What could men do after Sarah Everard's death?
The past couple of weeks have been sad and unsettling. The heartbreaking death of Sarah Everard has led to outpourings of grief and anger from women across Britain.
How could men be responding? What could we, as men, be doing to try to shift our society away from this desperate state where women are afraid to go out at night? Where a female colleague today told me that every woman she knows has been subjected to sexual assault in some form, including her, and she has had to wake up to just how weirdly normalised this is. A society where toxic masculinity feels at times like a pandemic. Where, before they reach adulthood, boys see nothing wrong with humiliating girls and seeing them as sex objects.
Some of these boys go on to feel they can act out their fantasies with impunity. Rape conviction rates, let’s face it, have plummeted; at the same time the numbers of offences have climbed alarmingly. Perpetrators are likely to get away with it. This is quite apart from the literally millions of women in the UK every year who experience indecent exposure or unwanted sexual touching.
While this is ostensibly a problem for women, it’s actually a problem for men. When it comes to women feeling vulnerable on the streets, in public places, at home, it’s the responsibility of men to make the change.
How? First, drawing attention to the subject in their daily lives. If a man realises – in his heart, not just in his head – that the problem is real, he needs to share that with others. That will mean teaching his son to treat girls with respect; it means having the courage to question a friend’s attitude when he wolf-whistles or makes a derogatory comment; to look for opportunities at home or at work or in the pub (post-lockdown) to shift things slightly by quietly intervening.
They can act in a wider context too. When legislation isn’t anywhere near strong enough to deter attacks or harassment of women, men can write to their MP or try to nudge public opinion by, say, signing petitions. It’s a centuries-old problem but men still hold disproportionate power in politics, the law and business.
There has been talk this month of a male curfew, where for one night men choose not to go out after dark as a gesture of support to women. I’d support that. Millions of men could too by not going out – and making clear that this is what they’re doing.
Men can pluck up courage to talk to women and girls. They are the ones who understand the problem of sexual harassment from first-hand experience. Teenage girls are routinely shamed by boys who gain much of their sex education from the internet and from banter with peers.
So at a time of anger, when women feel their voices are not being heard in the public arena, empathy for their position is essential. As couples counsellors the key to our therapeutic work is building empathy for the other person in the relationship, understanding how he or she sees and feels things in their world.
Communication breakdown is so often about a failure to understand what is happening emotionally for your partner. Once feelings are expressed and heard properly – in a kind, non-judgmental way – the connection between you starts to build. The repairing begins. And there is renewed respect.
Translate that into the public space. If men listen to what women are having to endure in 2021, then genuinely take it to heart and act to make changes, it begins the process of rebuilding trust. And not before time.