HOPE not hate’s Deputy Director Jemma Levene reflects on the persistent harassment, abuse, and violence that women face throughout their lives, the renewed debate over how to make real change, and the denialism of too many men in the face of women’s lived experiences.
Last night, Peers debated amendment 87B to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords, to make misogyny a hate crime. It still feels utterly beyond my comprehension that this is something that is even up for debate. Surely it should be obvious that women are the targets of misogynistic abuse and harassment at every level of society.
A few things from the past week stand out to me as clear indicators of the mess we are in.
One is the response to the murder of Sarah Everard, used by so many men, of #ItsNotAllMen. In case it’s not clear to you yet, it may not be all men who are perpetrators of violence against women, or of everyday misogynistic abuse, but it is all women who have to make choices every day that factor in ways to try and avoid abuse, harassment and fear of violence by some men.
A report in January 2021 by UN Women UK showed 71 % of over 1,000 UK women polled have experienced sexual harassment in a public space, rising to 97 % for those under 25.
Our own polling of 2,076 16-24 year olds in May 2020 showed that 50% of young men and 23% of young women agreed with the statement ‘feminism has gone too far and makes it harder for men to succeed’; while only 49% of those polled agreed that ‘it is a more dangerous time to be a woman than a man in Britain today’.
In our report, we recommended a recognition at a policy level that misogyny and racism intersect, as part of a wider pushback against an equality agenda and a furthering of white male supremacist power through frustrated entitlement. This includes ensuring greater support, including specialist services, for women of colour who are most likely to be on the receiving end of this hatred.
Everyday harassment and supporting girls and young women
For women in the UK today, casual misogyny is everywhere. The micro aggressions we experience mean that we change our behaviour and limit our choices all the time in order to avoid harm. Reflecting on our younger selves, my friends and I can list multiple incidents of abuse and harassment we experienced from a young age that at the time we were not equipped to respond to, or even recognise. Young women are more vulnerable, have not yet learnt the strategies, adaptations and limitations necessary to reduce the risk of casual incidents harm. They are easy targets.
When was the first time I was aware of a male/female dynamic that made me feel uncomfortable? Maybe when I was about 11 or 12, when a man waited for other people to leave a side room of a provincial museum, so he could speak to me alone. Luckily it was only words, but I had no frame of reference to process an adult ‘flirting’ with me, I froze.
Or maybe it was around that time when the downstairs of the bus was full, and I had to go upstairs, in school uniform, and endure the man sitting behind me making kissing noises and moans as he leant forward into my space and breathed in my ear. Again, I was totally ill equipped to react, and froze until it was my stop.
Even as a student, groped in broad daylight in a busy street, my younger self just extricated myself from the man in question and carried on down the road to my next lecture.
I could go on – I have a long list, mostly involving my much younger self not knowing how to respond, and not being aware I had a right to report. Honestly, I consider I got off pretty lightly though. A student friend was raped. Unbelievable as it may sound, she did not report it, thinking she had ‘led him on’. That was the mid-nineties, but the same dynamic is at play in 2021, except that now it’s happening at an even younger age.
Why am I sharing all this? Because, if I had spoken to someone at the time, maybe I would have been able to process each incident, and quite possibly would not even recall them so many years later. But also because something has to change. We have to talk about the realities women face so that men can begin to understand the enormity of the problem.
Teaching boys to behave
Social media has been full of comments about the need to teach boys how to behave in schools. Great! Guess what, our Education Unit is already tackling the issue in schools all over the UK. We don’t need to invent a programme here, we just need it to be properly funded, and ideally, rolled out nationally by the Department for Education, instead of being left to small charities like ours to try to stem the absolute tidal wave of misogyny that teachers report having to cope with in schools today.
The PHSE curriculum is designed with flexibility to allow teachers to address contemporary issues, so tackling sexism and sexual harassment in schools could easily become a national norm. The DfE needs to offer schools guidance and ensure adequate teacher training and support on this issue.
In the meantime, some tips – just telling boys to be nicer to girls is totally ineffective. We worked with an educational psychologist to create workshops that would be as effective as possible. Even so, work tackling misogyny in the classroom is absolutely gruelling – and no wonder, as it runs counter to all the messages boys (and girls) take from their influences in wider society.
But Sarah Everard’s tragic murder has also shone a spotlight on the fact that you don’t have to be young to be vulnerable. The hashtag #SheWasJustWalkingHome expresses some of the horror and anger that we all felt on reading what happened to her. However, it seems problematic to me to even have to frame things this way. As if, had she been doing something ‘reckless’, she might have been in any way an active agent in what happened to her. It should not matter what a woman does, what she wears, where she goes. Every woman deserves the right to be safe from male violence and harassment.
We need men and boys to listen to what is problematic behaviour and speech, and to change their behaviour.
We need girls and women to be supported when they speak out about something they have experienced. Women cannot trust a system that belittles their experiences and does not bring justice. Current figures state that 85,000 women are raped each year. Yet only 1.4% of rape cases in England and Wales recorded by police resulted in a suspect even being charged. That’s the lowest figure since records began. And even if a suspect is charged, some cases are taking as long as three years to come to court. All while the victim is living in fear and trauma, and the perpetrator is free to offend again.
We cannot improve the criminal justice system’s record on harassment and abuse of women unless women feel there is a point to reporting misogyny, and that men feel there is a consequence to being found to be a perpetrator. Making misogyny a hate crime will give police forces much needed clarity, and that needs to be backed up with a huge training programme for police and all those in the justice system, to improve the experiences of victims, and to improve the chances of achieving convictions for perpetrators.
A pledge to increase spending on street lighting and CCTV (and the slightly creepy sounding presence of undercover police in bars and nightclubs) just does not cut the mustard. Meanwhile, in a perfect austerity storm, funding for women’s refuges has been slashed, so when women need a place to run, there just are not enough places that they can run to.
Whose emotional burden?
Yes, we need better infrastructure to protect women. But what we need far more is for men to behave differently. For those micro aggressions that do not cross the line into being a criminal offence, there needs to be a consequence. Imagine the social consequence if men held other men accountable, and consistently called out unacceptable language, attitudes and behaviours, particularly in all-male or male dominated settings.
Maybe we should go back to some personal stories again. This time, not about strangers, but about friends and colleagues. Like my first boss, who was arrested for soliciting, and who all the under-age ‘Sunday girls’ (me included) knew never to be caught alone with? How about the time I was on a student committee, and all the men on the committee ranked all the women according to how ‘fit’ we all were? How about the time I walked into an office at a previous place of employment to find a pornographic story left open on a colleague’s PC. It was investigated by a non-computer literate senior member of staff who could not find anything. Guess how that panned out. I’m not prepared to share the more overtly sexual comments, propositions and assumptions I’ve had to deal with from men I know.
And this is the other social media response that has got under my skin. Sorry, but the tweets and posts of “I know to cross the road if I’m walking behind a woman in the dark; women – tell me what else I can do” are actually pretty harmful, especially when our timelines are full of such pleas. Do not push the emotional burden of learning on to women, just so you can look good on social media.
Yes, we need better education for young boys. Yes, we need a better funded and trained criminal justice system and support system for women. But what all men can do right now, from today, is commit to being self-reflective in their language and behaviour, and to actively challenging other men when they perpetrate misogynistic behaviour.
This would have a real power for change, far more than hashtags on social media.