How safe do you feel at night? Eight female writers share their stories

Eight Eastern Daily Press reporters have spoken of their experiences of harassment after the disappearance of Sarah Everard

Eight Eastern Daily Press reporters have spoken of their experiences of harassment after the disappearance of Sarah Everard - Credit: Submitted

The news of 33-year-old Sarah Everard's disappearance has prompted women nationwide to reflect on their own experiences.

sarah everard

Sarah Everard, who disappeared in Clapham on March 3. - Credit: Metropolitan Police

Eight of our writers share their stories and if they feel safe going out in their everyday lives.

It's not just a night time problem

Jessica Long, 28 

Archant journalist Jessica Long

Jessica Long, 28, says the harassment of women is not just a problem when it is dark. - Credit: Jessica Long

After nights out in Norwich I usually forgo the long taxi queues and instead walk the 10-minute journey home, a decision I usually regret a few steps in.

As soon as I’m on my own is when the remarks and comments come from men I pass. Many ask where I am going and persist in trying to get me to come home with them, while others shout across the street and get increasingly annoyed when I ignore them and keep my head down.

My pace usually quickens the closer I get to my flat as I begin to worry if any of these men have followed me.

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But this is not just an issue at night time.

I have had men do very similar things during the day when there are dozens of people going about their daily business.

One instance has always stuck in my mind. I was walking down Surrey Street to catch the bus after work and one man made a comment about my thighs and then shouted ‘I would like to have your thighs wrapped around my neck’. Not one person said a thing.

And there is the issue, nothing is going to change unless both men and women start challenging this behaviour. I’ve had female friends argue that a man slapping your bum in a bar isn’t sexual assault and male friends make inappropriate comments about women in my company. So, please talk to your friends, family and colleagues and have open discussions about how we can make women feel safe in this society.

I’m not naive enough to be shocked anymore

Eleanor Pringle, 26

Eleanor Pringle

Eleanor Pringle - Credit: Eleanor Pringle

Having grown up in the Midlands, a large factor in why I came to Norfolk was because it felt safer. 

As a pre-teen I was asked to get into a van on my walk to school, pressed against a wall by a man my dad’s age while I popped to the corner shop.  

So yes, Norfolk seemed safer – but I don’t know if that’s because by the time I moved here I’d just grown up enough to expect it. 

Similar things have happened to me in Norwich, they simply no longer stick in my mind because I’m not naive enough to be shocked anymore.  

For the past few days women have been sharing the methods they use to reassure themselves they could fight back if the worst happened. That they would be found.  

And the worst does happen. Here. In London. Everywhere.  

Men can make some adjustments in their behaviour: cross the road if you’re behind a woman on an empty street, phone a mate so we can work out if you’re sober or on your way somewhere. Before you sit down on those (very cosy) bus seats, ask if it’s okay.  

It’s not going to cost you, it’s not going to waste your time.  

And if you have to ask why just switch on the news.  

We’ve been raised to be afraid, and we've learnt why

Lauren Cope, 28

Lauren Cope, staff byline picture. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Lauren Cope - Credit: Archant

I’ve always felt pretty safe in Norwich, a city that, after 11 years, is home.

But this week has made me, like many women, recall moments I’d dismissed as standard. Unremarkable. 

Being groped in the city’s bars. Walking home at night, followed by a driver who then sat in his car outside my house. Who drove up and down the street, stopping outside my house each time. The man who said he’d rape me when I told him I wasn’t interested. 

You’ve probably heard countless stories like these this week.

But, to our male readers, if this is still shocking, there’s something we’d like you to do. Ask a female friend, or sister, or daughter for their stories. They will have them.

And once you’ve heard, carry that awareness with you. Call out other men’s inappropriate behaviour, however uncomfortable you may feel. 

Because what lingers is the fear. Screenshotting taxi bookings to send to a friend. Power walking to your car in the dark. Holding onto keys tightly.

It doesn’t matter where we live, really, or how crime statistics change.

We’ve been raised to be afraid, and we've learnt why. 

I’ve had men grab me, follow me and cat-call me

Sarah Burgess, 24

sarah burgess

Sarah Burgess - Credit: Submitted

I’ve always felt unsafe walking at night, but until now thought that was just a “me” thing. Now, I can see all women feel some level of fear in those circumstances, even if we don’t admit it.

Thankfully, I’ve never been sexually assaulted by anyone while out by myself after dark, but I’ve certainly been very uncomfortable.

I’ve had men grab me, follow me, cat-call me, give suggestive looks or say something derogatory. They may think what they’re doing is fairly innocuous (such as winding down a car window to say hello and ask me how I am, or tell me my dress looks nice), but even that makes me deeply nervous.

Generally, whenever I’m by myself at night, I walk quickly and sometimes break into a run when I’m nearly home. I maintain vigilance by making sure my phone is tucked away in my bag.

When I get in a taxi I always call someone up to let them know what the company and my ETA is, and I imagine most women do the exact same thing.

