What's going on with violence against women?

#notallmen, dehumanizing culture and a legal system that just doesn't work for women.

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Some of the reactions to the murder of Sarah Everard testify to the fact that there are serious issues in how some people in general and some people in authority, whether the police, the court systems or the government, see crimes against women.

Some asked why Sarah was out at night, walking alone, why she seemed to have headphones in, and other personal questions that seemed to accuse her of warranting being kidnapped and murdered.

I don’t know how anyone can deny that this is a strange reaction: whether we actively seek them or not, male or female, we all find ourselves in situations that feel unexpectedly risky from time to time. Even if we accept the logic that certain behaviours are riskier than others, it is not possible to perfectly plan what scenarios we find ourselves in. Unexpected factors come into play. If we decide to drive rather than walk, we might find ourselves broken down in the middle of nowhere and preyed upon. If we accept a lift from a friend, it might turn out that he’s less trustworthy than we thought. If we walk around the edge of a park to avoid going through its middle, a predator might have calculated our likely night time choice and taken the same route himself.

We also all balance risks constantly and perhaps, in the midst of a pandemic, Sarah Everard was doing the responsible thing in avoiding public transport and walking instead. Which we’ve all been told to do!

We know that the perpetrators of crimes against women are often people the victims know well or people they should be able to trust. Scandals involving sexual crimes all too often involve teachers, priests, parents, step-parents, family members, or friends of the family. We know that women can take steps to avoid dangerous situations but we also have to accept the uncomfortable truth that, whilst not all women will be a victim of such a heinous crime as this, all women will be in situations in their life that, for others, have unfolded into crime scenes. And these situations are completely normal: the family living room, the classroom, the church, the friend’s house.

When Baroness Jenny Jones called, not entirely seriously, for a 6pm curfew for men, she was trying to highlight the ridiculousness of calls for women to stay at home in order to ensure their safety. But actually, women are no safer there. The Covid pandemic and the lockdowns that go with it have seen domestic violence reports soar, with early estimates showing 50 deaths during the first lockdown (March – July 2020) attributing domestic violence as the cause, and charities like Refuge reporting demands for their services increasing drastically. If the NHS were overwhelmed, so were domestic violence services. The two went hand in hand as more people were trapped at home with their abusers.

This is how it is. Women are too often not safe in the streets. And we’re not safe in our homes either.

Two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or ex-partner, while one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives. And what happened to Sarah Everard, is an extreme end of the spectrum of the crimes committed against women and girls on the streets of the UK every day.

The murder of Sarah Everard has sparked a new urgency to the calls for legal and cultural reforms to make society safer for women. But whilst what happened to Sarah is tragic and needless, the fact that the crime against her has been acknowledged, a perpetrator has been charged, and a prosecution with, it seems, hard physical evidence will proceed is an anomalous positive in crimes against women. Murder, the very top of the personal crime pyramid, is much more likely to see justice done, than any of the crimes against women that destroy lives, even if they don’t end them.  This means that not only is justice not done for victims, but perpetrators who may go on to re-offend either at the same level or in worse ways are not stopped at the earliest opportunity.

It has been reported, for example, that Sarah Everard’s alleged murderer had exposed himself to a woman just days before he went on to commit this crime. The woman who reported this wasn’t believed. Action wasn’t taken. The failed prosecutions of sexual crimes, from harassment to assault and rape, not only hurts the victims, but too often allows for further crimes to be committed. It is not over dramatic to say the legal system is an enabler of the kinds of crimes we tend to see men commit against women.

Only 1.7% of reported rape cases are taken to trial in the UK. Despite public agitation for legal reforms and better support for victims, this represents a fall rather than a rise. In other words, things are getting worse.

But this is too often where the conversation stops, pointing out the problems and demanding that things change. We can’t just demand more prosecutions and that men change their ways. We have to acknowledge the disappointing truth that the justice system is not built for this and the long history of our gendered culture in the West is going to make change slow and painful. We have to strategize realistically as well as hopefully in the face of personal and institutional obstacles that can seem insurmountable when thought about for too long.

