The nations soul, awakened by the truth, and a time to shine a light on a dark corner of society.
By Mathilda Heller: Culture Columnist
The news of the murder of Sarah Everard has reverberated around the country, and indeed, the world. The man arrested for her murder was a serving male police officer, someone whose role is to, not harm.
Sarah’s murder has highlighted the continuing issue of gender violence and sexual harassment towards women. A report was published last week with findings that 97% of women in the UK between 18-24 have been sexually harassed. This figure has shocked many, especially men, who did not realise the prevalence of these issues.
Sexual harassment includes catcalling, stalking, public indecency and non-consensual touching, among others. Many of which, especially catcalling, are considered normal behaviours.
But the wider statistics are even more shocking:
- Approximately 90% of women’s killers are male, and over half of female victims already knew their killer.
- 3.4 million women have been sexually assaulted in their lives, including 144,000 women who were victims of rape last year alone.
- Only 55,000 victims reported their rapes, and only 1,439 of these reports led to convictions.
This means that there is less than 1% chance of a rapist being convicted, so is it any wonder that women feel that reporting assault is pointless?
And is it surprising that some men feel they can get away with assault, knowing that, historically, the justice system works in their favour?
The prison sentence for defacing a war memorial is greater than that faced by many rapists.
It appears that we still live in a culture where violence against women is often ignored, and even at times supported, by society.
One article says that we live in a culture in which “sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” This can be through “the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety”.
We all know songs that tell men to assert dominance over women, or that suggest a woman’s clothes are an indicator of her desire for sex. Take for example one of the most popular songs in the last decade, Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. This features the lyrics: “I hate these blurred lines/I know you want it/”.
The woman in the song is nothing more than an object, someone to possess and own.
The song Delilah by Tom Jones has always been a huge favourite of Welsh rugby fans who sing it at matches. But the lyrics of the song tell the story of a man who murders a woman who is unfaithful to him. And the song portrays this as justified.
How are the families of victims such as Sarah Everard supposed to feel when hearing songs like this? Songs that promote violence against women? That they live in a culture that doesn’t question these cultural norms?
A US study found that “nearly one-third of popular songs have lyrics that degrade or demean women by portraying them as submissive or sexually objectified”.
This is a shockingly high statistic, and one that indicates a much deeper culture of gender violence. One that has become normalised.
Whilst it is wholly inappropriate to suggest that there is a connection between the death of a young woman, and the lyrics of pop songs, we cannot ignore the pernicious impacts of misogynist culture. The lyrics of pop songs are a major manifestation of cultural thought and viewpoints; music is a platform for social expression.
Music reflects social views, and if music still promotes sexual violence and degradation of women, then we know that something in society needs to change.
It is a conversation that needs to be had with men, and not with women.
Too often, the responsibility is assigned to the victim, and not the attacker. Society often seems to suggest that a provocatively dressed woman shouldn’t have worn that because ‘it gives the wrong impression’. Or that a woman shouldn’t have gone home with a man if she didn’t indeed to sleep with him. Or that she shouldn’t have walked home at night on her own and should have known better.
But the responsibility never lies with the victim.
The conversation society should be having is not why the woman was dressed in certain clothing, but why a man interpreted her clothing as a signal of consent.
MACKAYAN: THE DEATH OF SARAH EVERARDTweet
Not why a woman changed her mind about sex, but why her attacker could not respect her answer of ‘no’.
Not why she was out walking alone at night, but why her assaulter thought they had the right to take away her safety and human rights.
So much of the reporting around Sarah Everard’s death has featured lines such as “she was just walking home” as if somehow a riskier activity would have justified her murder.
“She was just walking home” suggests that a woman who is out partying or drinking would somehow be responsible for her attack. But a victim’s behaviour never justifies an assault, and this conversation is incredibly damaging.
Society is too quick to blame the victim and not the attacker.
If you ask most female students in the UK about their experiences of sexual harassment, much of it will be with male students or men of similar ages. The discussion between men during university nightlife events often feature phrases such as “she looks like she’s up for it” and “look at her, she’s definitely game” and it is commonplace for women to be grabbed or groped without their consent.
So for these women, there figure of 97% came as no surprise.
This harassment culture is deeply embedded in a societal pressure for men to masculine, virile and ‘alpha’. One study found that toxic masculinity is a bigger cause of assault than alcohol. This is significant because it suggests that the issue is cultural and not primal.
In other words, abuse of women is a learned behaviour.
Obviously, the conversation turns quickly to the fact that many men, too, experience sexual assault and harassment. We must not also forget the incredibly high levels of assault towards members of the LGBTQ+ community (about 50% of transgender people are sexually assaulted in their lifetime).
And these conversations need to be had too.
Because it is frightening that we live in a society where ANY violence or harassment against a fellow human is accepted or condoned.
But the culture of abuse against women is something that has existed forever. It has been entrenched in culture for such a long time, and still little has changed.
Many comparisons have been drawn between the Reclaim the Night protests in the 1970s and the current Reclaim the Streets protests in the aftermath of Sarah’s death. That is over 40 years of elapsed time, and yet still the same issues exist.
So: what can we do as a society to fix this?
And is it, in fact, fixable?
In order to create a society which is safe for people of all genders, where everyone can exist without fear of being abused or assaulted, we must radically change the conversation.
Every time an element of popular culture normalises themes of gender violence, it tells someone somewhere that that behaviour is acceptable. And whilst most men will never commit such crimes, a small number do, and that’s all that matters.
Furthermore, men must stop seeing current protests as a character-attack, and simply listen to the conversation and offer to learn and help.
In the wake of Sarah’s death, #notallmen was trending on social media. Again, we see the conversation being turned back to men, and not women.
No one is saying that all men are abusers – that’s a given – but the fact is some men are. And these select few are a product of the exact same society as the rest. A society that needs to change.
We need better education in schools for both boys and for girls. We need to teach them what is and what isn’t consent. We need to drastically dismantle the fallacies that have become so commonplace. We need to change the narrative.
Murders like that of Sarah Everard should not be happening in 2021. And in order to prevent further women from dying, we need to create a culture with better values and more respect. A culture where gender violence and harassment are so abhorred that no one would dare to do it.
Because how can we expect women to be treated a people, when we live in a culture that treats them as objects?