Not all men attack women – but all men have a part to play in stopping it
‘Not all men’ was the lamentation that rung out on social media this week as women revealed their personal stories of being sexually harassed, raped and physically abused.
It’s true that not ‘all men’ behave in a violent and sexually predatory way.
But this kind of behaviour is rooted so firmly into the fabric society, from our communities to the criminal justice system, that all men are part of it and do have a responsibility to tackle it.
The tragic events of this month, starting with the disappearance of Sarah Everard and culminating with the images we saw last night from Clapham Common are a shocking illustration of this.
It’s not just that women are preyed upon by a minority of men, it’s that they don’t feel like their abuse will be taken seriously and acted upon by society as a whole, and that they’ll be treated fairly by police or the prosecution service.
I decided in 2017 to talk about my own experience of being raped at the age of 14, because I hoped that it would give other women who were struggling to talk about their own traumatic experiences the strength to speak out.
And after the article was published I received a deluge of messages from other women who had been raped and sexually abused and never spoken about it.
One question that did however come up repeatedly in the press interviews that followed was: ‘Why didn’t you go to the police?’
There are two answers to that. Firstly there’s the social stigma of having been a rape victim. We are still a society that hurries to blame the victim – ‘what were you doing out there at that time of night? What were you wearing?’
At the same time the alleged perpetrator is defended – ‘Why are you destroying this poor man’s life? I know him, he’d never do anything like that…’
Secondly, even at the age of 14, I was distinctly aware that going to the police wouldn’t necessarily lead to any kind of justice.
It’s been over 20 years since then and absolutely no progress has been made. If anything things have gotten worse with rape now effectively decriminalised. Only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator – and that’s reported rapes, where the woman had the guts to speak out.
Only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of suffering due to sexual abuse and rape ever breaks the surface for society to see.
And as we saw in last night’s events at Clapham Common, this attitude towards silencing women’s voices goes right to the top of the police force.
The footage shows women involved in a peaceful vigil, the black Covid masks over their faces almost symbolic of their lack of voice, suddenly being manhandled, thrown to the ground and arrested.
This attitude to abuse of women was also clear in the bizarre suggestion that if women didn’t want to be killed, they should simply not go outside at night.
And how unequal our society is was revealed in the press’ appalled reaction when they thought (it turned out to be fake news) that the First Minister Mar Drakeford had suggested that perhaps men shouldn’t go out at night, instead.
Once again it is women, the victims, who are expected to bend to the whims of a society controlled by men.
It’s not as if staying home would any protection for women, anyway. Women are most likely to be killed by people they know within their own four walls where they are supposed to feel safest.
If Sarah Everard was not safe out on the street, and Wenjing Lin of the Rhondda was not safe within her own home – both now alleged to have been murdered – where are women supposed to feel safe?
Whatever we may feel as individuals – not all men! – the attitudes that allow this to continue are endemic throughout society and are a choice we are making as a society. You are part of that society, and therefore you are part of the problem – and the solution.
All men have a responsibility to raise their voices among their friends, to educate themselves, and to understand this oppression that women are living under.
Too many live with an attitude that because they are not sexually abusing, raping or attacking anyone, that they are not part of a wider attitude and society all too eager to brush all of this under the carpet.
It’s not all men but we don’t know it’s not you – and we do know that almost all men will, collectively, turn a blind eye to it if it did happen.