Everard: The Tragedy of Needing a Perfect Victim
“Boys will be boys.”
“She was asking for it.”
“It’s a compliment.”
These phrases echo in my head as I read through Sarah Everard’s story, eating my dinner. I lose my appetite about halfway through the article. There’s a photo of Everard, grinning brightly into the camera, clutching a medal in her left hand. In her bright red windbreaker, she looks like the perfect image of happiness. Had I passed by her a month ago, I would have never guessed that, walking home late at night in South London, she would be kidnapped and murdered. Two paragraphs below, I see an image of Wayne Couzens, the alleged kidnapper and murderer, smiling just as brightly. In his army fatigues, Couzens looks every bit the policeman he is—trustworthy, respectable—nothing like the stereotypical criminal. If I had walked by him on the streets, I would never have feared for my life.
In the wake of Everard’s death, many commented on how she did everything “right”: she wore bright clothes, walked in a public area, and told her friends where she was. Others raged about how a policeman, meant to protect women from criminals, performed the crime. While the severity of the situation drew much attention to the many injustices women face in society, I wonder if we have, once again, placed too much emphasis on the appearances of those involved. Had she worn more revealing clothes, had she worked a less respectable career, had she been a different color of skin, would her case elicit any less of a public outcry? Worryingly, yes. In truth, we, as a society, adore the extremes.
We only grow angry when the “perfect victim” has suffered. She must be a saint; she must have done everything absolutely right. Yet even if she had walked stark naked down that street, Everard still should not have been raped. We have normalized the fact that women are in a constant fear of being in danger, and have made it their responsibility to develop precautions against any number of hypothetical attacks. Worse, we determine how deserving a victim is of pity based on her appearances and adherence to precautions. Research by the University of Washington revealed that “conventionally attractive” women are more likely to be believed. In other words, the woman’s appearance is more important than the man’s actions.
We pay attention when the perpetrator’s crime is outrageous. Couzens’s egregious actions on March 3 are only the tip of the iceberg. Three days before Couzens murdered Everard, he exposed himself in front of a woman at a fast food restaurant. No investigation was opened despite a formal complaint. He continued to work as normal until he abducted Everard. Why must we wait until there is a death before we decide enough violence is enough is enough? Sexual harassment covers a large continuum of worrying behavior, ranging from sexist jokes to catcalling to rape. However, of the women who have experienced sexual assault, 95 percent say they do not report such incidents. Oftentimes, the fact that only outright violence calls for public outrage discourages many women from speaking out against “lesser crimes” in fear of being deemed as oversensitive. Moreover, similar to how serial killers often torture animals before moving on to humans, sex offenders like Couzens usually begin with less drastic crimes to test the boundaries. The public’s negligence and its dismissal of these smaller actions makes perpetrators feel more comfortable with continuously increasing the severity of their actions with little fear of backlash.
Likewise, the emergence of a “not all men” narrative, a rebuttal against the allegations that all men are violent rapists, also serves as a means of dismissing the severity of sexual violence that women experience. Of course, not all men rape nor sexually assault—I doubt any true feminist has stated that. Like “all lives matter,” the #notallmen argument is frustrating to argue against because the term is factually true. However, the term attracts confused supporters into a honey trap of circular logic, redirecting a constructive discussion on sexism and rape culture to an unrelated fact. Supporters of the cause refuse to focus on the fact that men raping women is a highly prevalent and problematic issue in society; rather, they emphasize that no blame should be placed on men. Yet an advancement of female rights is by no means a restriction to male rights.
Sarah Everard’s story has been a saddening but unsurprising turn of events for many women. The public praise her for doing everything she could, and conversely shame other women for not doing so. In the process, we have dismissed so many experiences based on the appearances of both the victim and the perpetrator. A woman should be taken seriously regardless of her appearance; a woman should be supported regardless of the precautions she had taken. A man’s actions should not be dismissed simply because it was “not that serious.” On a larger scale, any significant change demands a culture shift: instead of focusing on teaching women to protect themselves, we must focus on how to educate members of our community, particularly men; rather than blame the victim, we must prevent the crime; instead of teachings girls on how not get raped, we must teach boys not to rape.