Opinion
Subscriber Only

Kathy Sheridan: Misogyny is the soup in which boys are raised

No one one is suggesting laddish banter inevitably leads to murder – it’s more complex

Not all men are predators. Not all men are potential rapists or murderers. Most women are lucky to have fine, decent men in their lives.

Is it necessary to spell that out? It seems so, because there are people who believe that, at best, women exaggerate their fears to get attention, or, at worst, exploit a tragedy to suggest there is a continuum between laddish behaviour and a predatory murder.

Perhaps the answer is to insert a mandatory declaration at the end of every woman’s story – like those breathless disclaimers in financial ads – that the speaker does not believe that every male is a predator but that the person in question just happened to be male, which is of course not the same, etc.

Another part of the problem lies in the stories we tell at times like this. Compared with the savage snuffing out of Ashling Murphy’s life, they seem so small, so tame.

As a broody young teenager in the midlands, my escape valve was to take my transistor radio and San Francisco fantasies for walks around an isolated lake a few miles from home. One rainy day as I sheltered under a tree, a man silently materialised behind my shoulder, smoothly slipped his hand under my top and bra and cupped my breast. And thus we stood, perfectly still, his body pressed into mine, until the rain abated. He then removed his hand and strolled away.

That happened more than 50 years ago yet the sense of it has never quite left me.

One woman's boast of kneeing an importunate guy in the groin is another woman's high-risk judgment call

When a woman is assaulted or killed, some visceral part of my brain dredges it up with a sense of all the young girls who undoubtedly had stood like me, paralysed, shamed and humiliated, but who never told their stories because they seemed so insignificant.

Might that have been the source of my assailant’s surreal confidence and all who came after him?

I recall the impulse to kick out but also how his height, grip and obvious long practice prompted me to keep still.

Would resistance have excited him or enraged him? Would it have provoked a resigned shrug, or a battering, or a drowning? I do not know – nor does anyone reading this. One woman’s boast of kneeing an importunate guy in the groin is another woman’s high-risk judgment call.

Out of bounds

That walk was out of bounds afterwards, of course. The joy of hitchhiking was abandoned a few years later when news emerged that two English men had arrived in Ireland with a plan to rape and murder a “bird” every week. John Shaw and Geoffrey Evans already had eyes on a third target when arrested for the abduction, rape, torture and murder of Elizabeth Plunkett and Mary Duffy. A risk assessment on Shaw five years ago concluded that he has a “deviant sexual preference” and unsurprisingly, that he harbours “hostility towards women”.

These were the inflection points of my early years.

Few years have passed without one.

At Graham Dwyer’s trial for the murder of Elaine O’Hara, the court heard he had considered lurking around the car park of a popular hiking spot “late in the day and if the last car was girly looking, the chances [were that] a suitable victim might be walking on her own”. He also planned to pose as a house buyer so that he could rape and stab a female estate agent to death.

As a young teenager, Ana Kriégel also encountered sexualised abuse locally

His own counsel described material from Dwyer’s computer as “deeply misogynistic”. He had nurtured fantasies of stabbing a woman to death during sex when he was barely 20.

Two years ago, at the trial for the murder of Ana Kriégel, we heard the 13-year-old Boy B’s worldview of females, encapsulated by his view of Ana’s clothes as “kind of slutty”. As a young teenager, she also encountered sexualised abuse locally.

On her way home one evening, one of a group of older boys harassed her repeatedly for sex. She said no and, as she went to cross the road, he hit her on the backside. She arrived home “hysterical, banging on the front door ... I had to hold her in my arms for an hour to calm her down”, her mother told the court. The incident was summarised as “groping” on one news site.

Belfast trial

What is in the culture that gives young teenage boys that sense of entitlement, that view of girls as something to harass, abuse, assault, even kill ?

No one believes that all laddish banter with a thread of misogyny leads to murder. But it is the soup in which boys are raised. Does that matter? The WhatsApp exchanges between young, educated men revealed by the Belfast rape trial – “Any sluts get f***ed?” , “There was a lot of spit roast last night” – suggest it matters very much.

Do men and women ever really know each other at all? Women talk about these things incessantly. What do men do?

Where men perceive harmless, locker room banter, clear-eyed women see contempt, ingrained prejudice and some degree of hatred – all comprising the very definition of misogyny and therefore dangerous by any standard.

Do men and women ever really know each other at all? Women talk about these things incessantly. What do men do? Who can deny a continuum between silence, unacknowledged misogyny and murder? No doubt some men are feeling demonised this week. Women will be only too happy to hear from them.