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Femicide is not due to bad men ‘acting alone’

Seeing wider patterns could inform policy actions required to tackle issue

There is no doubt seeing the tragedy in Tullamore as a one-off incident is a useful way of coping with the horror of this awful news. The attack is being widely referred to as ‘random’.

But it wasn’t random.

There are patterns and connections between events that result in women’s deaths at the hands of men. They are worth rehearsing as they make it clear that there is a way forward if only we are willing and able to acknowledge these systematic influences.

The first clear pattern evident is that, more often than not, women experience violence at the hands of men. Often we speak of women who are killed, or women who are assaulted, women who are raped. We erase from the narrative those who are responsible for these acts. Disproportionately, year on year, the pattern is clear nationally and internationally. Men kill women, men assault women, men harass women. Not all men, not even many men. But it is nearly always men, not women, who kill women.

Escalation

The second pattern we can be sure about from years of criminological research is that more often than not men build up to extreme violence. Men who perpetrate life-threatening violence against women tend to build up to this point of their criminal careers. Perpetrators usually start with jeering, street harassment, exposure, groping. Yet we rarely intervene when men perpetrate entry-level violence. Recently a teacher recounted to me a story of a male pupil who exposed himself to girls and women in school. When the teacher went to report it, a male colleague laughingly labelled him “a legend”. It is time to stop in their tracks those who commit entry-level violence. Too often this behaviour is ignored or even condoned. More rarely is it prosecuted or punished.

This leads me to the third pattern we can be sure about. Lower-level violence and harassment is a widespread problem. Women report street harassment routinely when they walk, run and cycle. And while men also experience street harassment, a wide range of studies using multiple methods indicate that the intensity and nature of the harassment differ by gender. Men have fewer harassment experiences overall and they seldom report harassment that has a sexual tone.

However hard it may be to hear, it is (some, not all, but too many) men's behaviour that is the issue, not women's

A final pattern is that though this problem has been highlighted previously many times, policy responses have been limited if not almost entirely absent. In 2018 many, many women, myself included, highlighted the issue of street harassment and risks faced by women exercising in public space in Ireland. I wrote about this in this newspaper, it has been covered in running magazines and by national and local broadcasters. Many other women came forward to highlight their experiences of exercising in public space. Walkers and cyclists face similar issues.

Not only has there been no policy response to the many concerns expressed, sometimes there is a systematic refusal to acknowledge there is even an issue. By way of illustration, a couple of months ago a fitness influencer was urging his followers to get off the coach and go for a run. It was late in the day. Few women runners would go out the door for a run in the dark. Tired of the failure to acknowledge the lived experience of #runningwhilefemale, I replied pointing out the difficulty for women who might want to work to his advice. He blocked me. I think that is the online equivalent to sticking your fingers in your ears and it is an excellent metaphor for the current state of play.

Precautionary measures

Efforts to manage our concern and distress can blur our efforts to see problems clearly. Many women report that they modify their behaviour because of their feelings of risk. As a long-time runner, I can assure you we take care. We have a litany of rules. We run before dark, we run with others, we don’t separate, we run with the dog, we run in floodlit areas, we run with GPS safety trackers, we run in ‘safe’ areas. And it isn’t just women who run that worry about their safety in public spaces. Women take all sorts of precautionary measures as they go about their everyday lives. Staying on the phone when walking alone, the last in the taxi texting friends to let them know of their safe return home, relinquishing earphones in order to stay alert when out and about.

But none of these precautions, or advice to women to take care, will solve the problem. Seeing the patterns will help us see the policy actions we need to take to tackle this issue.

Until we join the dots we will continue to attribute femicide to mad or bad men ‘acting alone’. A zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of male aggression and violence in both public and private spheres would be another good start too.

And, however hard it may be to hear, it is (some, not all, but too many) men’s behaviour that is the issue, not women’s. Women know it could have been any of us. I am very sorry it was Ashling Murphy, RIP. It would have been preferable for her to have lived in peace.

Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at University of Limerick