IWD: The right to walk alone without fear – what I and other men need to be doing

12 March 2021

In November 2020, Kingsley Napley organised a firm wide two week “step challenge”, tasking members of the firm to see how many steps they could do over that period.  A bit of healthy competition, an opportunity to get away from our desks or dining tables, and a charitable donation by the firm if over 4 million steps were walked, jogged or ran by the end of it. 

I took part in the event and threw myself into it, walking over 370,000 steps.  Due to a busy caseload, those steps were predominantly done on weekends and weekday evenings, across familiar and unfamiliar parts of north London.  All of my weekday evening walks were done in the dark, on my own, often for 2 or 3 hours at a time.  I frequently walked with headphones in, listening to music or a podcast, switching off from the day’s work and not 100% attune to my surroundings.  The streets were usually empty, with shops, restaurants, pubs and bars closed due to the pandemic. 

Looking back, I don’t remember questioning my safety at any point.  And to be honest, I certainly didn’t recognise that it was actually a privilege to be able to walk at night alone without fear.

Following the tragic events of this week, I have thought back to those two weeks and considered how my position might have been different if I was a woman.  I now recognise just how incredibly ‘normal’ it has become for women to be warned against walking alone at night, which is something I have never had to consider as a man.  This dichotomy between the experiences of men and women has been made clear by the reaction across traditional and social media.  For example, a Guardian article published on 10 March 2021 stated as follows:

Everard’s disappearance prompted an outpouring from women deeply distressed by the story, expressing that they did not feel safe and sharing their own experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and being made to feel scared and unsafe in public spaces.  And this was often despite them having gone out of their way to avoid potentially unsafe situations, many pointed out. Examples of female hypervigilance include taking lengthy detours and sticking to well-lit streets, talking on the phone as a deterrent, clutching their keys, and wearing comfortable shoes in case they need to run.”

This dichotomy was echoed by a male friend of mine, with whom I was discussing the Guardian article.  He said something like this:

Having grown up and lived in East London, I’ve had many moments, such as walking home at night from the tube in the dark, where I’ve been approached by a stranger and I’ve felt scared.  But I’ve never once had to question whether it might be me that they want.  At worst I’ve thought that my phone and wallet might be stolen or I might be beaten up.”

Female friends and colleagues with whom I’ve spoken have all, at one point or another, had to: change their route; run; go into a shop, station or other safe indoor space; call or pretend to call someone or share their live location; cross the road (or even walk in the road to avoid dark areas); plan alternative routes; consider their shoes and outfit; tell people where they were; put keys between their fingers and consider how they might defend themselves if attacked; and let someone know they got home safely.  They all speak of having done these things as if part of ‘normal’ life.

So what does this say for me and other men?  Now is not the time for defensiveness and trotting out the old ‘not all men’ trope.  We need to recognise the substantial gender inequalities that still exist and that violence against women by men is still very much a major public issue.  We need to listen to women who share their thoughts and experiences and take those issues seriously.  We need to stand in solidarity and amplify women’s voices.  We should be doing what we can to help and acknowledge the privilege we have simply by virtue of being men.  We cannot just sit back and take note; we need to be actively engaging in conversations with other men about inequality and challenge and call out behaviour by other men when we see it.  We need to ask ourselves honestly whether we truly do those things, because we have a responsibility to do so.  We cannot simply pay lip service to these issues.

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