The visceral grief so many of us felt after the murder of Sarah Everard in March was real. The horrific details that have emerged this week at the sentencing of her murderer – not even two weeks after the tragic death of Sabina Nessa – have compounded this pain and brought into sharp reality that the fear we are raised to feel, though far from healthy, is legitimate.
From an early age, we teach girls and women that our safety in public spaces is not something that we can or should count on, and it is our responsibility to keep ourselves safe from an ever-present threat. We are spoon-fed ‘solutions’ of holding keys between our fingers and sticking to the lit side of the path as we accept the inevitability of rape and sexual assault.
We rarely stop to consider that, in telling girls and women that we can prevent violence against us all, what we are really doing is falsely telling those who have, or who will go on to experience such harm, that they could or should have done something differently. The advice drilled into us conveniently ignores the evidence that rape and sexual violence is most often perpetrated in the home, by someone known to the victim.
The widespread frustration, anger and hurt from women following Sarah’s murder was felt so deeply in part because she did everything that so many of us are taught to do, she did everything ‘right’ and still she fell victim to such violence, from a serving Met Police Officer no less. Her death was a brutal reminder that no matter what we do, the truth is we cannot keep ourselves safe because we are not the problem here.
There is a critical point to make about the credibility of victims of male violence and the injustice of who is and who is not seen as a ‘good’ victim. Women deserve to feel and be safe regardless of who they are and whether they are playing by the extensive, arbitrary, and ineffective rule book that is supposed to govern their behaviour.
Our lives and safety do not only matter if we stick to the rules. We should be able to live our lives freely, walk wherever and whenever we want to, wear whatever we want and drink as much as we please without this diminishing our worthiness as victims. We should be able to enjoy the night sky and winter air, and not live to a curfew. We should not be held to an impossible standard and punished when we fail.
At Rape Crisis, we know that there are so many barriers that exist to survivors disclosing what has happened to them and accessing support, but for so many it is the fear of not being believed. So often the circumstances that surround sexual violence mean that people fear that they will be judged, blamed or shamed, or seen to have in some way been ‘asking for it’. This is never the case. No woman asks to be assaulted. No woman asks to be murdered.
This violence that is so rife is not inevitable and it is not the responsibility of women to prevent it. It is those men who choose to perpetrate such harm and violence whose actions and behaviour requires scrutiny and action. It is the culture that we all live in and uphold that has to change.
There is no change of behaviour that women can try that will protect us from harm, yet the problem that we face is far from inevitable. Though it is difficult to grapple with, we live in a culture that trivialises and condones rape and sexual violence.
That isn’t to say that this endorsement is broadcast across billboards or advertised in public – it’s in our daily interactions. It’s in how we teach young people what it means to be a boy or a girl, that boys are dominant, forthright, and strong whilst girls are pretty, delicate, and submissive.
It’s in the attitudes that exist that go unchallenged – the jokes about rape that are laughed off and ignored. Of course we don’t expect that the teller of that joke will go on to rape someone, but what if we did take a pause and reflect on what message it sends that no-one interrupts to say “that’s pretty messed up”. Do we consider the green light this may give some men to continue a path that could well end in violence?
The many inequalities that run throughout our society allow for the violence that exists. It’s the way that women are valued for their appearance and men for their talents. It’s the ‘games’ played online where bonus points are given to those who rape and beat women.
It’s the over-representation of men as decision-makers. It’s the misogyny of incel culture – increasingly mainstream – where entitlement to women’s bodies is rife. It’s a justice system that is so deeply and systemically flawed that the vast majority of perpetrators of rape and attempted rape are not held to account.
It’s the fact that Black and minoritised women who are subject to such atrocities are so often sidelined by the media, and rarely given the same column inches as their white counterparts, nor the same calls for change and justice. It’s the 77 women killed in the UK since Sarah Everard, most of whose names we’ll never know.
A culture is something that is created and it’s something that we have the power to change. For far too long we have accepted male violence as inevitable and told women to change. No more.
Sandy Brindley is chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland