THE VIOLENCE OF MEN TOWARDS WOMEN
Appalling and abhorrent are inadequate words to describe the abduction, murder and mutilation of Sarah Everard, as she walked home alone at night in Clapham. It triggered an understandable outpouring of sympathy for her and her family. However, it also detonated what seems to have been a ticking time bomb for a great many women worn down by fear of male violence, whether domestic or public, but particularly because they cannot walk city streets without risk of assault or harassment. The Observer of 14 march talked of an “epidemic of male violence” against women “most of which takes place behind closed doors”. However, according again to the Observer, while 90% of violence against women is perpetrated by men known to them, based on an estimated (shocking) 85,000 rapes a year, that means that 8,500 rapes by strangers occur annually. Even if the numbers may be disputed, only a tiny fraction of men are successfully prosecuted, perhaps in part because many cases are not even reported to the police, in addition to, as is often alleged, male police officers failing to treat complaints seriously. Rape is an extreme abuse, but there are evidently assaults verbal and physical of all kinds. It is a fair question to ask why so many men and boys are violent, and so disrespectful of females that they feel entitled to harass, abuse, insult and damage often with no remorse, and what can be done to eliminate that culture.
The vigil and protests that have followed the tragic murder have made many sit up and think. However, care needs to be taken to reflect the seriousness of the violent culture among some men without demonizing half the population which is of course male. Men and boys are after all part of the solution, not just the problem, and need to be engaged in it.
The understandable demand is that it is time for this to stop, and for streets to be made safe. Within days of the vigil, authorities met as an emergency matter. More money for authorities and police to introduce more public safety measures have resulted quickly, such as more cameras and police in plain clothes to identify potentially violent people and situations. These will help but are only a small beginning. There are demands for more laws making more intrusive behaviours criminal: some may be needed but it is often a mistake to knee-jerk into new restrictive laws in the heat of passionate rage, and to satisfy those shouting loudest. During the pandemic rapidly devised and rather sweeping and subjective regulations have meant problems of application and enforcement or lack of enforcement. Hate-crime laws, particularly where their relevance may depend on how an offended person reacts rather than the intention of the perpetrator, are very hard to police and so enforce, and worst of all, can lead to grave miscarriages of justice. The kind of misogyny law being considered could make behaviour criminal based on the reaction of the “victim”, if they believe the action or words are motivated by hostility based on sex. A person’s belief at a particular moment, without any objective standard, risks making the victim judge and jury; and a belief can simply arise out of mood at the moment, ignorance or malice or any other feeling: not a sound basis for criminal investigation, let alone conviction. The move to legislating about hate using subjective criteria may empower females to make complaints but may create an impossible policing and criminal justice task, when the long-term answer lies perhaps in social education and interaction.
Practicality and realities need to be faced. For example, there is probably not a single city in Europe where violence against women, and men, does not occur in public places. And lonely city streets at night have often carried an air of danger, with heightened fears inevitable. That will not be eradicated, except with draconian laws and penalties which excessively curtail freedoms or punish disproportionately. Safety can be improved but having to take careful measures, particularly when alone at night, is unlikely ever to disappear from certain areas.
Even if one thinks men are from Mars, is it not fair to say that the vast majority of men in the UK detest abuse of women? However, where acceptance of and indeed a culture of violence or abuse exists, it needs to be called out and changed. Will it not be a long process: perhaps involving parents, teachers, community leaders and decent people generally having to decide and embark on a consistent programme of education of respectful values even more than now happens; perhaps cleaning up the cesspit aspects of social media, including wanton pornography, but huge issues of restrictions of freedoms are involved; of deglamourizing power and control over others; building self-confidence and esteem of males and females, in the case of men so that they do not feel the need to exert sexual control and disrespect of the opposite sex. An analysis of the differences between men and women and their strengths and weaknesses is not for here. But the approach to improving behaviour will need to recognise the differences between the sexes and allow them to co-exist as they normally do, but rarely without some angst and discord. It is a question of degree. It will also be necessary to distinguish endemic hateful behaviour from, for example, teenagers being mean and a bit nasty in the normal course.
Perhaps boys and young men especially need more and better mentors: ideally fathers would be part of that, but does it not have to be recognised that there are many fathers who are not equipped to do that or are not interested.
Some of the media commentary picking up on how males need to change has been depressing and negative. A writer in the Times on 16 March declared he knew how to advise his daughters “You can do anything boys can, and more”, but declared he would not know how to advise sons if he had them. His advice to girls was bizarre perhaps, to describe their aspirations to be like boys! But is it so hard to envisage what needs to be imparted to males, such as respect for all people, including females; to teach boys right from wrong; and that its wrong to intrusively invade another’s space, to assault or abuse them; not to make sexual advances without consent? It is to be hoped that the UK’s leaders will not find it hard to establish a nationwide drive of mutual respect and tolerance, which are supposed to be British values anyway. Nothing needs to be newly invented.
However, all good aspirations will be hindered by the predominance in mainstream media, and especially in social media, of a focus on dividing people not uniting, finding fault and blame, and on expecting some third party to resolve or remove a person’s problems: individual grown-up taking of responsibility will be fundamental to changing attitudes.
THE HYPERBOLE OF MISOGYNY IS PERNICIOUS
Misogyny is becoming a catch all term being promoted it seems to describe inappropriate or even innocent, if insensitive, behaviour and also the most extreme violence against females. Misogyny, hatred of the female, perhaps is barely a driver at all. The driver perhaps is more likely to be characteristics such as weakness, mental ill health, desire to impress, desire itself, need to control and express superiority or macho culture. Labelling the police force as systemically misogynistic is a recent example. This use of extreme terminology to be the box into which a range of behaviours and people and circumstances are put is both mistaken and dangerous. It is like the absurd labelling of all white people as white supremacist racists. Wrong usage of extreme language is especially these days a tool of malevolent extremists who wish to inspire hatred and division. It should be condemned. Rational but serious and accurate language, not emotive incitement, is required perhaps in addressing this important social issue.
As discussed above, making criminality dependent on the feelings and /or opinion of the “victim” is fundamentally unsound. What seems harassment to one person might be a compliment to another. A recent survey on violence against women included someone commenting on a person’s attractiveness as harassment. One person might find a joke with sexual innuendo or content funny; another will be insulted: situations such as these should surely be resolved by discussion, recognition and apology where necessary. Innocent misjudgement of a situation could easily cause complaint and conviction. The law of unintended consequences will loom large if hate crime law is used to pacify the crowd.
All sensible people would want to stop violence against females by males. There is no quick fix. Hysterical demonisation of all men will derail the train before it leaves the station. Creation of a rally- round -cause against the misogyny of UK institutions is perhaps a mistaken goal, as within institutions there will be good as well as bad behaviours. Subjectively based laws which are fraught with uncertainty will be unworkable in practice and will undermine the police again who are so often the innocent fall guys for the loud shouters and weak politicians. The matter requires seriousness and empathy, not hatred and scattergun blame against the race which is men. And the race which is men needs to stand up and take responsibility to change those of its members whose values become so distorted that they find satisfaction in harming and humiliating women and girls.