The tragic murder of Sarah Everard has sparked an outpouring of emotion and outrage about sexual harassment towards women. Many have noted that in this country abduction and murder of women is rare (thankfully), even pointing out that men are more likely to be murdered than women. But that misses the point, which is twofold.
One, we have a problem with male violence that affects everyone. And two, male violence toward women is linked to other behaviours including one that has affected practically every woman in the UK: public sexual harassment (PSH). A wolf-whistle, a stare, a gesture, a man following a woman home, a grope on public transport, just to name a few — PSH is so prevalent and so engrained in our society that we’ve normalised it. Just get over it. Don’t be so sensitive. It’s a compliment, luv.
Doing the ‘right thing’
Most women have experienced PSH and have been told what to do: Walk quickly home, look confident. Call me when you get in. Hold your keys between your fingers as a weapon, be ready for self defence.
In the Everard case, so many of us been affected by the fact that that she was doing everything ‘right’. It’s a feeling that has ignited shock and an outpouring of sympathy for the family and anger. And it’s highlighted not only how things can go wrong even when women do things ‘right’. It has demolished the flimsy belief that harassment and violence toward women can or should be checked and controlled by the victims themselves. That we can stop it by ignoring it or holding our keys a certain way.
A vigil that became a cause
The vigil in Clapham Common simply made the point more stark for many — at a time when women’s voices and complaints should be listened to, they are being ignored or even suppressed. How ironic – and deeply troubling – that police men ended the peaceful vigil by manhandling Patsy Stevenson. That image shocked many…and kicked off a slew of protests.
What can parents do about harassment
Whether we are raising boys or girls, we as parents play a particularly important role right now. Sadly, parents of daughters must still educate their girls about how to deal with the realities of harassment, which has been reported as ‘relentless’ by the BBC and includes grown men making sexual comments to schoolgirls. Parents of sons must instil respect in their boys and the willingness to call out their friends and fellow students for bad behaviour. (And we should tackle lazy marginalisation of girls and women with the using masculine words like ‘guys’ to mean everyone.)
Most of all, we need to support our young people and fight for the kind of world where violence and harassment aren’t a day-to-day reality. We need to teach them how to support one another and recognise that as a joint goal. We all have to work together to teach our youngsters how to react. What to say. How to interact in society as decent, caring human beings so they have the kind of world we dream about for them.