What can we actually do? As much as we want to, can we really think that ‘believe all women’ is going to be a possible legal strategy? It’s one of the key soundbites that has been offered up for years now since violence against women and girls has come to the forefront of our culture. It’s emblematic of the kind of slogans that encapsulate so powerfully the desires and the needs of a movement. The statement seems to me to be an expression of our desire for the justice system to follow truth, and for what actually happened to be revealed in the courts always. But we know that the legal system has no privileged or supernatural access to truth. It uses physical evidence in the first instance to try to get to the facts of what has happened. Or it can fall back on well corroborated circumstantial evidence. The courts are the place where things are (meant to be) ‘objective’ not ‘subjective’, it’s not a place that honours a person’s story, it’s a place that judges, without feeling, on the basis of what it deems to be evidence. And I say (meant to be) because for sure the whole justice system, from local police stations to the judiciary, act on the basis of bias and prejudice at times, so there is clear work to be done to make the system live up to its promise of objectivity and impartiality. But can we really see a structurally sound way to move from evidence judgement to the trust of one particular segment of society, namely women? Believe all women is a start that we need – the authorities to whom a crime is reported have to take that report seriously and view it as credible, and too often that doesn’t happen – but I find it hard to imagine that anybody really thinks that this can be the new motto underpinning the way that justice is served in the courts going forward.

But those in power do have to listen to the need that the statement encapsulates. Society has a fresh desire for the law to be able to deal properly with the type of crimes that it has typically ignored, partly due to sexism and partly due to the difficulty of working out a prosecution strategy that can properly rule on private sphere crimes but leave the system intact. These are crimes committed in the home, between a couple, behind closed doors, in the dark. We have a newly thorough understanding that sex is political, not just an emotional and physical act between people in their personal lives, and a new belief that how you treat a person when you are alone together is of significance to all of society; how one person acts to another in a relationship, or in an intimate, private situation, is an important part of who they are as a social actor. A sexual or gender-based crime committed against one woman, is a threat to other women who know that they might be next, and a statement to society to say that violating women is okay.

Thinking about how problematic legislating and getting justice in this area is going to be could cause despair. It is well known that if you commit any crime without witnesses, without leaving physical evidence, that you can get away without being caught. And many of the crimes committed against women are, by definition, committed away from the prying eyes of others, and leaving the kind of physical evidence that can be definitively linked to a crime as opposed to other, legal, physical contact or proximity.  

The legal system can improve their prosecution stats by believing women in the first instance and by actually following the legal framework rather than their own biases, but the difference that this would make is going to be marginal. There has been a lot of critical commentary about trial by media for crimes committed against women and girls, but the movement of the forum of judgement from the courtroom to the papers and online spaces is indicative of the fact that we do not believe that the courts can deal with these kinds of crimes. We pass out sentences ourselves, based on feeling, on trust and, yes, on circumstantial evidence because that is all there is to go on in many cases that happen between two people, alone, and because we cannot accept no justice being done at all. Some anti-woke commentators speak about their fear of a younger generation of ‘social justice warriors’ setting up their own unofficial court rooms online, but maybe it’s time these forums for evidence hearing and truth seeking were formalised? Maybe we need a coherent and centralised social justice system that sits alongside the state’s courts and does the work that they aren’t able to.  

As is so often the case with crime, prevention is better than cure. Although a curfew for men is not the answer, there are cultural shifts that could take place to make these kinds of crimes less common, and there is personal work that men could do to help create a base level of respect for women in society.

This is not a good social media soundbite, and sounds like hard work, but we all need to be more stringent with what we do and don’t think is acceptable in our own behaviour and those around us. We need to be honest about how our actions, words and thoughts feed into society. Even if it’s not convenient. Even if it’s not fun. We all need to commit to thinking deeply about the issues and doing our best in every situation we face.

Casual sexism is still rife and creates a backdrop to our lives that permits a certain level of disrespect and even dehumanization of women. The mainstream porn industry that presents women as constantly available, happy to see the person they called to do some work on their boiler suddenly naked, excited that their stepfather has joined them in bed in the middle of the night, has something to say here. Too often, conversations about pornography end up divided between prudish and open minded, but really the moral questions should be about the type of sexual act depicted not the fact that a sexual act is being watched. What does it matter if a person sees other people having sex? It is hard to think of anything wrong with this, as long as the viewing is consented to. But it is undeniable that people learn behaviour and form values based on anything that they watch regularly, and we know that porn is consumed frequently by men, and from a very young age. A recent BBC survey showed that 55% of its male identifying survey entrants said that porn had been their main source of sex education and a correlating 50% of female identifying entrants said they feared porn dehumanized women.

