the violence of a man. AGAIN!”
Again. Everard’s murder stings for so many reasons. Mainly: a bright and happy young woman is dead. By all accounts, she tried so desperately to not become a victim. Our hearts should break that it was her responsibility to stay safe.
This tragedy has exposed the lengths women go to defend themselves. But really, what adult isn’t already aware of that reality? Who hasn’t seen a woman cross the street, or duck into a store, or speed up a little to get someone off their backs? We are acutely aware of the danger. We try anything to deflect predators, no matter how inconvenient.
So once again, women want—no, need—men to understand how much we are tired of being liable for the way we are treated. Sarah Everard put up many safeguards, but her killer only needed to do one thing: not cause her harm. He could not even do that.
Women are tired of changing routes and paying for Ubers and looking over their shoulders. It shouldn’t be on us to escape violence. But it is, and it’s exhausting. Things would feel absolutely insurmountable if women weren’t already such pros at looking out for each other.
I met one of my best friends during our first semester of college. At the time I didn’t know her boyfriend, who went to a different university. But I’d text him every night we went out, to let him know she had returned from a party, and was once again securely passed out on her dorm room bed.
This week, I bought that friend the self-defense cat keychain. We don’t live in the same city anymore, but I hope it might help her. And on the nights I know she goes out, I still make sure she lets me know once she’s returned home.