Dead women are an accepted part of society. Killed women are common. “It is just one of those things”, as Jess Phillips – Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence – stated during an International Women’s Day debate. Those identifying as women are disproportionately more likely to be subject to sexual harassment or assault at the hands of a male. 97% of young women have reported being a victim to sexual harassment. 1 in 3 women report being a victim of violence. Violence at the hands of men is normalised. It is almost expected.
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From an early age, women are taught to be vigilant. They are taught to be safe and to take each and every possible precaution to minimise the risk of attack. Not to stop any attack from happening, but to reduce the risk of that attack becoming fatal.
Sarah Everard undoubtedly was given the same education as the rest of the women in this country. Don’t walk home alone in the dark. Don’t get a taxi without a friend. Don’t go anywhere without telling someone where you’re going, who you’re with and when you’ll be back. Text me when you get home. She dressed in an unprovocative manner. She walked in a well-lit area. She wore sensible shoes. She contacted her partner prior to leaving. She took a route in a place she knew well. Yet, she never made it home.
This isn’t an anomaly. This is not a one off. As women, we all have a plan. We have theorised our escape routes. We have developed codes with our friends for when we feel unsafe. We share our live locations. We have held our keys between our fingers. We have taken our earphones out so we can hear who is behind us. We keep recordings on our phones in case we need to use them in suspicious taxis. We are given self-defence classes. We have been told not to dress in a certain way. But why is this “a women’s issue”?
The truth is it shouldn’t be. 99% of sexual predators are reported to be men. Historically, global culture has been built around the privileges of men and the patriarchy is the backdrop to modern society. A large proportion have undoubtedly said and done questionable things which have, intentionally or not, made a woman uncomfortable. Society breeds male tolerance and the bravado of ‘laddish’ culture, where men are educated to be dominant and assertive. What they are not educated about is the portrayal of behaviour they perceive to be “natural” or “for banter”. They are not educated about how men are innately intimidating to women. They are not educated on how to not be predators.
There is a lot of hostility within men to be grouped with other men. #NotAllMen is trending, a horrible mirror of #AllLivesMatter. There has been an influx of men across social media saying ‘that’s not me. I’m a good guy. I don’t rape women. I don’t abuse my partner.’
Women are not saying that. What we are saying is that that is not a particularly impressive bar to measure yourself against. The sheer fact that men receive commendation for not committing crimes against women is evidence that the bar needs to be raised. The sheer fact that men feel the need to state that they have never raped a woman highlights the severity of the situation.
This isn’t about ‘all men’, but the reality is that it is enough men. It could be any man and we have no way of knowing which man it is. What it is, is a conversation about how men need to take responsibility and help create a world where women feel safe. Unlike women, men are not taught to see themselves as a part of a group with a specific culture. They are not taught to acknowledge that they are part of a community with learned patterns of behaviours, privileges and responsibilities.
Women are taught to keep themselves safe, but men are not taught to not facilitate a society where women have to heed to this. Author, educator and activist Tony Porter talks about a ‘man box’, where men are encouraged to be dominant, to be leaders, to be strong, confident and tough. He talks about a culture where women are oversexualised and undervalued. Educator, author, and social theorist Jackson Katz suggests that men need to take their own steps: that we need men to, when hearing sexist, degrading comments or jokes, to say “Hey, that’s not funny”, instead of laughing along or doing nothing at all.
These men do exist. Men with compassion and awareness, who care deeply about these issues. That isn’t in doubt. But what we, as a society, need is men with the guts to stand up and say, “We accept that this issue is ours. We accept responsibility and we will try to do better.” The moral integrity to break complacent silence and speak out because, even though it might not be you, it is someone like you.
Tony Porter suggests that relearning and re-educating society could be the answer. Men can help provide healthy definitions of masculinity, encouraging other men to acknowledge how their male privilege is a barrier to truly understanding a women’s point of view; they offer a relatable voice where women may be tuned out or invalidated.
Educating men about the discrepancies in gender perception, presenting the innate fear that women feel through a different lens, helps create a base for change. Providing information on appropriate ways to interact with women gives men the tools to work towards being better. Creating compulsory elements within the curriculum to help shape a new generation into adopting improved standards of equality. Gender studies should be a compulsory part of everyone’s learning; being optional means it is unlikely to reach the people for who it will benefit the most.
Teaching men that, for them, sexual harassment and the violence which can follow, is a verb. It is an activity. They are the subject. But, for women, they are the object. It becomes a part of their identity. It consumes them.
Ultimately, it isn’t a women’s issue. It’s everyone’s issue. It isn’t an assumption that the majority of sexual assailants are men; it’s a fact. Going forward, we need the education, the leadership and the cooperation- from women and men – to stimulate the transformation so future generations do not have to go through the same degree of tragedy and heartbreak that we do every, single day.
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