After several horrific murders in the last year, our attention is once again turning to male violence against women. Many of us are asking why we have this problem, and how we stop it.
My work with violent men before I became an MP showed me just how rooted abusers are in value systems which are more widespread than individual beliefs and behaviours. These values are supported by institutions and patterns of everyday behaviour in which non-abusive men also take part.
Behaviour is supported by misogynistic attitudes. Attitudes do not just ‘exist’ in a vacuum, they are part of culture. So where do they come from?
Misogynistic violence becomes more likely when we fail to tackle street harassment, sexual harassment at work, or the pervasiveness of images and venues (e.g. strip clubs) in which men’s access to women’s bodies is taken for granted. All this creates a situation where entitlement is built in. Every part of this values-system needs to be dismantled.
Until we change this behaviour, we cannot end violence against women and girls.
Institutions, behaviour, situations and places in which men dominate and behave with impunity and entitlement make women fearful or restricted, even if there is no actual violence at that specific point. Attitudes are strengthened in those places/times.
Most men are not violent, but the underlying attitudes of misogyny going unchallenged by non-violent men enables those who are to justify their behaviour.
All men who want to be allies in this struggle can play an essential role in being vocal.
Ending violence against women and girls is partly about tackling specific situations, locations and individuals which perpetuate sexism in our everyday lives. But for us not to be stuck at the same point of outrage we need to disrupt belief systems. And that means being willing to really look at the props of misogyny, and really see the systems they support.
Misogyny and sexism thrive when women are pitted against each other in arguments, rather than tackling the men involved. It’s not women who should have to change – it’s men.
Sexism is the petri dish for misogyny and hate against women, thus leading to violence. Failing to tackle sexism means those who hate find a ready justification for their hatred and abuse.
Women should not be left to fix men’s violence or sexism. It’s usually us who call it out. But it’s men’s responsibility to fix this. And not for the first time, I’m calling on our male allies to step up.
Women can’t pick and choose where we tolerate male violence, or where we accept sexual harassment. We modify our behaviour as a result of or in anticipation of those experiences. But men and women can choose if we tolerate the places which maintain the values of male domination and entitlement.
So if you are a man feeling despair about the murder of Sarah Everard, you can help change things. You can’t bring Sarah back to her family, but you can help.
If you are a man and you know someone who demeans their partner – call them out. Don’t be silent. If your mates make sexist jokes, or hateful comments about women, ask them if they’d say that in front of the women in their lives.
I’m not naming Sarah Everard’s murderer. I’m thinking of her parents’ statements, the pain they are in and of the similar pain and loss felt by parents, friends and family members of the two women every week who are killed by men.
I’m thinking of the fear women have of late nights and dark streets. I’m thinking of the terror of domestic abuse at home. I’m sad that after decades of activism, and much progress on the law in many ways, underlying sexist and misogynistic attitudes are still prevalent.
I’m proud to have played a part in a broad movement of women campaigning, which has generated real urgency about tackling systemic misogyny. Laws have improved. It makes me believe we can create a better world. But it needs us all – men and women – to take up this challenge.