If you live in the UK you can't have escaped hearing about the death of Sarah Everard, who went missing in London on 3rd March. After leaving a friend's house, Sarah failed to make it home. An intensive police investigation followed, but a week later her body was discovered in a Kent woodland. A Metropolitan Police officer is charged with her murder. At the time of writing, the full details of what happened to Sarah and why aren't clear, but the outpouring of public outrage has been palpable.
The problem isn't that Sarah was out walking on her own in the dark, the problem is that her assailant saw her as a target and attacked her. Although a crime of this magnitude is extremely rare, an atmosphere of threat is a pervasive fact of life for women everywhere.
The tragic circumstances of this case have become a catalyst to spur hundreds of women to share their own experiences of fear, harassment and assault when out on their own. And it has forced many of us who may previously have felt confident alone to question our security. At a time when group activities have been restricted during the pandemic, this question has never been more important.
Questions about safety will not stop me from going out into the countryside, but they do add a dimension to the outdoor experience that most men never have to give a second thought to.
It is not just on city streets that these concerns can arise, but out in the countryside too. So this is a problem not only for society at large, but one for the outdoor community. It is a problem that we will only fix collaboratively.
During lockdown, with club and group activities on hold, and climbing largely out of reach, many of us have found ourselves running or walking alone more often than we might usually. I certainly run on my own most of the time, and during the winter months much of this was in darkness. Sarah's death and the discussion it sparked have prompted female runners, walkers and climbers to ask ourselves how safe we are. I carried out a snap survey on social media to ask "How do you feel when running/walking/climbing/biking outdoors? Safe or some concerns?" I was inundated with replies.
Some of the responses were really quite shocking, and the level of fear felt by some women running alone was very troubling:
"Like someone is behind me. Like I can't stop. I always look behind! I imagine hands on my shoulders pulling down"
"I've not been out for a run in over a week since my running partner (male) injured himself. Considered it many times but decided against. I don't feel safe alone even on the beautiful moor"
"I am a runner and have always felt somewhat wary due to male attention and cat callers but I feel even more unsafe at the moment as women are speaking out so loudly about their experiences and these things are still happening"
"I run at 5am in the dark with a torch and last week was the first time I've ever questioned whether I would be safe"
For many, the location is key, with some preferring the seclusion of the countryside whilst others feel safer on busier streets:
"I run alone in the dark and feel safe – The Lakes. I wouldn't in a city though"
"I always run alone, and feel fairly safe on the trails – evening runs on the outskirts of town, less so."
For some it depends on the activity; for instance a lot of women have worries about camping alone:
"I go all over on my own. Running, walking. Not worried, I've not camped out on my own though, not sure if I would like that"
"Running and walking alone usually OK (depending on location), although I've realised over the last week just how much thought I put into safety. The thought of camping alone scares me"
"Depends where I am. I wouldn't camp alone or even book a trip abroad on my own"
"Some places feel off limits to me – I would never stay in a bothy or a bunkhouse by myself"
"I don't know if I'd camp by myself overnight. But otherwise I will do anything else on my own. And in the dark. I will do whatever the F I want to do, I refuse to be scared"
And it's not just when running or walking that concerns arise, as this response from a female climber makes clear:
"I've spent a lot of time in the mountains either by myself or climbing with strangers. I have always had to consider the risk from climbing partners, and it's become just another thing to plan into the day: will that slope avalanche as we try to cross it, and how likely is my partner to try to attack me? Does someone know which route we're doing in case of a climbing accident, and does my best friend have enough details about the man I'm climbing with that the police could identify him if I disappeared?"
"Measures I've taken to protect my own safety include photographing number plates before getting into a new climbing partner's car. I feel safer climbing with strangers in the Alps because they need me alive for them to get back across the glacier without falling in a crevasse."
