You can’t opt in and out of taking violence against women seriously

After the heartbreaking family statements and accounts of Sarah Everard’s abduction and murder, it seemed unlikely a judicial summing up could exacerbate the distress. But somehow the judge achieved it.

Everard was, Lord Justice Fulford said, “a wholly blameless victim”. Ah. The other sort – the woman who contributes to her own death at the hands of a pitiless stranger – evidently lives on in the mind of the senior judiciary. Forty years after the police and prosecution virtue-rated victims of the mass murderer Peter Sutcliffe, the criminal justice system applauds a female victim who lives up to the highest patriarchal standards. Sir Michael Havers said at Sutcliffe’s trial that “perhaps the saddest part of the case” was that “the last six attacks were on totally respectable women”.

After Sutcliffe’s death last year, West Yorkshire police apologised for similar ugliness. But even in the 1970s women seem to have been spared the suggestion that some police officers were well disposed, personally, towards the murderer.

Turning to the mitigating arguments, Fulford acknowledged of Couzens that “some of his colleagues have spoken supportively of him”. We already knew that Couzens’s nickname, as a serving officer, was “the rapist”. We learned months ago that he had been reported for indecent exposure in 2015, then for twice repeating this offence days before the murder, remaining in his job. But only thanks to the judge did we discover that even after he was known to have kidnapped and killed, the depraved Couzens – with his prostitutes and violent pornography – enjoyed support from colleagues. Are they among the officers now being investigated?

There’s little reason, given recent police statements, to hope so. After months during which the Metropolitan police could have enhanced safeguarding, addressed risks and even been ready with a self-lacerating review, all it could contribute after the trial were lines about wrong ’uns and lessons learned, its own great shock and sadness and the correct procedure for women needing to distinguish between arrest and abduction. The kindest thing that can be said about Cressida Dick, given the evidence of employee mistreatment of women tolerated in police forces, is that this misogyny is so entrenched as to have defied any attempts she may have made to expunge it.

Female ex-officers have been speaking about the difficulty of reporting male misbehaviour, including domestic abuse, in this male-dominated culture and about the likely pariah status for women who try.

As in March, when women gathering to mourn Sarah Everard were set upon by male officers, this harrowing case has aroused collective concern. Again, men remind other men, using the hashtag #shewasonlywalkinghome, what it must be like for a young woman to be always glancing behind her, recrossing the road, carrying keys in her fist. Again, there’s an appalled interest, for all the world as if it had been long hidden, in the decades of harassment that begin for women in puberty and cease only with middle age or police instructions (unmodified since Sutcliffe’s murders in Leeds) to stay off the streets when especially dangerous men are at large.

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, was among the prominent men tweeting their abhorrence: “Enough is enough. We need to treat violence against women and girls as seriously as terrorism.”

Soms, you gather, it’s acceptable to discuss endemic male violence against women and girls and sometimes it’s not. Just before the Everard verdict, Lammy had angrily dismissed women exercised by this very subject as “dinosaurs”. Women who value women-only spaces – where they feel safe from male violence – he characterised as “hoarding rights”.

Lammy, along with some Labour colleagues, simultaneously denounces male violence, dan, taking victim-blaming to as yet unprecedented levels, is furious with any women concerned about losing the few places that individuals he depicts as terrorists can’t access.

These single-sex spaces – from refuges to hospital wards and rest rooms – historically protected women by excluding men where women were particularly vulnerable. #Notallmen, natuurlik, but that’s safeguarding. “Preventative measures,” as Professor Kathleen Stock writes in Material Girls, “are usually by necessity broad-brush. They aren’t supposed to be a character reference for a group as a whole.”

But there are now questions about their survival, partly because of their increasing, arbitrary replacement by gender-neutral spaces, partly because of possible changes to gender-recognition law. These could, as an unintended consequence, leave women – both trans and not – with almost nowhere they don’t have to glance over their shoulders. As Alessandra Asteriti and Rebecca Bull argued in Modern Law Review: “Opening spaces to those who self-declare their sex and who are perceived as males” will “embolden male opportunists to enter single-sex spaces, reducing their risk-mitigation role”.

But public debate has been minimal. Not least because some of the same people who, unsatisfied by “bad apple” excuses, demand to know what safeguards prevent the police from harbouring another Couzens, will also scorn any questions about what, in future, could prevent the same sort of opportunist from appearing in women-only changing rooms. The implications of everyday harassment, along with the data on male violence and killings such as Everard’s and Sabina Nessa’s, are liable to be ridiculed in this different context as invented “bathroom bogeymen”.

And some fears might, it’s true, be disproportionate. Some threats might be, if not ineradicable, made manageable. Maybe it’s easy to distinguish between decent and indecent exposure. Of, as Kathleen Stock proposes, the introduction of third spaces could be the best answer to conflicting interests around dignity and safety.

But first we need men like Lammy, with his admirable insistence that male violence against women and girls be taken seriously, to explain why, in daardie geval, women’s interest in personal safety can be disparaged – in terms almost worthy of a Metropolitan police officer – as beneath his notice.




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