Gendered Violence: the Dangerous Perception of Good vs Bad Victims
TW: mentions violence against women
Words by Alva Walshe
When the murder of Sarah Everard hit our screens and papers in early 2021, the whole world collectively mourned her loss. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why this particular story had such a profound effect on us, but there was this shared sense of fear and grief amongst my female friends. I found myself looking behind me constantly when walking alone in a carpark, holding my car keys between my middle and index finger in case I needed to wield it as a weapon.
Now looking back on it, it’s easy to see why. Sarah Everard was not the first and certainly not the last woman to be killed at the hands of a man. In fact, 125 more women have been killed by men in the UK alone since her death. But there was something so terrifying about the fact that Sarah had done everything ‘right’. From a young age, girls are instilled with this sense of fear – telling our friends to ‘text me when you get home’ is second-nature to us. You’re made to feel that if you do all the right things, like avoiding eye contact with strange men or sharing your location with your friends, you’ll be safe.
So why wasn’t Sarah?
She called her boyfriend on her way and took a busy and well-lit route home. And when a police officer stopped her on her way, she trusted that he would not rape and murder her. After Sarah’s murder, it felt like everything we thought we knew about protecting ourselves was futile. It felt like any one of us could be next.
As Sarah Everard’s murder faded into the next news cycle, new victims became the faces of the movement against gendered violence, an endless parade of murdered women filling our Instagram feeds and TV screens. In January of 2022, the murder of Ashling Murphy entered our collective consciousness. The 23-year-old teacher was attacked and killed while on a jog along the canal just outside the town of Tullamore in Ireland. The social media response was swift, and soon enough, an Instagram graphic with the phrase ‘she was just going for a run’ was reposted thousands of times. While this came from a place of rage and grief, it reinforced the idea that it wouldn’t have been as unjust or tragic if she had been doing something else. For example, would her death have been any less tragic if she had been drunkenly stumbling down an alleyway at 3 am? Or if she was a sex worker on her way home from a shift?
By highlighting the fact that Ashling was ‘only going for a run’, we’re painting her a ‘palatable’ victim, in the same way we did with Sarah Everard. In order to garner public sympathy and support, murdered women have to fit within certain criteria – often young, white, conventionally attractive, and never acting irresponsibly or ‘asking’ for it in any way. We want them to be ‘good’ victims, worthy of our collective attention and grief. But at the end of the day, no woman is deserving of more or less public sympathy than another. We shouldn’t be asking ourselves whether the victim was doing all the ‘right’ things, or all the ‘wrong’ things – it doesn’t make their death any less tragic or shocking. It’s yet another woman whose life has been ended far too soon at the hands of gendered violence.