The first time I felt that chill go down my spine was when I was 13 and a policewoman was giving a group of us girls a talk at school on how to keep safe. I remember her telling us what to watch for, what techniques to use, including the old carrying your keys in your hand trick, but the thing that stuck with me, above all else, was what she said about being put into a car. “Once he moves you, it’s very, very bad.” We didn’t have to ask what that meant.
That chill quickly becomes familiar for women. You feel it when walking alone at night, when a man sits near you in a quiet, late-night train carriage. But you feel it most painfully of all when reading about the killings of women such as Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Every woman lives with the knowledge it could have been her.
“Buck up, it’s rare,” is a response that still to this day gets bandied about. But this ignores that women’s experiences of sexual harassment and assault, functioning as red flags for danger, is breathtakingly common. And that the murder of women in public spaces is taking place within the context of an epidemic of male violence against us, most of which takes place behind closed doors, often by men already known to the police.
Every year, to mark International Women’s Day, the MP Jess Phillips reads out the names of the women killed by men in the UK in the past 12 maande, compiled by the Femicide Census: it amounts to one woman every three days. The list isn’t getting any shorter.
It is enraging that, decades after that school talk, so much of the focus remains on how women should protect themselves from violent men, not how to reduce male violence in the first place. When terrorist movements wreak fear by claiming hundreds of lives a year we throw billions upon billions at making people safer. But there isn’t a single aspect of dealing with the constant threat of male violence that we get right.
We treat the victims of male violence – traumatised women and children – appallingly. Domestic abuse is a gendered crime and female survivors need refuges run by women – those who understand its victims’ trauma because they have lived it themselves. This is not to deny there are male victims who need their own services, but these cannot displace specialised support for women.
Yet the women’s refuge movement, which sprang out of brave survivors squatting in vacant properties because no one would give money to help abused women, is being destroyed by a decade-long shift towards huge contracts for gender-neutral services that privilege cost-cutting and one size fits all over women’s needs.
The domestic abuse bill currently going through the Lords doesn’t even mention women’s refuges. Even as women campaign for misogyny to be made a hate crime, falling rape and domestic abuse convictions is effektief om manlike geweld teen vroue te dekriminaliseer. Yet so often it is the female victims who end up in prison: two-thirds of female prisoners have lived through domestic abuse. That’s the sick, misogynistic world we inhabit, one where women traumatised by male violence are more likely to be locked up than given access to therapeutic support.
But all the women’s refuges in the world won’t rid the scourge of male violence. To keep women safe, we need to nurture our boys into better men. Men do not kill women out of the blue: there are red flags and behavioural patterns that academics such as Jane Monckton Smith have painstakingly mapped out. This is why the domestic abuse charity SafeLives is calling for a men and boys’ strategy to reduce male violence.
Part of this is work with male perpetrators. We cannot solely rely on the criminal justice system: it takes too long, too many men get off and those that don’t are eventually released, often to repeat the pattern. The Drive project assigns male perpetrators a caseworker who supports them to reduce abusive behaviour and holds them accountable. Evidence shows that it works to keep women safer.
We also need to change the way that we raise boys and young men. Where are the evidence-based interventions and the positive role models having constructive conversations with boys about respectful relationships with women, combating the toxic stereotypes of masculinity centred around aggression and domination? Where are the online resources for boys struggling with low self-esteem and perceived societal expectations? It’s too much to leave it up to beleaguered teachers who have no training in delivering relationship education.
We leave a vacuum at our peril. Eerste, it gets filled with the gender-stereotypical rubbish – the idea that boys are strong and girls are soft – that bombards children everywhere, from school to TV, to their toys and clothes. Most parents believe this affects the ability of boys to talk about their emotions. Then boys carry on their own education: the internet feeds them a diet of disgustingly violent porn that teaches them that sex that hurts women is sex to aspire to. Incels (“involuntary celibates”) prey on vulnerable teenage boys online, grooming them into extreme misogynistic ideologies. All the while, one in seven children sees domestic violence role-modelled for them at home.
So, to the men asking what they can do: it’s not enough to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid being a threatening presence. We need you to do the harder stuff. We need you to call out your mates’ lewd “witticisms”. We need you to stand with us in taking on the misogynists of the left and right who bully women trying to preserve single-sex sanctuaries for women traumatised by male violence. We need you to amplify our calls for generously funded trauma therapy for victims of male violence and for work to hold violent men accountable, both within and outside the criminal justice system. And we need you to talk to your sons. Because in failing the boys of today, we are failing the women of tomorrow.