Known to Her by Genevieve Zimantas

It’s the kind of thing people say when they want to be reassuring.

In a vast majority of cases, when a woman is attacked or murdered, it is by someone who was known to her.

It’s the kind of thing people said to me, which I said too, when Sarah Everard disappeared just a stone’s throw from my South London neighbourhood and when an off-duty police officer was charged with her disappearance, then murder.

“I know Londoners will want to know that it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets,” said Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. Meaning, attacks like the one on Sarah Everard are atypical. Meaning, it’s still mostly safe to walk home at night. Meaning you can’t stop living your life out of fear.

But also, as police were reportedly telling women in areas they were searching before Sarah Everard’s body was discovered, be cautious. Don’t go out alone after dark.  

There is, of course, no good or right way to talk about anything as terrible as femicide. Based on data collected by the Femicide Census, which tracked information on women killed by men in the United Kingdom over a ten-year period, 1,425 women were killed between 2009 and 2018. That means a woman is killed by a man every three days in this country. Of those 1,425 victims, 62% were killed by current or former partners; 8% by sons or step-sons; 3% by current or former sons-in-law; 8% by acquaintances, social or otherwise; 4% by neighbours or housemates; and on and on. “Only 8%” of femicides, the census reports, were “perpetrated by strangers” or in circumstances where no link between the woman and her killer could be found. So, most femicide victims are killed by someone who is known to them, making statements like the commissioner’s, like those of loved ones and friends wanting to reassure us, technically true – though the meaning of “only,” in this context, seems almost absurd.

These statistics are critically important. They help to make these patterns visible and, in theory, allow policy makers and policing bodies to better distribute resources and pass legislation to keep women and girls safe. As with any data set, however, statistics about femicide can never give us a fully fleshed-out picture, by which I mean they can never introduce us to the flesh and blood women who have been killed. They are just raw facts, and can be used – by policy makers with political motives, by those of us with true intentions but without degrees in statistics – to obscure as well as clarify, to misdirect as well as expose.

In a vast majority of cases, when a woman is attacked or murdered, it is by someone who was known to her.

But what about when that is not the case? Does that make a disappearance like Sarah Everard’s sadder? Or less sad? Does that make her death somehow more, or less, her fault?

Because it involves the destruction of one group at the hands of another, namely women and girls killed by boys and men, femicide is always political. It is political, not just for politicians, police, and the media, but for all of us, impacting how we interpret data, which cases we care about, how we react intellectually, how we feel.

When Sarah Everard first disappeared, on the 3rd of March, early in this second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and after three months of lockdown across the UK, I tried, as I imagine did news readers nationwide, to keep the information at arm’s length. “That’s horrible,” I said to my husband, who saw a notice about her disappearance on a local Reddit sub-thread before it hit national, then international news. “Hopefully it’s just a misunderstanding.”

Even before her body was found, however, my platitudes turned into rationalisations. Sarah Everard’s face quickly appeared on the front page of every British periodical. No disappearance, I had to admit to myself, would get so much coverage if there were not evidence to cause grave concern. Even if she was young, and beautiful, and successful, and white, and therefore more likely to be taken seriously. Even if, officially, she was still expected to turn up “safe” and “soon.”

We have come a long way, in the last several years and decades, in the ways that we talk about sexual assaults and murders after they’ve happened. “Victim blaming” has become a well-known phrase and we’ve taken steps to disassemble its systems of reacting and thinking. We can all recite that it is never a woman’s fault when a man attacks her. But, at the same time, I don’t know any woman who doesn’t observe certain practices in order to keep herself safe.

And it is partially through this lens that Sarah Everard’s case caught our collective attention. She did, as I saw one commenter bemoan online, “everything right.” She wore modest clothes in bright colours. She was not drunk. She called her partner as she started her walk home. She stuck to well-lit pavements and paths. Still, she was plucked off the street.

More information only intensified this sense of horror. Because she did not, according to what is publicly known at this stage, know the man who killed her. Because the man who has been charged with her murder is someone who should have protected her, protected all women, someone who violated her – and our – societal trust.

“Before Karla Homolka,” my mother used to say to me, referencing the murders committed by Paul Bernardo and his wife, one province over from where I grew up, in Canada, in the early 1990s, “I always thought it would be safe to trust a woman.” She repeated this throughout my childhood, a refrain of shaken security which was also, of course, a lesson she would have preferred not to teach. I don’t doubt that women all across the UK and beyond are having similar thoughts about police officers now.

If I had been out walking on March the 3rd and someone claiming to be a police officer in plain clothes, with the right identification, had come up to me, would I have trusted them immediately, at night, in the dark? Probably not. But would I have been certain enough of my distrust to break immediately into a run? Would it have made a difference?

Practically speaking, what any of us would or would not have done hardly matters. We were not attacked by a police officer. Sarah Everard was. But there is fear in even retroactive recognitions of vulnerability. To concede that we have been defenceless is also to admit that we cannot always protect ourselves, that we will inevitably be vulnerable again. Being smart and careful, being alert, cannot always prevent the worst. So, we insist:

In a vast majority of cases, when a woman is attacked or murdered, it is by someone who was known to her.

As if the men who commit these crimes are not always known to someone.

In one of my least favourite assertions on the topic of female vulnerability, the always rigorous and often controversial critic and academic, Camile Paglia, disparages “young middleclass women” for “expect[ing] adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes.” “The World,” she asserts, “remains a wilderness”, and “The price of women’s modern freedoms is personal responsibility for vigilance and self-defense.”

