Wednesday 17 March 2021

The Sarah effect

The shocking murder of Sarah Everard has unleashed a torrent of emotion around male harassment of women. Abductions of young women are tragic but thankfully rare - I reminded my teenage daughter of this when she told me a friend was worrying about walking into town. However, the case has shone a light on the commonplace fears that many women experience throughout their daily lives. 

White orchids
Darkness and light:
In memory of Sarah Everard
For the most part, these fears have become normalised: don't walk down a dark alley, spike keys through your fingers for protection, be ready to press the alarm on your phone, walk confidently, send texts to make loved ones aware of your whereabouts, etc. 

It's just common sense, right? Or have we learnt to subjugate ourselves to the threat of violence?

Last Saturday's vigil on Clapham Common was in part an attempt to turn the tide on this climate of fear. A subsequent photograph of two policemen pinning student Patsy Stevenson to the ground proved deeply ironic. I'm generally a mild-mannered being, but that photo rankled! You couldn't have asked for a more potent image to call attention to male violence perpetrated against women.

For me, Sarah's fate was particularly poignant as I lived in Clapham South as a young woman and walked the same streets. There was footage of her on Poynders Road where a friend of mine was once mugged in broad daylight. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, we loosely tolerated all sorts of dodgy behaviour: men rubbing up against us in bars, sexism in the office, whistling, being followed late at night, having our breasts groped, bottoms pinched... I don't need to go on. Most women have been there. 

Power and control

Of course, the vast majority of men are perfectly lovely and respectful towards women - only a few deviate. Sarah's attacker was one individual. So this is not an attack on masculinity, but a pushback against a culture that enables sexual harassment. 

Even our language reinforces gender inequalities. Consider a pairing like master and mistress. Which word has derogatory connotations? Master remains in control, while mistress is the bit-on-the-side. And, how about dog and bitch? From the moment we learn to talk, language subtly teaches us to believe that maleness/men are stronger, more powerful and even worthier than women. How often have you unconsciously assumed a doctor was a man, before correcting yourself? Until recently, the he pronoun stood as a proxy for all of us.

I once interviewed Sandra Horley when she was chief executive of the women's shelter, Refuge. She told me, 'We are totally steeped in the tradition of men being the dominant sex but these very attitudes give men the power and control which can be so dangerous.' She argued that discrimination against women, forcing them to accept an inferior status, sowed the seeds for domestic abuse. 

But let's be optimistic too. Over the last decade, there has been much to celebrate. The #metoo movement has called out sex offenders and forced the pendulum to swing the other way. Reform of the gender pay gap has gained traction, slowly narrowing the yawning chasm between male and female salaries. I'd also highlight the heroic work by Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, to educate young people about relationships, pornography and gender imbalances. People are waking up to these issues.

However, thorny problems call for a complex solution. If we're to build a safe and more equitable society, we need to look at a range of factors. On a basic level, these include better town planning and street lighting, but we need to dig deeper. The to-do list includes more social education in schools, better support for mental health issues and early intervention for troubled children. Not least, we should harness the current mood to push through reform. Let's talk about it, let's educate our kids. Now is the moment to have this conversation and birth a brave new world.

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