Something that is not discussed often enough is the lack of knowledge that men have about the conditions of the production of the porn they watch. Things like actress’s age are not disclosed and neither the amateur nor the professional industry are globally well regulated. The fact that porn viewers are invited to put all ethical and legal concerns aside and take sexual pleasure from a woman who they do not know has consented to the situation, or is even old enough to consent, invites a pleasure seeking, selfish, attitude by men in situations where they are sexually aroused. Neither the men nor women in porn are given concrete identities so the viewer, most often male, is invited to project their own persona onto the male and a desirable persona onto the female (in hetero porn), a habit which could easily be extended to real social situations, especially if a woman is saying little or acting non-committaly.  

Porn is one of the last spheres where men can still see women as objects for their pleasure rather than equal players, and there is an argument to say that men’s attraction to that vision of womanhood speaks to what they want women to be. On their own, in their most private moments, their sexuality demands that women do nothing other than fulfil their sexual desires. This means something.

People are always going to be sexually attracted to others, but it is which characteristics are seen as sexually attractive that is telling about a society’s attitudes to gender. And no, actively performing interest in fulfilling a stereotypical male ideal of a sexual interaction does not count as being a strong woman!

The objectification of women across other areas of visual culture amounts to a watered down version of the porn industry. You can read more about that in a previous article about Laura Mulvey and the Male Gaze here.

There are other aspects of cultural masculinity that can feed into selfish behaviour that fails to acknowledge or deliberately ignores the feelings, wants and needs of others. The imperative for men to get what they want, to step on others to reach the top, to have their point heard and to silence others in doing so is very real in competitive workplaces and sometimes in male social groups too.  

We know that men tend to speak over others more than women do, and they tend to interrupt women 33% more often than they would interrupt a man. The general trend in male behaviour is that getting your own point across is more important than listening to another point of view, and listening to what a woman has to say is less important than listening to another man. In situations involving consent, listening to women, caring enough about their perspective to hear and take on board what they have to say, is obviously totally key.

This male feeling of having the right to speak their mind also correlates with the culture of cat-calling and verbally harassing women and girls in the street. If they have something to say, they often have not been made to feel that they need to take others into account before they say it. One of the big issues that anti-woke activists have with movements like contemporary feminism is that they feel they are being silenced by no-platforming campaigns, or not listened to in conversations about women’s issues. This strong reaction might be because they have never before been asked to think before they speak to or about women. On the other hand, women have been very used to having to tread carefully around men in power whether that meant their fathers, their husbands or their bosses in the workplace once they were eventually allowed to join in public life.

 

There’s a long cultural history of male speech and female listening that might well feed into the issue of men feeling free to impose verbal judgements or calls for attention on women in the street, being ignorant of reading signs of interest or disinterest because they have never had to bother, and being bad at listening to a woman expressing pleasure, displeasure, consent or lack of it.

The list of cultural realities and social behaviours that feed into a sexist social backdrop could become endless, so I will stop there before this turns into a book.

This is not to say that all men who watch porn or are ‘alpha’ figures in their careers or wider lives will commit crimes against women or girls. But it is to say that these kinds of activities, cultural pressures and norms create a volatile backdrop of casual sexism which many men will withstand taking direct action on, but some men will internalise as a driver of criminal behaviour. For those men who feel personally victimised by the accounts of male behaviour here and being discussed in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, be honest with yourself. Do you recognise worrying traits in yourself and your attitude to women? If so, work on it. Talk to your friends, your family, your partner, if your feelings are at a manageable level and you don’t need immediate help to resist the urge to commit a crime. Or if your thoughts and behaviour, either online or in person, are getting to the point of criminality seek help. Call an anonymous helpline to talk abut your feelings, or your doctor if you feel a mental health problem or psychiatric disorder is driving you.

And if you don’t recognise yourself in this description of masculinity, congratulations. We’re not your enemy. You’re doing well to escape the social pressures that shape masculinity. Keep up the good work, and help us spread the word, because #notallmen lose their daughters, sisters, friends or partners to male on female violence but too many do. I don’t see a logical reason not to embrace work to tackle the root causes of violence against women and girls, whether you are a man or a woman, you have a part to play in making the world a better place.