Last week was a bit of a rollercoaster for women in the UK. We had International Women’s Day; a public attack on Meghan Markle’s honesty regarding her mental health; the news that Sarah Everard had been murdered, the suspect one of the very police officers paid to keep us safe; a media storm and police brutality against women… at her vigil. Keeping up?
Sarah Everard’s death triggered a wave of discourse on women’s safety and the general added fear we have just living our lives. Safety VAT, if you will – precautions we take in our general day-to-day lives. Then, earlier this week, after calls for an investigation into the police conduct at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah, the Met announced their first great idea to combat violence by men against women (language is important; the male part of that is so often missed out here). Their great plan is … to deploy undercover police officers to nightlife venues to help protect women.
Now. Before we get going, I’d like to state, for the tape, that I am a huge fan of men. Massive. Most guys I know are appalled by tales of so-called ‘small’ grievances such as cat calls or graphic DM slides – in a way that my female friends sometimes aren’t. Perhaps we see it as par for the course. Men are, on the whole, excellent. Also, all of my best sexual experiences have been with men, accounting for about 98 per cent of them. Well done all of you.
And yet. A close friend who went to the vigil for Sarah said around 80 to 90 per cent attendees were women. The other men there were mostly boyfriends who had come to support their girlfriends, or, according to her, gangs of lads just stood around watching, with lagers, which made her uncomfortable. Why was it not 50/50? Why is a woman’s death almost exclusively the concern of women? How many of those boyfriend’s would have gone if their girlfriend’s hadn’t?
Women consume culture by and for men every single day of our lives. How often do you you see straight men reading books by female authors about women, watching films with a mostly female cast, or TV primarily made by or for women? Must women be the only people interested in our tragedies too? If you love us, show up. And not just because you’re dating one of us, or have fathered one of us. Show up because you want this to stop.
And then there’s the notion of undercover officers policing nightlife. This is the most macho answer to the problem imaginable. It’s putting a plaster on a broken leg. The Tories are big fans of reacting to a problem, rather than looking at what causes it. I’ll make one more generalisation here. The masculine response to any crisis tends to be: ‘What has that man done? Punish him.’ The female response is more often ‘Why? What has happened to make the person act like this?’ Police in clubs is just an extension of your boyfriend chinning a guy who’s felt you up at the bar: ‘That’s my woman.’ Do you think that guy won’t do it again?
Here’s a good example of how to handle it in a better way. A few years ago a guy grabbed my arse while I was standing at the bar waiting to get a drink. I told my boyfriend. When he walked towards the guy, I begged him not to as I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. But he talked to the guy (fairly sternly, from what I could see), pointed at me, and then waited.
The man who had groped me walked over to me, sheepishly, and said, “I’m sorry I did that – I didn’t mean to make you feel horrible.” And shuffled off. He seemed as genuine as a man nine pints down could. I’m not saying this is going to work in every situation, but the point is: my ex went in without machismo, without violence, without aggression. He made the man feel ashamed. He explained how the man had made me feel, and I hope that man thought twice the next time he thought about touching someone up.
The change has to start earlier. At home. Then nursery schools. Teaching boys and girls about equality and attitudes towards the opposite gender. Putting boys in girls’ shoes from day one and educating them about the female experience. Pushing or hurting a girl is not what you do when you ‘like’ them. Crying is not ‘girly’ and, furthermore, ‘girly’ is not an insult.
Primary school children should be taught about consent. Older teenagers at secondary school should be taught about relationships, sex work and the realities of porn and how to reach out if you feel rejected or heartbroken. This is where the Government should be funnelling their ‘look – we’re doing something!’ stunt money. Cops in clubs will do very little. For one, clubs already have door staff for any big incidents, and they should of course call the police if necessary. Secondly, police trust is at an all time low. Thirdly, a lot of uncomfortable sexual behaviour from men in clubs is very subtle. If the police are undercover, how do people know who to go to?
The problem is with mens’ emotional education; we know that they are not taught to reach out when they don’t know how to deal with something. We’re also aware of the stats about male mental health and suicide – it’s still the biggest killer of men under 25, and 75 per cent of all UK suicides are male. If men are emotionally isolated and conditioned to resent women or use violence or aggression to assert control, these behaviours will also become more extreme.
I used to work for an online women’s magazine, which meant going to a fair few patronising events for women called things like ‘Be the best you you can be!’ and ‘Patriarchy? Patri-MALARKY more like!’ (OK, I made that second one up). Nine times out of 10, I sat and listened to the same platitudes about being yourself and asking for a pay rise. One event, though, featured top policewoman Karyn McCluskey. In 2008 she’d launched the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence in Glasgow, which at the time had one of the highest levels of violent crime in Europe. By 2011, violent offending in the city had fallen by almost half and and weapon possession was down by 85 per cent.
How had McCluskey done it? There was no ‘be true to yourself’ bullshit. She said that she saw violence as being contagious; nothing had been done to stop the spread. Karyn McCluskey had made a difference by looking at why this was happening, and how to prevent it from day one. “At the end of the day,” she said, it’s empathy. Empathy is what keeps us together. It’s all really about people getting on with other people. And if you bring a kid up in a war zone, you’re going to get a warrior.”
If you bring men up to never ask why, they will just do. I hope we never have to have another vigil, but we will. And next time, boys, I’d better see you there.