This is one of my least favourite contributions to the question of female vulnerability because it is, of course, fundamentally true. It will never be possible to eradicate crimes against women altogether, just as it is impossible to eradicate violence itself. And every feminist I know understands this. (Here, I am tempted to quote Maggie Nelson writing on a different but related topic: “We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes.”)

To let the full responsibility for “vigilance and self-defense” fall ultimately and only to women, however, in a society which has barely even begun to protect women by looking at the behaviours of violent or sexually deviant men, seems radically, even irresponsibly premature.

Indeed, 59% of cases covered by the Femicide Census, involved perpetrators who had previously abused the women they would go on to kill – that’s 611 men who had displayed previous violent behaviour. In 2% of cases – 29 instances – the men had even killed before: 20 had previously killed women, nine had previously killed other men.

Paul Bernardo, too, demonstrated suspicious behaviour and was suspected by people in his life – colleagues, the wife of an old friend – long before he was charged and stopped. He even volunteered his DNA, which, as Stacey May Fowles observed in 2013, “was not compared with the Scarborough Rapist sample for more than two years, after he had already escalated to murder.”

The authors of the Femicide Census assert that their figures for prior abuse are “likely to represent a considerable undercount.” But the repeating patterns, the opportunities for earlier intervention by police, are clear.

And in this regard Sarah Everard’s murder – Wayne Couzens’ attack – was tragically predictable.

Three days before he kidnapped Sarah Everard from South London, Wayne Couzens exposed himself at a fast-food restaurant in the same part of the city. The incident was reported to police, with some accounts even suggesting it was captured on CCTV, and yet Wayne Couzens was still working as a police officer and carrying a firearm, later that week, when he, like so many violent men before him, escalated to kidnap and murder.

This sequence of events has prompted an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation to examine whether or not the original incident was handled with appropriate speed and urgency, but it should also prompt a broader set of questions for all of us.

Sarah Everard may not have known her killer, but her murder could have been prevented, if only the system worked better, if only Wayne Couzens’ prior illegal behaviour had been taken more seriously and finding him made a priority. Why isn’t that front page news?

Alongside coverage of Sarah Everard’s case, activists and academics have, again, as always, been busy identifying clear and concrete changes we might make to legislation and to our collective behaviours in order to make our shared society a safer place for women – and everyone.

Some of the ideas in circulation are more practical and practicable than others. Some, like a suggested curfew for men – an inversion of the curfews women are so often cautioned to impose on themselves – have been receiving disproportionate but unsurprisingly hostile reactions. Yet the novelty of these articles, and the backlash against them, serve only to highlight that, for the most part, the way we talk about femicide and female vulnerability has moved past victim blaming, but not victim responsibility.

“did sarah everard know her killer?” Google suggests, after I’ve cleared my browsing data and typed “did Sarah” into the search bar. Next in the list is “did sarah everard know wayne”, “did sarah everard live alone” and “did sarah die in prison break” – a show which more than once put that central love interest in peril simply to raise its narrative stakes.

We are fascinated, even mesmerised by female vulnerability, both in real life and on TV, but we want answers and explanations more than we want solutions. Solutions, after all, require the acceptance of uncomfortable realities and the active implementation of change. Post-hoc explanations, by contrast, provide a sense of resolution while allowing us to keep the less comfortable truths about who we protect, and who we don’t, at arm’s length.

If Sarah Everard’s case shows us anything, it is that the usual ways we talk about gender-based violence continue to be broken. Distancing what we prefer to think of as “incredibly rare” femicide cases, cases in which the victim did not know the man who killed her, in which she did “everything right”, helps us to feel better, or at least farther from the reality of what has happened. But these conversations ultimately do a disservice both to the victims of femicide who make front page news, and to those who do not.

Within days of her disappearance, Sarah Everard became more search term, more hashtag, than name. “Death of Sarah Everard” is a Wikipedia page. Her name alone – her life – is not. There is sound reasoning for keeping our focus on victims instead of on perpetrators, and I realise, of course, that even as I write I am participating in this phenomenon, too. But Sarah Everard never gave her permission or consent to be remembered this way.

My point? If we’re going to let a woman’s death become bigger than who she was, we had better make it count.

At the time of writing, just over one month after Sarah Everard first disappeared, Wayne Couzens is scheduled to stand trial and the case is, inevitably, fading out of the news. The bandstand at Clapham Common, where protesters were arrested and dispersed by police and where mourners from all across London have been coming to lay flowers, has been cleared.

It may never be possible to prove whether Sarah Everard had previously crossed Wayne Couzens’ path, but that detail hardly matters. Life is not a TV show. Catching the right bad guy and figuring out exactly what happened is important, but answers should never be confused with justice. Or even resolution.

A man kills a woman every three days in this country – and in countries all over the world. What’s much more anomalous than Sarah Everard’s murder is the collective grief and outrage many of us have felt and the opportunity we have been given to have this conversation again, because you’re just as dead whether you knew your killer or did not.

That has been known to every woman ever killed by a man. I guarantee you.

About The Author

Genevieve Zimantas is a London-based writer and educator, originally from Montreal. She holds degrees from McGill University, Dalhousie University and the University of Cambridge, has volunteered as a correspondent for the Organization for World Peace, served as an associate editor for the Dalhousie Review, and was the Quebec Writer’s Federation’s 2018 poetry mentee. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals across North America, including Event Magazine, Prairie Fire, Contemporary Verse 2, Rhino Poetry and Arc Poetry Magazine.

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