Following Sarah Everard’s murder, and public discussion about why male violence against women continues to be commonplace in our society, we hear from two members of the King’s community.
Joy Whyte is Strategic Director for Education and Students, and chair of the newly convened King’s oversight committee on “Preventing and Addressing harassment and sexual misconduct”
Data released by UN Women on 10 March 2021 showed that over 70% of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public. For women aged 18-24 the figures were even higher – just 3% of respondents said they had not experienced such harassment.
Around the same time the UN report was released, we saw the news of Sarah Everard’s disappearance, a police investigation, and – tragically – the discovery and identification of her body. Six months earlier, in September 2020, Blessing Olusegun had gone missing after a walk and, heartbreakingly, her body was found the next day on a beach in Bexhill. Whilst Blessing’s unexplained death drew much less media coverage at the time, an online petition is urging the reopening of the police investigation.
Writing last week, Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, notes that “True, most women will not be kidnapped or killed. But the more important point is that male violence against women is absolutely not rare.”
Yet the narratives around assault tend to highlight women’s vulnerability, rather than the actions of the perpetrator or the culture in which those arise. The Scotland-based organisation Zero Tolerance, which has published best practice tips for reporting on violence against women, observes that “headlines like, ‘Woman raped’ can make it seem like violence is something that ‘just happens’ to women when in fact these crimes always have both a victim-survivor and a perpetrator”.
With these recent events on my mind, I’ve been reflecting on two contrasting incidents that happened to me on the tube in the same fortnight, about 18 months ago.
In the first, I randomly fainted on a rush hour tube, which was very unnerving and thankfully extremely unusual. But someone helped me to get back up, someone put my book in my bag, another person gave me some water, someone called the TFL station staff, and someone even offered to walk me home. People were kind, considerate and involved. I felt cared for and supported.
A week or so later, I was harassed on a morning rush hour tube. A man put his hands round my waist to move me out of the way – it was intrusive, inappropriate and unwelcome. I said all the things I’ve previously thought of only after the event, quite loudly, starting with: “why are you touching me?”, then “you’d say excuse me to a man, you wouldn’t touch them”. And finally, when he told me I was angry, “yes I am angry, because you touched me inappropriately”.
The man who harassed me was clearly embarrassed by my reaction. And the people around me on that busy rush hour tube were also embarrassed, and completely silent. Even though I was vocal, no-one spoke up alongside me. I got off the tube, and got on with my day. If I mention either story, it’s normally the one in which people were kind, rather than the one in which I was ignored. Not because the latter doesn’t matter, but because it seemed so routine – a part of living in the world as a woman.
Yet, as this interview with Laura Bates (the founder of the Everyday Sexism project) notes, “from the #MeToo movement to Black Lives Matter, the inflection point for resisting injustice is not when one crusader saves the day, but when everybody is emboldened to speak out at once.”
However, the solution to sexist interactions and gender-based violence affecting women is not to be found in changes to their everyday behaviours (and I use the term ‘women’ inclusively, encompassing non-binary and trans identities). Rather, we need to focus on education; resourcing for the courts – in which successful prosecutions are shockingly rare; training for the police and all parts of the criminal justice system; meaningful engagements around consent and respect; the introduction of the long-awaited Online Harms bill, which will better protect children and young people from being exposed to online pornography; and robust interventions – societal, legislative, and corrective – that expose the problem of violence, not as something that women should have to endure, but rather as an issue that we can prevent and address through complex, holistic, societal solutions.
Here are some suggestions for practical actions that you can take (please add other suggestions in the comments below):
- Sign up to the UN Women UK’s campaign on Safe Spaces:
- Respond to the (recently reopened) government consultation on Violence Against Women and Girls
- Use the Zero Tolerance guidance to challenge organisations/headlines that employ language that sensationalises or draws attention away from the crime itself
- Think about how to be an active bystander. Solace Women’s Aid outline three key options you can explore, if it’s safe to do so:
- Create a distraction – You can let both parties know you are present by interrupting the situation. You could ask for the time or some information, and stand in the line of sight whilst assessing the situation.
- Directly confront – Talk to the assumed victim – ask if they are ok, if they need help. Talk to the assumed perpetrator – remain non-judgemental and calm.
- Delegate the intervention – If you think someone else is better placed to take care of the situation, call a service such as the police or talk to someone senior, a friend of the perpetrator/victim, or an impartial source.”
Finally, I’m reminded of Professor Stan Cohen, who I was lucky to work with at LSE, and who was fond of quoting Saul Alinsky’s parable: “A fisherman sees a body floating down stream and jumps in to rescue it. The same happens a few minutes later, and then again, and again. When a tenth body floats down, the fisherman leaves it and runs upstream, to find out how to stop these people getting into the water in the first place.”
We’ve been spending way too much time downriver. Let’s do all we can to change that.
If you’ve been personally affected by sexual violence or harassment, please reach out and access support.
- Our Chaplains are available to all in our community (of all faiths and no faith) by contacting the Chaplaincy and Dean’s Office on 020 7848 2373 and 020 7848 2333 or at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For students, you can also contact our counselling service on 020 7848 7017 or email email@example.com. Your personal tutor is also able to offer support.
- For staff, you may want to talk to a trusted colleague or manager. And our independent and confidential Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is also available by phone or email.