I'm only 23 and have experienced harassment hundreds of times already

Abigail Nicholson, 23

Abigail Nicholson

Abigail Nicholson - Credit: Abigail Nicholson

It's hard to feel safe when you have been brought up hearing the same set of rules, “it’s not safe to walk home alone at night, it’s not safe to wear your earphones, it’s not safe to wear that.”

But isn’t it bizarre how it’s always women having to adapt their lives to stop something that quite frankly, is not our fault?

For me, sending my location to friends and locking the doors of my car as soon as I get inside is second nature, as it will be too many other women.

I’m only 23 and have experienced harassment hundreds of times already, from men telling me ‘what they would do if they were younger’ and being groped in a bar while dancing with friends to being sexually assaulted when I was 15 by a man I thought I could trust.

Women have fought tooth and nail for so long to gain the right to vote, drive cars and even start careers in specific sectors, why should we have to give up being able to walk in public areas?

I know that it is not all men, but how can women judge the character of somebody they don’t know just by the way that they walk? It’s impossible.

Women have always lived in fear

Liz Coates, 51

Liz Coates

Liz Coates - Credit: Liz Coates

Growing up in Gorleston and playing along the old railway line I was always warned about "naughty men" who in my mind would be dishevelled and old probably with a few teeth missing wearing a battered tweed coat.

Experienced revealed this was not the case.

At around the age of seven, me and my little friend would visit her next-door neighbour who had an aviary. He was an old man with a wife in the front room who we never saw.

He would show us his birds, and one day she went around on her own and he showed her a lot more and wanted her to touch him.

The police came to interview me and I wasn't sure what they were getting it, only that my answers were in some way disappointing.

At around 16 I had a Saturday job in Norwich at Richards (around where Primark now is). 

I used to get the bus from Yarmouth but this one day I lost my return ticket and the driver wouldn't let me on and I had no cash.

I went to the phone boxes at the end of Surrey Street to call the shop and a man opened the door and said his mate was going my way and I could have a lift. I politely refused but he bundled his way in and tried to pull me out. There was a tussle and I screamed and became very upset. Somehow I managed to get the train home, but remember feeling wary and vulnerable for some time.

I never told my mum in case she made me give up the job.

At around the same time walking with a friend a man who was drunk tried to grab her and I had to fight him off and he went away. At the time we thought it was funny.

Later Interrailing in Spain I was groped in a sleeping bag on an overnight train and didn't think too much of it.

As a student in Strasbourg it was totally accepted that men would perform sex acts on themselves in the street. We would just look away.

Now I live in a small Norfolk village but would still feel uncomfortable walking down an unlit passage - it's a fear women live with from the day they are allowed out on their own.

I have two teenage daughters and the older one certainly has told of feeling uneasy about the unwanted attention of men and where it could lead.

My mother who would have been in her 80s told similar stories of being followed across fields. Women have always lived in fear, even though the risks are vanishingly small and it makes their world a different place.

Safety should be a right, not a privilege

Donna-Lousie Bishop, 35 

Donna-Louise Bishop

Donna-Louise Bishop - Credit: Donna-Louise Bishop

Take it as a compliment. It’s just harmless fun. Boys will be boys. Can’t you take a joke? It’s only banter. Stop being so mardy. Lighten up. Give us a smile. And while you’re at it, give us a flash too. 

These are just some of the many comments that I, and my female friends, have endured on a night out in Norwich. And unfortunately, it is not an issue singular to this city. It is a pandemic that women and, shockingly, girls across the country face on a regular basis, 24-hours a day. 

We’re advised to walk in pairs, cover-up, hold a key in-between our fingers, call our friends to let them know we’ve arrived home safely. But when will this flawed system finally be challenged? When will there be tougher action on this kind of behaviour, rather than passing blame on the victim for what she did, or did not do?  

Being safe is a right that every woman should be entitled to. But until I live in a world where that is possible, my finger will remain firmly on the unlock button of my keys as I walk towards my car at night, or when I’m alone. 

I kept praying that my dad would soon turn up

Emily Thomson, 23

Emily Thomson

Emily Thomson - Credit: Emily Thomson

Like most women I know and love, I have been groped, leered at, catcalled and even followed while I was out on a run.  

But it wasn’t until a few months before I moved away to university; I was waiting outside of my doctor’s surgery – which faces the back of a pub – when a man approached me as I sat on a wall.  

As he continued to speak to me (and I ignored him), he moved closer and closer until he was sat right next to me and put his hand on my leg, touching my bare skin through the rips in my jeans. I froze in panic. 

I kept praying that my dad would soon turn up and eventually he did, and the man quickly walked away. 

As I broke down in tears and told my dad what had happened, he asked, ‘why didn’t you move?' and ‘you need to be stronger than that if you’re moving away to university’. 

The following day my parents brought me a rape alarm and from then on, I was petrified at the thought of moving away, because I thought it was inevitable that I was going to be assaulted...

My parents were only trying to protect me, but now, as an older woman, I believe the emphasis needs to be on men - on changing their behaviour. And not convincing young girls that this could happen if they are not careful.