It’s Not Down To Women To Change Their Behaviour, Men Need To Change The Way They Act
‘What was she wearing?’ ‘Why was she walking alone at night?’ ‘Why didn’t she get a taxi?’
These are but a few of the questions that have been popping up on social media following the disappearance of Sarah Everard. The 33-year-old marketing executive went missing at around 9.30pm on March 3 after visiting a friend in London. A week later, a serving police officer was arrested under suspicion of her kidnap and murder. Today, March 12, Scotland Yard confirmed Sarah’s body was found in woodland in Kent.
Sarah did everything you could expect from a young woman to keep herself safe. She told her partner she was on her way home, she wore brightly-coloured, modest clothing and walked along brightly-lit streets. And yet, she never did make it home from that journey from Clapham to Brixton.
We don’t know what happened to Sarah that evening, and perhaps we never will know all the details. This tragic case, however, has sadly highlighted the outdated and archaic notion that a woman is somehow responsible for crimes against her. Sarah did nothing wrong, but quite frankly, even if she had walked down dimly-lit back alleys in her underwear, she still should have made it home that night.
Sarah’s story has resonated with so many of us because the reality is it could have been any of us. It could have been our sister, our friend, our daughter, our partner – or us.
The very same day it was announced that a Metropolitan Police officer – who was employed to keep the people of London safe – had been arrested, UN Women UK released horrifying figures that revealed that 97% of women aged 18 to 24 had been sexually harassed. We know from Sarah’s case, and from our own experience, that so many of these women will have been taking every precaution to keep themselves safe, yet sexual harassment and violence is still a very real threat.
‘I think that, fundamentally, what this response is revealing is that our knee-jerk reaction to violence against women and girls is still too often to put the responsibility on victims and potential victims, to protect themselves, when the only people who actually have the power to prevent this violence is the perpetrators,’ Katie Russell from Rape Crisis told UNILAD.
It’s important to note that sexual violence can happen to all sexes and genders, and can be perpetrated by all sexes and genders, but statistics show that the vast majority of incidents of sexual violence involve a man inflicting it on a woman. However, while so many men and boys would never commit acts of sexual violence or harassment, there are many aspects of so-called ‘lad culture’ that contribute to the wider issue of women not being safe on our streets.
‘Certain kinds of sexual harassment – like street harassment, unwanted sexualised comments, wolf-whistling and that kind of thing – have been so normalised and are broadly dismissed,’ Katie continued. ‘And yet it’s part of a wider continuum of violence because it portrays an objectifying attitude towards women and girls, at the other end of the spectrum of which, is the possibility that you could rape or kill a woman, because she has been dehumanised in the public consciousness that much.’
Arguably, one of the most horrifying aspects of the UN Women UK survey is the fact that many women who have been subjected to sexual harassment have lost all faith that abuse will be dealt with by the system, with around 96% opting not to report the incidents they’d experienced.
There’s always these questions about what should women do to avoid this unwanted attention and should women report and so on, but we have a completely bust criminal justice system when it comes to sexual violence and abuse against people of any sex or gender.
She continued, ‘We know that criminal justice outcomes are so woefully low, and the process can take so long and be so traumatising if you’ve been raped, so why would anyone expect that if they reported something like a sexual harassment that they would have anymore likelihood of having a positive outcome?’
The issues surrounding victim-blaming are deep-rooted in society, and sadly, there’s no quick fix. Change must come from widespread education and heightened awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment, as well as an understanding of the impact it can have on people – especially women. But while the focus has for many years been on what women can do to keep themselves safe, it must shift onto men, and the things they can do in solidarity.
‘When men are together socially in groups, they may witness behaviour or even be party to conversations that portray sexually objectifying attitudes towards women, or victim-blaming attitudes towards women, and so-called jokes around sexual violence; what women are wearing, their sexual availability, and that kind of thing,’ Katie said.
‘Men can play a really important part in challenging some of those attitudes and not colluding in them, because I think there are lots of men that feel really uncomfortable when they’re in those settings and those conversations are being had in person and increasingly in things like WhatsApp chats and online.’
And yet they often stay silent, and you can understand why, because it’s awkward and uncomfortable to challenge mainstream behaviour, but every time they stay silent, the one or two men within that group who are inclined to actually sexually assault or cause harm to women are emboldened, because they assume that it means that their attitudes are actually shared.’
While the body found in Kent in relation to her disappearance has been confirmed to be hers, the details of what happened to Sarah Everard on that fateful night are as of yet unknown.
But we do know that hundreds, if not thousands, of women are harassed on the streets every single day, and until we shift the narrative onto blaming predators instead of their victims, more women will continue to suffer her fate.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, you can contact Victim Support free on 08 08 16 89 111 available 24/7, every day of the year, including Christmas.
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