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By Zoe Beaty
The man approached me first as I left Lewisham DLR station. He kept trying to speak to me, saying something about my “pretty feet”. I said “thank you”, politely, upped my pace and replaced my headphones. Five minutes later, while I was sitting at a bus stop, I saw him shuffle into view again; shortly after that he was leaning over my feet, and masturbating. I shouted at him.
“Sorry, I’m just day-dreaming,” he said, quite calmly, before legging it.
I ran to the nearest woman and blurted out that a man – right there, just now – had been wanking at me. She rolled her eyes and said, “huh, men”. We laughed. I felt uneasy because I didn’t know what to do. Calling 999 felt melodramatic and wasteful. So I called the non-urgent number, 101.
When the uniformed PC arrived with his notebook the following night, I told him the story too. “Still, it’s not that bad an offence in the grand scheme of things,” he said, jovially. “Could have been worse!”
‘He took down a description of the man then said, “To be fair, you seem like the sort that would knock someone out if they tried anything.”’
He took down a description of the man then said, “To be fair, you seem like the sort that would knock someone out if they tried anything.” I wondered if it was my height (I’m 6ft) or northern accent that meant he felt like I didn’t actually need his help.
“And you’re hardly upset, are you?” Then he said, “Do you really want us to trawl through the CCTV?” There was very little chance of finding this man, he reiterated, and I hesitated. When I insisted I wanted the police to at least try – i.e. I wanted him to just do his job – he went outside to ‘run the description’ through the system or something. “There are no matches,” he said, crumpling his face with thin sorrow. I felt a bit silly.
I have written about this incident before, at the time, in 2017, in a different light. Today this experience – a footnote, if you will – joins the vast outpour of womanhood flooding Twitter and WhatsApp groups in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s disappearance. A week after Sarah went missing on her walk home from a friend’s house in South London, a police officer was arrested on suspicion of her kidnap and murder. The same officer is also being questioned on a lesser charge of indecent exposure. Hours later, reports that human remains had been found in Kent circulated. “The officer was off-duty at the time of Ms Everard’s disappearance,” stated various news outlets. The Met Police now face an inquiry into whether it properly investigated a claim of indecent exposure involving another woman, on February 28, days before Sarah Everard, 33, disappeared.
‘Last year, another case: two Met police officers were suspended following allegations that they had taken selfies next to two murdered women – sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry – in a park in Wembley.’
More than ten years ago when I was a news reporter in Newcastle, I was assigned to the trial of Stephen Mitchell, an officer for Northumbria Police who manipulated and sexually abused women. For days I sat in court listening to his crimes and, after, interviewed one of his victims. In 2011 Mitchell was found guilty of two rapes, three indecent assaults and six cases of misconduct in public office. Reports suggest there could have been up to 30 women – detectives believe there were another 14 victims who weren’t able to press charges as their evidence wasn’t strong enough. Less than seven years after I watched a judge hand him two life sentences, he was freed by a parole board.
Last year, another case: two Met police officers were suspended following allegations that they had taken selfies next to two murdered women – sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry – in a park in Wembley. A separate investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) looked into how calls from concerned family and friends after the women went missing were handled. Relatives and friends discovered their bodies – and the murder weapon – days later after organising their own search. “If we ever needed an example of how toxic it has become, those police officers felt so safe, so untouchable, that they felt they could take photographs of dead black girls and send them on,” their mother said at the time.
‘Police are not solely responsible for deeply-ingrained attitudes that legitimise and excuse sexual violence, but they are not exempt from them either.’
So safe, so untouchable. The PC who sat in my living room intimating that the offence against me had been inconsequential did so in full view of my two (female) best friends, who sat pretending to watch the television in the same room. When he left we all briefly berated him, but we didn’t say anything directly to him; he was stupid but still more powerful than us. The following day, a DCI rang my mobile telling me he needed to come to my office to take another formal statement. “And we need you to do an ID parade this afternoon, too,” he said – overnight, despite the PC’s claims, they had located the offender. It turned out he was on bail for an identical offence.
