It wasn’t the first time a man had harassed me, nor was it the worst, but – for some reason – it’s the one which has stuck with me. It was four years ago, on a beautifully hot July day. I was on my way to my Mum’s house, with nothing on my mind other than whether I might find an ice cream van on the way. On the main road that runs alongside the park, a man yelled something obscene at me from his car. I didn’t feel unsafe. It was sunny, it was the afternoon, he was driving the opposite way on the other side of the road, and I’d walked on these streets a million times. But then he did a u-turn and followed me as I turned onto a quieter residential street. He stopped, and got out of the car. I don’t really know how it happened, but I found myself with my back against someone’s front-garden wall, and a strange, angry man in my face. He berated me for ignoring him, called me the usual names, and said I shouldn’t have been wearing those shorts if I didn’t want attention.
And after he drove off (I can’t remember why. Did I kick up a fuss, and frighten him off? Or did I keep schtum, and wait until he got bored?), I found myself obsessing about those shorts. I mean, they were short. It was summer and nearly 30C, but I also wore them because they made me feel sexy. I liked how I looked in them. And sure, I should – any woman should – be able to wear what I like without being harassed, or worse. But the world is what it is, I thought. It was sunny, it was the afternoon – the only thing I did wrong was wear those shorts. If I hadn’t worn them, maybe I’d have made it to my Mum’s undisturbed. I turned the matter round in my head, over and over, until I reached her house.
Those shorts have languished in the back of my wardrobe ever since. But I don’t want to throw them away either. Somehow, it would feel like a concession.
I found myself thinking about that man in the car again, and those sidelined shorts, when it was announced recently that Sainsbury’s had pulled one of its clothing adverts. In the ad, a woman stands in a park wearing a (frankly hideous) dress, with a burgundy jacket casually slung over her shoulder. “For walks in the park,” reads the accompanying text, “or strolls after dark.” Some Twitter users criticised the ad for being insensitive to women’s experiences of walking around at night. “Yeah no not happening,” said one woman. “I’ve skipped my last train home and made my husband pick me up cos Trainline had me walking a mile in the dark on my todd from one station to another. Let alone strolling in a park in the dark!!” Another scoffed: “Was the ad written by predators?”
Others were even less inclined to pull their punches. “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA”, wrote Nathalie Gordon. “THEY THINK WE STROLL IN THE DARK HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA”. She added: “If you’re a person who likes walking/strolling at night and feel safe doing so, I’m genuinely happy for you. But please don’t have a go at people who don’t feel the same.” In a further tweet, Gordon said: “There are a lot of well documented studies, reports and research that have been done around the safety of women. If you feel like they do not represent your lived experience, then you are lucky.”
Sainsbury’s yanked the advert in short order, and released an apologetic statement. In many ways, this is just an archetypical 2020s microevent: brand does something, people online get angry, brand backs down. But there was something about that online response – the furious disbelief that anyone could think that a woman would walk outside after dark – that got my attention.
It’s certainly true that women widely report feeling unsafe when walking around after dark. According to polling from the Office of National Statistics, about half of British women say they feel very or fairly unsafe when doing so alone – a figure that jumps to 81% when walking in a park or other open space. People who experienced harassment in the past 12 months were more likely to report feeling unsafe, and according to data from YouGov, women felt less safe walking home alone at night in 2021 than they did in 2018.
High profile murder cases like those of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and Zara Aleena (three young women killed by men they didn’t know, at night) have contributed to a deepening sense of threat and anxiety. And while such murders are comparatively rare, sexual harassment and violence isn’t: 97% of women in the UK aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, and a fifth of women have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16. Indeed, when you think of the ubiquity of the archetype of the young, murdered woman – from news stories to police procedurals, pop culture to true crime podcasts – it’s understandable to have a heightened feeling of risk even if you haven’t experienced harassment or violence yourself.
I honestly don’t give a monkeys how a supermarket chooses to market an ugly garment. But the backlash, and its suggestion that it’s ridiculous or even insulting to suggest that women do, in fact, go for strolls after dark, is self-evidently false. Women aren’t reverse-vampires, scuttling indoors when the sun sinks below the horizon. There isn’t a single universal threshold for safety, but how many women bolt themselves inside their homes by 5pm in January? It’s not reckless, or unreasonable, to be outside at night. The bartender on her way home after a shift, the office-cleaner clocking on, the girl leaving a party – women walk alone at night for all sorts of reasons, from economic to social necessity, and often do so while feeling anxious.
Though fear of misogynist violence stops us from living our lives as we wish, it doesn’t stop us living. This flimsy universalism (“HA HA HA THEY THINK WE STROLL IN THE DARK”) melts under the faintest scrutiny. You literally just have to reflect on your own activities, or look out of the window, to realise that women do all kinds of things which fail the unreasonably high standards of the internet’s risk test. We go out, we get drunk, we get into cabs, we walk through parks, we go home with men we don’t know, we move in with ones we do. And though you might not know it from Twitter, not every woman is urban, middle class, online and afraid. How I feel about walking through a dark park living in London, and how a friend living in a sleepy rural idyll perceives it, are wildly different.
We know, by now, that harassment, abuse, or violence against women is never the victim’s fault. But we make certain accommodations with misogyny, to make us feel safer: walk the longer route instead of the unlit cut-through, invent a male partner to discourage someone’s unwanted attention. These tactics are defined by their inadequacy; we tell ourselves we’re less likely to be harmed in the daytime, only to be groped on the morning commute. We tell ourselves if we leave those shorts at the back of the cupboard, no one will harass us under the bright July sun. Though we insist that they reduce the likelihood of being harmed, the relentless focus on the danger of strangers in public space helps sustain another rape myth. It is men known to us, often within our own homes, who statistically pose the greatest threat to women.