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It feels like an age ago when the controversial police response to a vigil held at Clapham Common hit us. It feels even longer since we heard about the devastating news of Sarah Everard’s death itself.
Something about Sarah Everard’s death seemed to hit the country hard. Maybe it was because it was an officer, a man who’s supposed to protect us, doing the exact opposite of that. Maybe it was the fact that even when walking is the one freedom people have right now, women still aren’t safe to exercise that right.
Either way, the result is the same, women decrying predatory male behaviour and a nation in mourning for a woman. Again.
The conversation, at least as far as I can see, has been around what women can do to protect themselves, using keys as claws, walking in groups, etc. But there haven’t seen much of a conversation about what part men can play in this conversation. Which is understandable as most men have never lived a day as a woman so we can never truly understand.
But that does not excuse us from remaining silent when something like this hits the national conscience.
Because, let’s face it, this woman is dead because of the actions of a man.
Women can do everything in their power to protect themselves and other women around them but they wouldn’t have to act like this if it wasn’t for male behaviour that we as a society just brush off. This leads to women internalising changing their behaviour in ways they shouldn’t have to in order to stay safe.
“Don’t wear short skirts … always keep an eye on your drink … never go off by yourself”.
And I’m just now realising why women often go to the toilet with a buddy.
All this telling women to change their behaviour is a poor reflection on our society as a whole. We should be expecting men (who are often the source of their fear) to change their behaviour. It’s this entrenched victim blaming culture where women are held to be responsible for men’s behaviour. Speaking as a man, I find it kind of offensive that it is accepted that men can’t be expected to control our emotions and drives.
So what can men do to help end this culture of victim blaming and stop this problem as a whole? Some may say that men cannot possibly understand what it’s like for a woman to be threatened by a man. So these suggestions are made in the knowledge that we men are outsiders. Nevertheless I feel that we men must do something.
First, talk to your female friends.
If you don’t have any women who are friends, I suggest you make some. Talking to women about their experiences was the first step towards me realising how prevalent this behaviour is. It spoke volumes that every woman I talked to had several stories about predatory men.
And, be ready, these conversations will get uncomfortable.
Secondly, think about what behaviour you can change.
Sometimes, you will make people uncomfortable, even if you don’t mean to. It could be something you say that you might not have known isn’t OK to say. Sometimes it’s hugging people for just a bit too long, make jokes that might be perceived as inappropriate. You might have to change some of your behaviour.
It’s also worth thinking about how others will perceive you. Imagine, if you will, you’re walking in the same direction as a woman walking alone, at night. Even if you’re not doing anything but walking a few metres behind her, that alone could make them feel unsafe. So, cross the road so you’re further away from them so she knows you’re not a threat.
Thirdly, call out behaviour in your male friends that’s not OK.
We live in a world where men are favoured. That’s just a straight-up fact.
Little girls might be told that if a boy is pulling a girl’s hair or pushed her over in the playground, it must mean they like them. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories like this.
I’m also sure that we’ve heard the phrase, ‘boys will be boys’ and it seems to apply to anything. Creating a fight club at school? Boys will be boys! Bullying kids perceived as weaker? Boys will be boys! Asking a girl out several times to the point where she becomes uncomfortable and needs him to stop? Boys. Will. Be. Boys!
It’s a phrase that’s used to shrug off bad behaviour but it needs to be called out as such.
So, it stands to reason that we do things that society tells us are OK to do but, actually, aren’t OK to do. The odd comment about a woman’s looks, the general objectification of women when they aren’t around to other guys. We have to recognise that behaviour like this isn’t OK and hold people accountable when it’s happening.
Here’s the thing: most men are good people, and they want to be good people. I believe that, if you call it out politely (i.e. “Hey, that’s not OK to say”), the majority of us will feel bad and change that behaviour. And if that person doesn’t react like that, that might be a sign to keep an eye on them.
Listen and raise up the voices of women who are brave enough to speak out. And I’m talking about really listening, not brushing it off like normal behaviour or minimising the story you hear by saying “Well, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad”.
Whenever women speak out, I’ve seen a worrying trend of men making excuses for the person being accused. It’s always in an “innocent until proven guilty” and “well, it was probably her fault” kind of way. Or, my least favourite response, “Not all men are like that”.
And finally, as men we need to understand that “No” means “No”. I know this seems obvious but many men believe that women can be persuaded to change their minds, if they just persevere – and this often become harassment.
The Bylines network has featured several articles on this theme. Here is an article from Sussex and here’s one from West England. They are both great starting points for listening to women’s experiences and stories.
The Independent quotes BBC Breakfast’s Dan Walker, who tweeted:
“This awful Sarah Everard story has highlighted the lengths to which women go to to avoid being attacked by men. Some of the accounts are grim & those sharing them are then sent vile messages by … men. We have got to collectively do something about this.”
We need to change our behaviour before we can change society. Men are part of the problem, but I truly believe that makes us part of the solution.