It’s not difficult to see why Sarah Everard’s brutal murder has struck a nerve. It hits close to home for those who have had to fear for their safety simply on account of their gender. Everard’s story is a tragic reminder that it isn’t always safe to walk out in the streets alone at night. That the fear and danger of being harassed, attacked or even murdered is one which constantly looms.
The outpouring of countless stories received by SideStreet Malta since the shocking news broke are evidence that Sarah’s case isn’t an isolated one, but it’s a reality which many women experience everyday.
“I grew up quicker because of what happened”
“I was 5 years old, wearing the skirt of my uniform. We were near our teacher, around one of the class computers. Suddenly I felt a hand go up my skirt and touch my vagina. I turned around to the boy, asking him to please stop it. He replied: “You’ll enjoy it.”
I immediately knew it was wrong, thinking: “If it’s supposed to feel good, why don’t my parents touch me there?” I never had that “innocent childhood” moment where you discover what sex is when you’re older. I grew up quicker because of what happened.”
“He told me I was asking for It”
“I was 16, walking towards Ta Qali farmer’s market. It was a warm spring day and I was wearing a denim skirt. I was about to cross the road when a farmer came up behind me. I didn’t react - a farmer in a field did not seem threatening. Until he put his hand up my skirt, removed my cotton underwear and slid his dirty fingers in my vagina. I froze. He then walked away, and I cried: “Why would you do that?” He told me I was asking for it. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last that something this violent happened.”
“I Couldn’t Move”
“They were on both sides of me, I couldn’t move.” Before she knew what was happening two guys had pushed up on either side of her and pulled up her skirt. “One of them grabbed my ass, the other pulled down my underwear and fingered me.” recounting her experience at a Paceville establishment some years back.
Dozens of women reported similar experiences on the streets and clubs of Paceville, shedding light on how sexual assault in the clubbing and nightlife sphere is widespread, and often unspoken, dismissed under the idea that ‘anything goes’ whilst the lights are low and the drugs and alcohol are plenty.
“It Doesn’t Matter How Much Skin You Show”
“The next morning I woke up in the bed of a guy I didn’t know. I had a big cut on my leg, and apparently I had anal sex in the Footloose bathroom. I would have never gotten with the guy unless I was out of sorts. He said he found me at 5am outside Footloose.”
She continues: “Funnily enough, I was wearing jeans, a shirt, and barely any makeup. My worst experiences have been wearing jeans. It doesn’t matter how much skin you show.”
A common misconception is that sexual assault or rape must necessarily involve a vicious encounter with an unknown man, who catches you out in the middle of the night. But it can also be a simple breach of trust. It can be those closest to you who force themselves upon you. Knowing the perpetrator complicates matters. It's one of the reasons most do not report their assault until years after.
“He Said I Was Ungrateful And Unappreciative”
“He had developed feelings for me, I knew that. He wanted to throw me a surprise party for my 18th birthday with the help of my best friends. My friend told me about the plans, and I told her to call it off - I couldn’t accept such a huge gesture knowing the guy had feelings for me.
The surprise party went along as planned and I dreaded it. But it was after the party that I found out he had another surprise for me. He drove me to a hotel, where I found the room filled with candles and roses laid out on the floor. I explained that I really appreciated the party, but that I didn’t have romantic feelings for him.
He was getting angrier by the minute. He said I was ungrateful and unappreciative, and that he deserved to get something out of it. I wanted to leave the room, but he proceeded to lock the door and started throwing things around. Feeling afraid and completely trapped, I ended up giving in to his demands. I laid on the bed in tears while he had sex with me.
I don’t think about it everyday, but it often comes to my mind. As the years passed, I started to feel some anger towards my friends who did nothing to stop the party despite my warnings.”
And after all these years, she still finds reasons to blame herself rather than her aggressor. “In hindsight I suppose I could have just told him I knew about the party and stopped it myself, but I was young and naive”.
Sexual harassment is an emotionally-charged act, and the rise of social media has only served to further complicate matters. Besides physical harassment, girls and women also face issues with the sharing of nude pictures and videos solicited online.
