Content warning: discussion of sexual violence and violence against women and girls.
Image: Himanshu Singh Gurjar
What happened to Sarah Everard is quite clearly horrific. But I am also kind of frustrated by our collective reaction to this case of femicide specifically. Not because it does not warrant public outrage or because her family and friends do not deserve our sympathies or deepest condolences. In truth, I regret having to use this case as an example at all. But in discussing sexual harassment and assault, we often speak about the perfect victim.
Sarah Everard was conservatively, even luminously, dressed, in a monogamous heterosexual relationship; white, sober, young, fit, healthy, pretty, a Durham University graduate working in marketing. One of the photos which circulated of her is described as a “professional LinkedIn photo… wearing a sleek grey jumper”. Stereotypically 'British' sounding and looking. Though it was definitely dark out, it wasn’t even that late, only 9.30pm. She was on the phone with her partner at the time of her abduction. He is also a marketing director. She is described by her friends and loved ones as “popular, beautiful, strong and incredibly kind”.
By and large, Sarah is the perfect victim because there is not one spot on her record. Not one thing that even our deep-seated prejudices ingrained into us at a societal level would lead us to believe she was irresponsible or erratic. The only thing she did ‘wrong’ was walk home on the evening of March 3rd 2021, and many have indeed taken to criticising her on that. Ideally, she would have been abducted in broad daylight. Then we would not have a singular reason to blame her for the terrible pain that was inflicted upon her on the leadup to and including her death. Because had she taken the bus or a tube, we would criticise that decision. Had she taken an Uber, we would, once again, be having the same conversation.
I am not so naive as to not recognise why her story resonates with so many of the people in my circles. Most of my friends are also white, pretty, young women who go for runs every now and again, or at least think about going on runs. I have a lot of friends at Durham. Family members and friends of mine live in Clapham. Lots of people living in Clapham probably work in marketing. Lots of those people may do the same job as their partner, my parents met at work, for example. Her life was normal in that it was comfortable, like so many of our lives are, and it was stopped short, violently and brutally, for no reason at all.
But sometimes victims are drunk. Sometimes they wear short skirts and high heels. Sometimes they’re wearing headphones on their walks. Sometimes they forget their phone at home, or go on a Tinder date, or travel the world on their own. These victims we judge indescribably harshly because, knowing their vulnerable position as women, they should know better. Knowing their vulnerable position as women, it is not reasonable for them to have taken these risks. Knowing the threat of men outside looms, they should drink less, cover up, remember their phone, not download a dating app, and stay home. But what happens when they are being harassed via text message or raped at home by their uncle? Can they forget their phone and leave home then?
Our bias and prejudice is also structural. Sometimes victims didn’t go to university. Sometimes they work at McDonald’s. Sometimes they’re Black or Brown. Sometimes they’re East Asian or Latinx. Sometimes they’re Muslim. Sometimes they’re trans. Sometimes they’re immigrants, or sex workers, or both. In these cases, grounded in prejudicial stereotypes, there is often a collective expectation of dysfunctionality, such as drug usage, immoral behaviour and violence, used to diminish the severity of the crime by partially, if not entirely, implicating victims and survivors as much as if not instead of perpetrators. Of course that Muslim woman was murdered by her Muslim husband. Of course the sex worker was raped and killed. Of course a trans woman was assaulted.
The fact of the matter is that more often than not, victims of gender-motivated harassment or violence are not as palatable as Sarah Everard.
Though it’s hard to believe, Suzy Lamplugh was even more perfect. A real estate agent working in 1986 booming London, Suzy was “a colleague, friend, daughter, and a sister”. She liked going on skiing holidays and being with her family. On the day of her disappearance, she was going about her normal day, leaving for her normal lunch break before meeting a certain Mr. Kipper for a normal house viewing. “She was attractive, female, young and middle class. It would have been very different if she hadn’t been good-looking or had come from a tenement somewhere, from a disrupted, dysfunctional background. It’s Midsomer Murders.”
For the sake of giving her parents closure, her case was reopened in 1999 and is the subject of a new Sky News Documentary.
It’s like the fact that Madeleine McCann is a household name and Shannon Matthews isn’t. Two documentary series have been aired on the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. She was on holiday in an upmarket resort popular amongst the British middle class. Daughter of two white doctors from Leicester. Shannon Matthews disappeared on her way home from swimming without a trace. She was from Dewsbury, in West Yorkshire, born one of 7 of her mother’s children to 5 different men. Though she was eventually found under questionable circumstances, her case was used as an example of a negligent working class and a political prop to support austerity cuts.
I am thoroughly rattled by what happened to Sarah Everard. My mum doesn’t want me going on my daily walks around the common any later than 5pm. She will send my brother with me for safety. I am worried about my friends and family members in Clapham frequenting the same streets and paths from which Sarah was abducted. I am worried about my 13-year-old sister navigating this world at all. My trust in the police is at a record low. But I challenge us all to think about people who aren’t “people like us” sometimes. I challenge us all to concern ourselves, too, with the disappearance and death of Blessing Olusegun.
Blessing Olusegun was a 21-year-old business and finance student from Eltham, London, who died on September 18th 2020. It was whilst in East Sussex during her one-week placement in an elderly care home that her body was found lying on a beach. Not dissimilar to Ms Everard, Ms Olusegun was speaking on the phone to her boyfriend and told him to stay on the line before the call ended. Sussex Police claimed there was no evidence of a crime and were described to have acted perfunctorily; no search was conducted at the beach where Blessing was found, no forensic analysis of Blessing’s clothing or belongings was carried out, no fingerprints were taken, no suspicious individuals identified. The coroner’s report cited drowning as the cause of death, but Blessing’s body was not found in the water. Blessing’s family were refused a private autopsy. Throughout the investigation, police officers reportedly called Blessing’s mother by her deceased daughter’s name and mocked her accent. Blessing’s name was only ever mentioned in local publications and did not peak interest until very recently, when the Sussex Police were pressured by the public to reopen the case. Even now, it remains unreported in most major publications and media platforms. Blessing’s body was laid to rest in Nigeria in November.
Blessing’s sudden death and our lack of concern for her are a product of the misogyny, classism and racism that exist within institutions, like Sussex Police and the media, and amongst individuals, like the investigators, reporters and us - the general public. If we want to address what happened to Sarah Everard, we must also address what happened to Blessing Olusegun, and hundreds of other women. Victims whose murderers are not immediately found and whose stories do not make the front page of The Times 7 days running. These cases are not isolated and should not be treated as such.
Rest in peace and in power Blessing Olusegun, Sarah Everard, and all the women whose names we don’t remember.
Jones, Owen. 2016. Chavs.
Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor