Firstly, my utmost compassion and empathy goes out to the family and friends of Sarah Everard, and to all women who have been victims of male violence.
Sisters Uncut and Sistah Space are two great organisations that I have seen this week that are raising significant awareness and injecting vital stances into the conversation: women from ethnic minorities and trans women are often ignored in dominant news, activism and funding. These women may also be more at risk, and less believed. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality is critical right now: not all women experience the world in the same way. Forms of oppression such as white supremacy, heteronormativity, and capitalism can all amplify sexual violence and increase barriers to accessing help and support.
To all the women affected this week. I see. I believe you. And #Metoo. I’ve written before that it shocks me that we’re still discussing this issue, and that these demands and this activism feels ‘radical’. It really, really shouldn’t be. What I’m also hearing, is that there is a very real misunderstanding and misconception of how grave and common sexual harassment and violence are.
This content might be upsetting to read. If you are a victim of sexual harassment or violence, take care with this. It’s heavy. If you’re not getting angry about these issues, if you are disagreeing with what countless women are discussing, or you tweeted #NotAllMen, you ain’t doing it right. A more appropriate # might be #TooManyMen – male violence has been an issue for a very long time. We need to think about how culture can be shifted, how we can do better, and think about what prevention and reduction will look like.
My significant fear is that we do not have a concrete understanding of gendered violence, particularly in British society. The recent UN women report says:
“Among women aged 18-24, 97% said they had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces”.
This is simply too high. Alongside this, 96% of the 18-24 year olds answered that they were not “not reporting those situations because of the belief that it would not change anything”.
I wrote my dissertation about the #WhyIDidn’tReport discussion, one of many that have arisen on Twitter over the years. This was used 675,000 times in the first weekend alone, in response to Christine Blasey Ford’s vilification when she came forward to discuss the assault she suffered from Brett Kavanaugh. #MeToo was used 12 million times in its first weekend – and this is just women comfortable disclosing their experiences online, and have access to the Internet. This is very much a global epidemic.
So – what constitutes sexual harassment and violence? And in what ways is this gendered?
Sexual harassment from the UN women report:
- Being cat-called or wolf-whistled
- Being stared at
- Unwelcome touching, body rubbing, or groping
- In-person comments or jokes
- Unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favours
- Being physically followed
- Indecent exposure
- Online comments or jokes
- Sharing of suggestive or indecent content online or in-person
- Being forced into participating in sexual behaviour (sexual violence)
- Had images taken and / or shared without your consent
What is sexual violence?
“Sexual violence is the general term we use to describe any kind of unwanted sexual act or activity, including rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and many others.”
Sexual harassment comes under the umbrella of sexual violence. Silence is a very common response, for a multitude of reasons, such a fear of humiliation, retaliation, being unsupported by authorities. Although men do experience sexual violence, women experience it at rate of 4 times that rate. So when women speak up, it is very important to believe them; as it is with all sexual violence. There is a mentality around believing a male perpetrator – it is much easier to imagine a world without such horrific, everyday, intimate violence.
There is also a huge victimisation discourse that is a symptom of rape culture – such as myths that victims must do something to cause their own assault (used to rationalise it being women’s fault rather than it being about male violence). Women deserve to wear what they want, go where they need to, and behave how they want to without fear of not getting home, or fear of violence and harassment. It’s important we shutdown conversations like these, as essentially they blame victims.
Some men do need to be educated. Some people do have to look at their behaviour, asking questions such as:
Have I ever made a woman uncomfortable in a public place? Or worse, have I ever assaulted someone?
Have I ever seen that happen, or heard someone else talking about it and done nothing? Have I questioned women who tell me about their experiences of sexual violence more than I’ve question a perpetrator?
Have I protected men I like, or famous men?
Do you know what consent sounds like? This is something we all need education about. We need to have the freedom to consent, we need to have the capacity to consent, so that includes not being drunk or under the influence of drugs, and that also needs to be presented as a choice. So we need to enthusiastically be consenting to sex we’re having, whether that’s with two or more people.
Do you believe you ‘deserve’ something from women?
A lot of this is part of sex education, which is now mandatory in schools (as of 2020, of which implementation has also been affected by lockdown). But a lot of people will have missed out on this education. Only 1.4% of rape cases recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged (or receiving a summons). This is very, very low, and it’s falling but reporting is increasing. We also know that as many as 80% of people don’t report violence. We don’t have proper, concrete statistics to represent the true scale of this form of violence. There is a lot that needs to be done, and dismantled.
Big ups to those men who are illuminating these issues on behalf of women. This work is triggering, traumatic and tiring. Taking on the burden to educate your peers, colleagues, communities etc. is vital. Focussing on the ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones is futile. Looking at male violence as a symptom of patriarchy (consistency of men in power) and unpacking the ‘boys will be boys’ cultural norms leads us to wider cultural change. Start having these conversations amongst men you know now – they are long overdue.
Keep up the education. Go to protests. Contribute your voice to relevant petitions. Contribute to the VAWG call to evidence if you feel comfortable (this closes on the 26th of March). Demand change and hold people accountable.
Behind Closed Doors: Sex Education Transformed by Natalie Fiennes
Difficult Women by Helen Lewis
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined by JJ Bola