“This Is Non-Consensual Porn”
A 24-year-old girl shares a story about her (now ex-) boyfriend:
“We were together for two months when he started taking videos during sex. I was okay with it, I also did it with my last boyfriend. Just to make sure, I told him not to send this video to anyone, as it showed my face but not his. He said he wouldn't send it.
A month later I told my friend. She asked me if he has the videos. When I said he did, she immediately said: "You can't trust him!"
At some point I couldn't sleep at night. His phone was next to me and I decided to look into it. I'm not saying I'm an angel, I made mistakes too. But I typed my name into WhatsApp. I found a chat with a girl with my name in it, and he had deleted an item. I read her reply, saying: “This is non-consensual porn.”
Now someone I don’t know possesses a video of me like this. It will never go away, and it scares me till this day. It will always follow me. I have no security or control over whether this video is really gone. He did this to me because he was horny and couldn't think straight - even when I told him not to send it to anyone.”
In hindsight, she wishes she had held him accountable for his actions: “It was a mistake, and I'm not saying he should pay for it his whole life, but he was never held accountable at all. I am the one that's suffering the consequences, and I am the one that’s scared this video of me can be leaked at any point. Maybe I should have done more - I was so in love that I didn’t.”
“Only After Did I Realise What Had Happened To Me”
Sexual assault takes many forms: rape, attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, and being forced to perform sex acts, to name a few. But it's not easy to recognise sexual assault when it happens, and this leads a person to question if they really have been assaulted.
“I was on a date with someone I met at the beach. We had been talking during the day, and he invited me over to his place. We ended up having sex. It was quite rough, I didn't enjoy it, and I wanted to go home afterwards. When I told him I had to go home, he didn't let me.
He took me to his rooftop and locked the door behind us. I got a bit scared, because he was taller and larger than me. I said I wanted to go home, I said "no" multiple times. I was begging and begging for him to let me go home. But he wouldn't let me.
At this point I felt really uncomfortable. I let him do what he wanted to do, just so I could leave. It felt like forever. I couldn't push him away because he was way too heavy for me.
I thought to myself: ‘That was the most disgusting one-night-stand I ever had.’ When I told my friend about it and she said it was rape, only then did I realise what had happened to me.”
“I don’t think he understood that he did something wrong. He texted me the next day, saying “It was nice to see you!” I couldn’t believe what I read. It was not nice at all.”
“So why didn’t you report it?”
In Malta, 85% of sexual assaults go unreported. Most victims know their offenders, making the situation increasingly complicated. There is often a lack of evidence, making these cases a woman’s word against a man’s word. Fear, shame and victim-blaming also hold women back from reporting their experiences.
Misconceptions of the judicial system also play a role: most victims don’t consider rape or marital-rape as sexual assault. A lack of trust in the criminal justice system and the belief that little will be done also contributes to the high rates of unreported sexual assault.
“Because people always blame the girl. It’s not worth reporting it, and I don’t even remember what happened. I’m thankful I don’t remember, because remembering it is worse. I knew no one would believe me when I’d tell them this. Sure half of them didn’t.”
“I was scared they would think I did something wrong. Had I said something to my parents at the time, I’d have had a very sheltered life. It would have probably made me resent men. I only spoke about it to a couple of friends, when the topic came up. Even my boyfriend doesn’t know about it.”
“If anything, I'll be judged shitty people and the police rarely do anything for these cases. I’m better off keeping certain things to myself.”
“I didn't think of calling the police at the moment. We’re never taught about consent, and about these situations. I didn't realise I could call the police.”
Nearly every woman said the same thing after sharing their story: “I’m sure you have heard countless stories, and I know there are women that had to go through worse.” The sad reality is that these incidents make up only a fraction of the amount of sexual harassment happening. In 2019, a sexual assault was reported to Malta’s police every three days.
While we all know women with a similar story, we seem to know few men that have committed sexual assault. While it is “not all men”, it seems to be all women.
Sexual assault and harassment is a men’s issue. Men need to speak up when they hear their friends making misogynistic comments. They need to hold each other accountable for their actions. They need to own up to the damage they may have caused.
Because there is little more that women can do. We cling our keys in our hands, we make fake phone calls, we turn around a corner and run. Every woman you know has walked home scared. Every woman procedurally texts her friends when she makes it home safely.
Stop harassing and victim-blaming women. Stop burdening women with the consequences of men’s actions.