The murder of Sarah Everard, and police action at subsequent vigils and demonstrations, has opened a public discussion on gendered violence. The circumstances of the tragedy fit perfectly with the public imagination and conversation of the threat faced by women.
A middle-class white woman, she was a model of female “respectability” and a “proper” victim. Many have commented that Sarah “did everything right” — wearing bright clothing, walking along the lit main road and calling her boyfriend. She didn’t know her attacker, and was snatched on a street at night.
The focus on strangers as perpetrators, and on women not being safe walking the streets, ignores that most of the violence against women is committed by someone the victim knows. Young men are disproportionately affected by street violence, and women are more likely to face violence at home. The press focus on street violence is part of the “othering” of violence against women and girls.
The Femicide Report 2020 revealed 61% of killings of women were by a partner or ex-partner. 6% of femicides (nine victims) were committed by a stranger. Many women live with their abusers. Their safety could be improved by removing the barriers to escaping — free transport, easily accessed public housing and specialist domestic violence services.
Still, women are afraid to walk alone at night. Women wrap their fingers round their keys, text as soon as they are home, and plan journeys to avoid back alleys and dark spots. Learning to fear violence, and in particular sexual violence, is core to becoming a woman. We live our lives as perpetual, potential victims, with a lifetime of harassment and “minor” incursions reminding us of our vulnerability.
The psychological damage of living in fear is immense. Many of us respond by being smaller, quieter, or hyper-vigilant. Women have a right to noisy and messy lives, and should not feel forced out of public space.
Violence against women is not biologically written. It can be promoted or diminished by ideological apparatus, cultural messages, and norms. This has already happened to some extent. Public understanding of violence against women and sexual consent has greatly improved in Britain thanks to the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies.
Psychologist John Pryor developed the “Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale” which looked at factors statistically related to coercive sexual behaviour. These factors were lack of empathy, belief in traditional gender roles, and a tendency toward authoritarianism. Environments which encourage extremes of these factors, such as prison and the army, were sites of widespread sexual abuse.
We can reduce violence against women and girls by increasing social equality, gender equality, consent, respect and non-violent communication — inside and outside the sexual sphere.
Boys aren’t simply gendered to be tough and entitled, and therefore violent. Boys are touched and talked to less, even as babies. Boys are taught to expect a lack of empathy. Sharing your feelings is seen as an example of gender non-conforming. Crying is for “sissies”. Experiencing a lack of empathy and emotional support creates a lack of emotional regulation and resilience, and makes people less likely to respect emotional and physical barriers in others.
This contributes not only to male violence against women but all male violence and higher rates of male suicide. Education should not focus on what people should not do, but on how to build positive relationships, respect for yourself and others.
If we want to create a less violent society we need to fight gender stereotypes and prejudice, fight the understanding of the family sphere as private and under male authority, and remove the general acceptance of violence as part of the public sphere.