First of all, Sarah Everard’s family and friends must be in all our thoughts at this time. It’s been a terrible week, with the worst of all news for them. My heart goes out to them and I’m keeping them in my mind.
In this moment, I want to turn to men as allies and campaigners for safety for women and girls – as so many men have been asking this week how they can help. This is a positive step away from the well-worn reactions to violence against women, which sadly put the focus on women’s behaviour, such as what victims were wearing or whether they were drunk.
This is a welcome shift in public discussion, towards an emphasis on holding abusive and violent men responsible for their own behaviour and calling on non-abusive, non-violent men to step up as allies. Many men are doing so.
Violence against men is also a massive problem. Overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence against both men and women are male . The perpetrators of sexual harassment, flashing, sexual threats, chasing, street insults, persistent unwanted attention, sexual assault, physical threat and assault, rape and homicide are overwhelming male. Men stepping up to change things will help men as well as women.
To be clear – although most perpetrators are men, most men are not perpetrators. However, men are part of the system of sexism that underpin assumptions and beliefs justifying abuse and sexism. Often, men are unaware (and sometimes unwilling to acknowledge) the impact of these assumptions and beliefs on the lives of women, including the women in their own lives. This week, many have been asking women how they can help to change this. I welcome this willingness.
Men, you are our allies. You are our partners, brothers, sons, nephews, fathers, uncles, friends and colleagues.
We know that most of you want us to be safe and to feel safe, in public and in private. We know that most of you agree that sexual and physical harassment, threats and violence, or other activities that frighten or coerce women are not acceptable. We want you to help change the underlying belief systems which allow abusers to get away with all of this.
Yes, kidnap and murder are both rare, thankfully. But all those other acts are part of the everyday lives of women. We either experience them or in modify our behaviour to avoid experiencing them.
Sometimes we’ve learned to do this so well we don’t even notice any more the mini risk assessments and adaptations we do all the time. Until a week like this one. And then we all recall times we’ve changed our clothes, crossed the road, gone a different way home, held back from telling a man what we really thought, because we’ve learned to do these things to avoid violence. And we remember the numerous times it just doesn’t work.
I know so many men who do step up. I used to work at Respect, an organisation which challenges male violence against women and men, as well as supporting male victims and building up male allies in the struggle.
Women have to be watchful and observant as part of our risk management. Men, we need you now to be watchful and observant and to act. To speak up.
Every time you hear someone say something offensive about women (either online or in person), something you would not want them to say to a female relative or friend of yours, speak up. Say it’s not OK.
If someone shares pornographic images on social media, something which denigrates women, reduces us to sexualised objects there for men’s consumption, say something.
If you’re on the bus or train and another man, perhaps a stranger, is hassling a woman, not letting up, making comments about her appearance, making her feel uncomfortable – don’t be a bystander. She has no choice but to deal with it, in whatever way she can. You can make a choice to be her ally.
If someone suggests a visit to a strip club or a brothel, ask yourself and then ask your mates what it’s saying about how women should be treated. Are women treated as equals in these places? Speak up.
Because this matters.
When a minority of men treat or speak about women disrespectfully, in ways you would not want your female friends and family spoken about or treated, and they get away with it, this gives them increased confidence that it’s OK. It gives them permission to do it again, more, worse and to more women. It builds up a culture that prioritises men’s entitlement to treat women as objects, particularly as demeaned, sexualised objects, before women’s safety.
You know that sexism has consequences. Many of you probably already know that a world in which women are not afraid of sexual harassment is better for us all. Many of you already have the joy of relationships with women based on mutual respect and equality. You can model that for others who don’t. You can speak up. You’re our allies.
Be the change.