In 2020 118 women were killed by men. One death every 3 days. Since Sarah Everard went missing on March 3 another 3 women killed by a male perpetrator. Unless they become a news story we rarely know their names, the majority likely killed by a partner or someone known to them, 70% in the home. Even so, the chances for any individual woman of being killed is low; by a total stranger lower still. The murder rate for men, especially young men, is twice that for women.
Where there is a very significant disparity and one which affects every day life, is the level of sexual abuse, harassment and assault which women face – routinely and throughout their lives. It ranges from lewd suggestions made by strangers while out during daytime, to flashing, groping, grabbing a girl’s breasts, masturbation over a woman’s skirt while in a crowd, spiking a drink so that rape could be performed, buggery without consent and so – miserably – on.*
And it’s not just assault: it’s the middle aged clients making obscene suggestions over breakfast on work trips or highly educated, highly paid young men in the City discussing female colleagues in the most intimate and lurid terms. Or senior traders setting up pornographic websites at work and senior management dismissing this as a “private” matter because the revenues brought in by the traders were too valuable.*
The focus these days has been on violence. But there is also a lack of decency, of basic respect, an attitude of contempt and hatred and vilification and demeaning of women by men which happens in all too many situations. It is wrong. It is tiresome. It prejudices women’s lives and opportunities.
Every woman will have a similar tale. Every woman will have learnt how to deal with it, how to take precautions against attacks by strangers, how to avoid places or situations of risk, to shrug off gropers, to have a cutting riposte available. Because life is too bloody short and if every sexual assault was reported the police would be overwhelmed and would it be taken seriously anyway. And, frankly, because women often feel guilty when they are attacked, worrying about whether they were somehow at fault and about the process of investigation.
We may have moved on as a society from the days when Lord Havers in the Ripper trial could make a distinction between respectable women and prostitutes. But old attitudes persist: see how the police talked about some of the abused girls in the Rotherham case, as if they were not worth much or asking for it. There is an expectation that women need to take responsibility for keeping themselves safe, need to learn how to handle the boors, that this is the way men are, this is normal so it is women who have to adapt.
At one level this makes sense. We lock houses, cars; we don’t leave wallets out or handbags open. But it is also infuriating. Why can’t we assume that we will be safe, that the expectation should be for men to behave decently? Why should we take responsibility for avoiding male misbehaviour? Why not focus – for a change – on those most likely to be perpetrators and changing their behaviour? Or limit their opportunity to misbehave? When some, sarcastically, suggest curfews for men they are making this very point. There is lots of focus on what women have to do and rather less on what men could be doing.
Women from a young age understand that they are physically weaker, that they are at risk of a particularly repellent type of violence, one which strikes at their very essence, and have to adjust, even limit, their lives in a myriad ways. It is something they learn to live with. Some find it easier to shrug off than others. But all would much rather do without it. Adjusting your life to minimise the risk of sexual violence is not something which men have to do as a matter of course. And, bluntly, men do not have to fear sexual attacks by women in the way that women learn that they have to from men.
#NotAllMen. Obviously. But when a particularly tragic case shines a harsh light on what women endure, there is something narcissistic (grotesque even) about the rush by some men to focus on how they are not to blame, should not be victimised and should not have their freedoms curbed. Perhaps at such a time a smidgeon of empathy for women who have had to endure effective curbs on their freedoms day day out as a result of male misbehaviour might be more appropriate than outrage at the merest possibility of curbs on men’s freedom.
So what might be done?
- Teaching young men from school onwards how to behave decently to women. Not excusing bad behaviour as “laddishness” or “boys being boys” or turning a blind eye to it or admiring it or those who boast about it, because of some other skill. Disciplining men in the workplace for bad behaviour to female colleagues, something which does not get done often enough, no matter how many “values” and “respect” policies firms have.
- We might also want to consider whether the pornification of much of our media and the normalisation of porn are a good thing. The view that it gives of women is not one calculated to induce respect or indeed a realistic view of sexual relations or female sexuality. Not an easy topic. No-one wants a Mary Whitehouse-style Puritanism. But attitudes and behaviour are formed by many factors. If we really want to change the former we need to address why people have the views they do. None of this means the end of flirtation and joy and romance and lust and all the many wonderful aspects of male-female relationships.
- Have effective well-trained police and a properly funded criminal justice system. Little point passing legislation or reporting crimes if it takes years for them to come to trial or the investigation is inadequate. That is no deterrence. Nor justice either. Punishment, deterrence and justice are far more important than vigils and expressions of sympathy.
- If you are going to legislate think about what you are saying. Currently, fly-tipping on streets is an offence. Harassing women on those same streets is not. Even under the proposed new Police Bill, the sentences for the former will be longer than for assaults on women. The message: living women are less important than old fridges or statues of dead slave owners.
- Listen to women and their experiences. Understand, for instance, why single sex spaces and places of refuge matter to them. Fund the latter properly. Erin Pizzey had to fight hard to get them established. Now they are losing funding or being made gender neutral by those who refuse to understand why they are needed.
- Think about how our public spaces/transport systems are configured and managed and how they are used/seen through women’s eyes. CCTV may help catch a criminal after the act. It does little to prevent it or make women feel secure.
There are no easy or complete answers which will eliminate all risk or stop all criminal, loutish or sexist behaviour. But we can make a start by not accepting as normal what women have, for far too long, had to accept as normal, no matter what their age, race, class, job. Individual men who have behaved like perfect gentlemen at all times may feel unfairly blamed. But remember this: it is not enough just to behave well yourself. The majority of bankers behaved honestly but were still tainted by the crimes of others. To change a culture for the better, all must play their part. Men have a vital role to play to change the world in which women live – as allies, as champions, as teachers, as exemplars, as defenders – so that, whether they are 18 or 80, women can live their lives to the fullest and without fear of men behaving badly. No man is an island, after all.
*Not my vivid imagination. All have happened to or been investigated by me.