A month or so after I positively ID’d him, I was one of eight women testifying against him in a trial at Inner London Crown Court. In the witness service room, a few of us exchanged stories. “I’m the one who got him on video,” one woman opened with. Just before she was called up, she whispered to me that she was scared that video evidence (recorded on Snapchat) might work against her. “They’ll say I consented because I wasn’t scared enough – I didn’t run away,” she said.
While on the stand I was asked to act out what male masturbation looks like and told by the defence lawyer that I had “imagined” it all. My account was, apparently, undermined by the fact I had been drinking – the silly, drunken girl, out too late to be trusted. “To be fair, you were wearing sandals,” my mates joked.
‘Left unchecked, more women will be discouraged from reporting, more will internalise victim-blaming and the idea that, if you’re not upset or hurt enough, you’re probably just making a fuss.’
The DCI overseeing my case was nothing less than brilliant. When I mentioned what had happened, he tried to undo the attitudes of his colleague and promised the PC would be receiving “more training”. And he warned me to always call 999 if I felt unsafe because these sexual offences are rarely in isolation. Rather, he explained, they escalate in frequency and then severity. Once they’ve got away with it, he said, it becomes less thrilling, so the risk is increased. The man who’d attacked me was found guilty of eight counts of outraging public decency, six counts of exposure and one count of sexual assault and jailed for two-and-a-half-years. I read in national news reports after the case that he placed one woman against a wall and massaged her feet while masturbating for five minutes. During the trial he claimed that he believed her freezing in terror was consent. He was already getting more confident.
In the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s disappearance, Met Police went knocking on doors in South London, and according to some reports warned women not to go out alone this week. It rankled me for the same reasons as everyone else – that fault does not lie with women just trying to make their way home – but also because, just like my experience with the Met, it was lazy.
Had the PC in my home that night four years ago been successful in his apathy, the perpetrator may have been allowed to continue. He may have gone on gaining confidence, essentially justified in his actions by the very people who are meant to prevent it.
These incidences do not occur in isolation: it’s never a lone weirdo wanking at a bus stop just one time, it’s never just one PC who thinks it’s all a bit of fuss about nothing. And there is a complex web which connects all of these attitudes and behaviours. But at the center of it is the simple truth that violence against women and girls is never an anomaly and it is never low risk.
‘These sexual offences are rarely committed in isolation….they escalate in frequency and then severity. Once they’ve got away with it...it becomes less thrilling, so the risk is increased.’
Police are not solely responsible for deeply-ingrained attitudes that legitimise and excuse sexual violence, but they are not exempt from them either. Something isn’t working.
I occasionally think about what extra “training” that PC got. I wonder about how many more conversations like ours have been had and how many perpetrators have been let off because their sex crime wasn’t taken seriously.
Mine was just a dot in a pervasive pattern, but there is a feeling that runs through many cases involving violence against women – that the system doesn’t really care. Sometimes, it goes beyond flippant conversations behind closed doors, it creeps into public courts.
Left unchecked, more women will be discouraged from reporting, more will internalise victim-blaming and the idea that, if you’re not upset or hurt enough, you’re probably just making a fuss. Again, men like the one I faced will be legitimised and empowered; “gateway” crimes will continue and, eventually, we’ll mourn. Sarah Everard’s case has been so tangibly painful for so many because it’s an unnerving reminder that, with the real world looming, we are still not safe, not yet.
So we do the only thing we can – apply our shared trauma as adhesive between us and try to convince the undeterred that women’s safety matters. I am glad to see that the Met Police will face inquiry into how they handled an indecent exposure report. These systems must be scrutinised. Work must be done. At the very least we should not feel that the police are an additional threat; at the very least we should not have to ask them to do their job.
It is time to make those in power accountable for those who have too long been denied justice.
By Zoe Beaty