Sarah Everard’s disappearance: ‘This is a man problem. We need to own it, challenge it, change it’

Women are sharing stories of being harassed and attacked. Might things change this time?

Missing: a poster appealing for help in the disappearance of Sarah Everard in London. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty

Missing: a poster appealing for help in the disappearance of Sarah Everard in London. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty

 

It was news no one wanted to hear: police searching for the missing British woman Sarah Everard had found human remains in a Kent woodland, as a suspect – a serving police officer – was questioned about her apparent murder.

The aftermath of this grim discovery has been depressingly familiar, although it seems to have taken on a fresh fury. The suspect’s mother-in-law has been quoted by one newspaper as insisting that he is a wonderful father. Women took to Twitter to share their stories of street harassment, assault and violence.

In sharing their myriad experiences, it has become clear that personal safety is a “normal” part of being a woman, and being unsafe is something women feel exhausted by. As the British writer Rebecca Reid noted: “Every single woman I know is overwhelmed by the Sarah Everard story. It’s the thing they teach us to be afraid of from childhood. It’s proof that we’re not afraid for no reason.”

Women are not afraid of the dark or a lonely space. They are afraid of a violent male perpetrator in the dark

At the same time the #notallmen hashtag was trending on Twitter, with 37,000 tweets and counting. Several men appeared to be objecting to being tarred with the same brush as men who abuse women.

“Not all men are violent, and I don’t think anyone is claiming that. However, the majority of violence against women is perpetrated by men, and that’s something as a whole society, including men, we need to be aware of,” says Sarah Benson, chief executive of Women’s Aid. “Women are not afraid of the dark or a lonely space. They are afraid of a violent male perpetrator in the dark.”

“If your response to the Sarah Everard case is to say #notallmen then you’re part of the problem,” the Labour TD Aodhán O’Ríordáin tweeted this morning. “This is a man problem. We need to own it, challenge it and change it.”

Later he says: “I don’t think enough men have been challenged to look at the world from a woman’s point of view. For Irish men, middle-class men, straight men and able-bodied men, this country has been set up for us. We’ve never had to see the world from anyone’s perspective.

“Whenever I’m involved in a conversation like this, I get a level of kick-back from men who don’t want to be challenged this way and don’t like being told they’re part of the problem,” O’Ríordain continues. “They might think this is political correctness gone mad, or traditional values turned on their heads.”

Noeline Blackwell, head of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, recalls meeting a young man who was surprised when, at the end of a date, a woman pulled out a set of keys to hold in her hand for the walk home. “He thought she was clearly paranoid and said it to his sister, who then told him that all women know how to do that and know when to do that,” Blackwell says. “Fortunately, it was a conversation he was curious enough to have.

I think everyone should take reasonable precautions regardless of gender, but my advice is, ‘Don’t go out and assault,’ and that’s mainly directed at males

“I often get asked at times like this what I would advise women to do. I think everyone should take reasonable precautions regardless of gender, but my advice is, ‘Don’t go out and assault,’ and that’s mainly directed at males.”

Clíona Saidléar, executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, believes more needs to be done to address the root causes of male aggression and toxic masculinity. “Where women pick up safety tips by osmosis, the opposite happens to men via osmosis – the sexual objectification of women, the shaping of men’s masculinity, the affirmation of their masculinity in relation to how women respond to them,” she says. “Their masculinity is defined in relation to women right from the start. I think where you start the conversation is, ‘How can we think of masculinity differently? How do we teach boys to become men?’”

Discovery: a TV crew near where human remains were found in Kent. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty
Discovery: a TV crew near where human remains were found in Kent. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty

Sarah Benson says: “We have a deeply stigmatising and victim-blaming culture, and that is something we can all take stock of. Why do we interrogate women’s behaviours when society does less to absolve [perpetrators] of responsibility?

“Physical violence is often preceded by other behaviours – disrespectful, misogynistic behaviour, and use of reductive language. Do you call someone out if you see them treat someone in that way? We don’t see peers calling them out, and if those interventions are made, peer to peer, at an early stage, it can be preventative. Why focus on what the victims do? Our energy should be on the preventative stuff.”

Noeline Blackwell adds: “Women should not be limited to certain public places. I always wonder if someone has walked past a woman who has been assaulted and thought, I’ll leave it be – it’s not my place to interfere.”

When a woman mentions something that happened to her at 18, I don’t think men realise how long that experience stays with you. A lot of men believe  women simply shrug them off

The outpouring of women’s stories on social media, O’Ríordáin notes, should at least move the debate about street harassment and violence forward. “This flood of experiences was a real eye-opener for me,” he says. “When a woman mentions something that happened to her at 18, I don’t think men realise how long that [experience] stays with you. I think a lot of men believe that women simply shrug them off.

“Men have to own this,” he says. “We need to find the words which bring men along with us. We have to work harder to get into the heads of young men and challenge the pressures on young men where they sexualise and dehumanise people to an alarming degree.”

Benson agrees that men need to become more integral to the conversation about violence against women. “Equality, respect and nonviolent communication are things we should all aspire to and collaborate on.”

Could the huge online conversation surrounding Sarah Everard’s disappearance result in a sea change? “I’d love to say yes,” Saidléar comments. “We’ve had this conversation so many times. When this type of [crime] happens, it changes things a little every time. I wouldn’t be in this job if I didn’t believe change is possible.”

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