Sexual harassment and violence: the chronic threat for women

Content warning: discussion of sexual violence and assault

On 3rd March 2021, Sarah Everard, 33, ​disappeared​ whilst walking home in South London. On 12th March a body found in Kent woodland was confirmed as Sarah’s remains. The loss of Sarah’s life is tragic and whilst her family and friends deserve privacy, her story has profoundly forced the reality of the chronic insecurity faced by women in everyday life into the spotlight.

The potential for being abducted, sexually assaulted, harassed, and murdered for merely being female is a constant threat for all women, and knowledge of this danger is ingrained in us from a young age. The World Health Organisation (WHO) published a ​report​ last week, revealing that one in three women globally, 736 million women, have experienced physical or sexual violence. The magnitude of the fear that this instills in women around seemingly basic human rights, such as walking home unharmed, is a reality that seems lost on many men. My brother, for example, was shocked to hear that I would feel unsafe walking home alone in the dark, not understanding that it has been drilled into me that I would be risking my safety to embark on such a simple task.

Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick ​stated​ that “it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets”. However, whilst it may be rare to be abducted, it is all too ​common​ for women to be harmed and assaulted by strangers. A ​survey​ by UN Women UK has concluded that almost all young women in the UK have been victims of sexual harassment. Of women aged between 18 – 24, 97% had been sexually harassed, with​ 80%​ experiencing this harassment in public areas.

The fact that I, and almost every female friend of mine, have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or violence is unsurprising to me. Whether it is being groped, followed, coerced, or even raped, it is a disgusting reality and a dehumanising experience. It should not be considered a privilege to have had evaded such encounters, it is a basic human right.

Umair Haque encapsulates the scope of the issue, ​writing​ that “male violence is an ideology and system that still runs and rules the world. To the point that every single woman I know – and every single woman you know – has probably been affected by it.” Every single woman.

These daily experiences for women are not yet fully appreciated by some men who cannot comprehend the severity of the problem. Their ignorance acts as a means to enable the recurrence of these events through their passive response. In a survey from 2018, the average guess by male respondents was that ​46%​ of women experienced sexual harassment, less than half the correct figure.

The extent of the threat posed to women on a daily basis is reflected in the reality that women are members of secret social media groups designed to warn each other of potential threats and dangers on the streets and in public spaces. Given the staggeringly inaccurate statistic aforementioned of men’s perception of the scale of sexual harassment, I’m sure this may be surprising to many men. However, it won’t be to women reading this.

This past week, social media has been flooded with advice on how women can try to stay safe as a result of Sarah’s story. However, as Sophie Wilkinson has poignantly noted​, this narrative is holistically misdirected. Of course, advising women on how to be safe is a necessary precaution, however, we’ve heard it all before. We know to walk in the lit areas at night, to be talking with someone on the phone, to place our keys between our fingers, etc. It doesn’t work. Women ​continue​ to be attacked regardless of the measures they adopt to try and avoid it.

By focusing on the precautions women should take to protect themselves, the media fails to identify who truly bears the responsibility of the problem. Even its depiction as ‘violence against women’ is a passive phrase. The active agents, the men who commit the crimes, are absent from the rhetoric. To tackle the pervasive crimes of violence enacted against women, the misplaced burden upon women of the responsibility for reducing, and ultimately eradicating, the chances of another woman becoming another sexual harassment statistic needs to be redirected to men. Telling women to stay home to avoid danger encourages ​victim-blaming​ by insinuating that if women go outside and experience harassment and violence it is their fault since they know they are targets for opportunists.

Instead of providing women with information on how to protect themselves from sexual harassment, abduction, and murder, men need to be educated to respect women. Men need to call out other men for their derogatory behaviour. Men need to remove their lens of male privilege and grasp the reality of the insecurity that women face because of the normalisation of harassment. The desensitised misogynistic manner in which the idea of a ​woman’s body being public property​ has become a norm is the core moral failing of society and the reason for these staggering, and yet unshocking, statistics.

A typical rebuttal to calls for the end to violence against women is for some people to argue: ‘not all men’. Whilst it is true that not all men are cat-callers, or rapists, or murderers, that is not the point. As women, we don’t know who is looking to harm us, there is no set image of what an attacker looks like. Given the statistics of the likelihood of being assaulted, it is part of women’s attempts to stay safe that being cautious of all men has become necessary. If a woman treats you like you are a nice guy, and you’re not, she ​risks​ harassment, assault, and rape.

The #NotAllMen argument is part of the problem. Shifting the discourse to one of men’s defense rather than women’s safety perpetuates the problem. It minimises women’s experiences solely because it makes men uncomfortable to be informed that their presence can be unsettling for women. If men don’t want women to be wary of them, then it’s not enough to not be in the wrong, you have to be fighting to stop the men who are giving you a bad reputation. Men need to be women’s ​allies​, not passive bystanders. This issue is men’s to solve, not women’s.

Jeff Bridges addresses the issue of using the phrase ‘not all men, ​noting​ that “our problem [as men] is that we think it’s not our problem”. Specifically, the need to argue ‘not all men’ is offensive ​because​ it is essentially applauding men for not committing sexual assault. The crux of the issue surrounding #NotAllMen is ​this​: “until the culture that permits sexual assault to occur in such massive numbers changes, it’s simply not enough to just be #NotAllMen.” You don’t have to be responsible for the problem to help change it.

If you understand that it would be ignorant to argue ‘not all white people’ when discussions arise surrounding the need to combat racism, then you are more than capable of understanding the ignorance mirrored in arguing ‘not all men’ when discussing male violence against women. Whilst ‘not all men’ harm women, do all men make sure other men don’t harm women? Jameela Jamil ​tweeted​ these sentiments, digging into the problem of #NotAllMen, questioning “do [all men] interrupt troubling language and behaviour in others? Do they have conversations about women’s safety/consent with their sons? Are #allmen interested in our safety?”.

To argue for women’s right to share in the same sense of safety and security that men experience in public spaces presents a threat to no one, except those who find pleasure in being able to exploit women as public commodities. Consequently, if you feel threatened by women speaking out against being assaulted, a reevaluation of your values and behaviour is imperative.

Thankfully, many men have been speaking out on social media against violence against women, standing in solidarity with women who are demanding the need for cultural reform. However, there is still an extremely long way to go. So yes, not all men are responsible for enacting violence and harassment against women, but it is the responsibility of all men to be active participants in the fight to eradicate the ​endemic culture​ enabling it. We are tired of being scared to walk alone.

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