There are a few ways in which I could start an article about violence against women. I could use a personal anecdote – about getting off the tube three stops early, or taking a half-hour detour to avoid a patch of unlit park, or hearing from a friend that her boyfriend had raped her. Or I could use a statistic – that 97 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 have experienced sexual harassment, or that prosecutions for rape dropped 52 percent between 2017 and 2019, or that even before the pandemic, the rate of women killed by partners or ex-partners was on the rise.
The problem is that while all of the above is depressing and disgusting, it’s increasingly hard to believe that anyone finds it surprising. Four years on from #MeToo, those who don’t know that every woman has one of these stories and that perpetrators generally enjoy impunity from both the law and social consequences have been choosing not to listen.
So here’s a different anecdote: at lunchtime on Thursday I listened to a radio show which had invited women to call in and talk about their experiences of sexual harassment. One after another spoke about being followed or grabbed at, and then the host thanked them and switched to a pop song.
Talking openly about experiences of sexual violence is vital, but this show was a better metaphor than any I could make up for the way in which decoupling the fact of the violence epidemic from a demand for radical change risks rendering it content for casual consumption – and for the cynical exhaustion so many of us feel, which hamstrings our ability to do anything about it.
This week, that exhaustion has magnified around the sense that the solutions offered to tackle sexual violence feel less and less sufficient. Coming of age under fourth-wave feminism, I’ve never believed that instances of harassment or abuse are anything other than the perpetrator’s fault – but I still won’t wear a short skirt out if I know I’ll be travelling home late and alone. Men who encourage other men to talk to their friends and parents who encourage other parents to talk to their sons are very welcome additions to the conversation, but I don’t know any parent who believes they’re raising their son to be a rapist. Advocations of this kind rarely translate into concrete measures, and when they do, they continue to be subject to resistance.
This isn’t to disparage the important work done by activists and spokespeople so far. As I’ve said, speaking out so that the commonality of assault is known is vital, as are education and frankness on questions of consent, misogyny, and aggression. Acknowledging the issue is the point from which all change must begin. But this week’s news shows that it alone isn’t enough to bring that change about.
The other solution, favoured by short-sighted politicians, is to push for more police on the streets so that the bad apples—never cops themselves—can be locked away. Aside from the obvious insensitivity here given the occupation of the man currently in custody for Sarah Everard’s suspected murder and the fact that police officers regularly abuse their power in various ways, including to perform sexual violence, this tactic shares a line of thought with those who refuse to attend university consent classes: that abusive acts are performed only by a small group of villains; that one is either an abuser or not an abuser, that you know inherently which you are, and that once all those in the former category are caught, the rest of us can get on with our lives.
Even if this was true, any woman who has reported an instance of sexual assault to the police will tell you that their interest in catching perpetrators is limited; as of Thursday night, the police have been actively trying to prevent the Reclaim These Streets vigil from taking place.
The reality is that other than for a small number of conservative media pundits, misogyny—and the violence associated with it—is not an identity trait like having blonde hair or being diabetic. It’s a mindset, yes, but it’s also a set of behaviours, a subconscious preference, an economic materiality, a hierarchy of power, a group dynamic, a historical precedent, and many other things, often in combination. Thinking about it as an individual characteristic that errs from a liberal norm might make it feel more manageable, but it also limits our ability to find a realistic solution.
What that solution might be I can’t say, but it seems likely that it will extend beyond sole questions of sexual violence itself. Fear and suffering are not rare things to witness or experience in modern Britain. Neither is entitlement. Sarah Everard’s disappearance and the experiences many have recounted this week are archetypical examples of violence, but the truth is that we live in a society in which violence is increasingly common.
While different in effect, intensity, and motivation, starving someone is also an act of violence. So is forcing them to sleep on the street. Only in a society which socialises us to accept fear and suffering as normal—natural, even—could I sit eating soup while listening to women like me discussing their day-to-day fear of death, and then calmly turn off the radio and go back to work. The more common those things become, the more immunised we are against them – and the harder it will be to combat their most crystallised forms.
That’s not to say that sexual violence can simply be subsumed into a broader question of social injustice, without provision for the specific viciousness of those acts – but it’s to acknowledge an interconnectedness. One study from the US from 2017 found that the poorest members of the population were twelve times as likely to experience sexual violence as the wealthiest; trans women, women of colour, and those who fall into both categories are all at increased risk. In the face of that interconnectedness, the mass solidarity movements that bring together and sustain all who suffer and all who face violence in its disparate and related forms are more important than ever.
We’re all tired of feeling scared and scared of feeling tired, and the search for an answer to this often feels impossible. As socialists, we advocate for resource redistribution to combat many of the world’s worst ills, but Sarah Everard wouldn’t have been saved by public ownership or an end to homelessness. She probably wouldn’t have been saved by university consent classes, either, or by better-lit streets, or by more men telling their friends that their sexist jokes are inappropriate. Something else—something broader, something combined—is needed.
For me, that begins with refusing to accept the messaging that tells me violence of all kinds is an unavoidable feature of our social landscape. As a woman inhabiting this world, I have to believe a solution can and will be found.