Others report feeling safe and comfortable whilst out alone, although I received fewer such responses:
Women should never feel responsible for making sure a man doesn't attack them. The advice should never be don't walk alone, don't run at night, don't wear headphones, don't wear shorts, carry a weapon
"I feel safe and often run late on my own, as I did last night. It's never occurred to me to let a few awful people out there change my behaviour"
"Perfectly safe. I run where I like, when I like and I don't see why I shouldn't"
Personally, and thankfully, I have rarely felt seriously threatened whilst out running, and feel confident in plotting routes and heading out with a map. I frequently visit relatively remote areas, on lesser-trodden footpaths in unfamiliar countryside. Arguably I feel safer out in the countryside than I do whilst running through urban streets. In the hills the people you meet are generally like-minded runners, hikers or climbers. Out here it feels as if opportunistic attacks would be less likely, since you just don't encounter people or vehicles with the same frequency as in towns and cities. How many would-be attackers would hike up a mountain on the off-chance they might stumble upon a lone female, in preference to lurking down a city centre alley?
As travel restrictions ease over the coming months, I will be packing up my campervan and heading out at any given opportunity to run and hike in the hills. I live alone, so many of these trips will be just me and my dog. I won't lie, this does feel quite daunting. Holidaying alone is a new experience. At the moment I feel that it's going to be a wonderful adventure, but one that's mixed with an experiment in personal resilience and bravery. The privilege of being in a van is that at least I can lock the doors at night. I would feel a lot more vulnerable lying under canvas.
But there are things that as a lone female out in the mountains I think about whilst I'm running, things I sadly just take for granted as part and parcel of being a woman;
"Who's that man coming towards me, what is he doing?"
"If he came too close, where would I go to escape?"
"Could I outrun him?"
"Would anyone hear me if I shouted for help?"
"Is that group of male mountain bikers going to bother me?"
"Do I have phone signal out here?"
These are not the things I want to be thinking about! I want to be worrying about losing trainers in bogs, whether that cow is looking at me strangely, what that niggle in my knee is and how my map reading is going. None of these things will stop me from going out into the countryside, but they do add a dimension to the outdoor experience that most men never have to give a second thought to. It's an extra item for the mental "in case of emergency" checklist.
So what can we do to not only build confidence in females outdoors but also to make sure that it is actually safer for them out there?
Women should never feel responsible for making sure a man doesn't attack them. The advice for women should never be don't walk alone, don't run at night, don't wear headphones, don't wear shorts, carry a weapon. Likewise, advice to men shouldn't be not to go out after dark in case they have an overwhelming and uncontrollable urge to assault someone. Both would be equally ridiculous.
We know that not all men are a problem, not even most men, but enough to make it impossible for us to know which men are; enough that women have to assume that every man could pose a threat. One of the brilliant things I have seen in the conversation that has erupted over the last few days is the response from so many men expressing their disgust that such a large proportion of women feel this way, and asking what practical things they can do to be part of the solution.
What can men do to help?
Here are a few ideas for concrete action, from basic etiquette on the streets and trails, to helping nurture more positive attitudes in those around us:
- If you have children or work with young people, have conversations with them about the issues that are in the media. Talking to young people about equality, diversity and respect for each other from a young age is vital if attitudes and behaviours towards women are to change.
- Call out unacceptable behaviour. Don't be a silent bystander if you witness a friend or colleague cat-calling or honking their car horn at women; this type of thing can be really intimidating, call it out.
- If you encounter a lone female give her a friendly hello or smile, take your hood down if you are wearing one, step aside and allow plenty of room on the path so you can easily get around each other.
- Try not to startle people by appearing suddenly from behind. I always try to alert people when I am a few metres away just to make whoever is in front aware that I'm about to overtake them, so I don't give them a fright. If you're a man out running, imagine how it'd feel to a lone woman to have you suddenly run up behind her, panting and sweating. A cheery hello from a distance might help.
- Please don't make comments about what we are wearing to exercise in, it really isn't anything to do with you no matter how harmless it might seem to you.
- If you see a woman alone in the hills, don't try to stop her and give her your assistance unless she has asked for it. Would you do the same thing if you saw a man out on his own?
- If you are part of a large group of walkers or bikers, please think about how intimidating that can feel to a woman out on her own. Step to the side so that she doesn't feel blocked in by having to run or walk through the middle of you all.
- Be an ally. If a female friend tells you she feels threatened by something or someone, try not to shrug it off as nothing. If something is happening which makes her feel this way then see what you can do to help.
Above everything, the outdoors is somewhere for us all to share and enjoy. Having to curtail the activities and experiences which we love because we feel threatened by the actions of others is never OK.
For more writing by Ruth Keeley see her blog fellrunlikeagirl