Tsunami of anger over treatment of women

Accusation: “Society is full of structures that dehumanise and trivialise us.” © Getty

Are new laws the right way to tackle the problem? As testimonials of abuse flood social media and protesters take to the streets, everyone seems to agree things need to change. But how?

In Britain, the government yesterday announced new measures to protect women from men in public spaces: there will be more street lighting and CCTV. Plain-clothes police will be stationed in pubs and clubs to monitor predators.

But many immediately hit back, saying that these measures only address the symptoms not the causes. They argue that violence is baked into our culture, and boys are taught to abuse women from a very early age.

In the last few days, thousands of school and university students have taken to the website Everyone’s Invited to share their stories of abuse at the hands of men: older, younger, friends, family and strangers.

Their harrowing stories have sparked a new conversation about the extremely young age at which women start to experience abuse — and at which boys start to perpetrate it.

Many claim that the problem is the widespread availability of indecent images online. A survey by the NSPCC found that two-thirds of children aged 15 to 16, and one-third of those aged 11 to 12, had already seen indecent images.

This means that sex education has been taken out of the control of parents and teachers. Instead, many young people are learning about sexual relationships from what they see online.

But these videos generally present sex in a very unhealthy way. They rarely feature partners giving their enthusiastic consent to sex. They often show men hurting or degrading their female partners.

Some argue that the problem is much broader than this: that sexual exploitation has expanded into every part of our lives. They point out that adverts often use naked or near-naked women to sell their products. TV programmes like Game of Thrones and blockbuster films use nude scenes to capture the interest of the audience.

They make the point that we are all complicit in structures that dehumanise women. Recent research on men’s sexual aggression has shown that dehumanisation, and in particular the denial of women’s “human uniqueness”, can be a driving factor for men who commit sexual offences. Put simply, some don’t see women as people.

“Men need to speak up when women are being treated or talked about in ways that don’t feel right or respectful. It’s going to feel uncomfortable, and you may be mocked, but men need to challenge other men about their attitudes and behaviours,” wrote the respected Durham University sociologist, Fiona Vera-Gray, yesterday.

“Simple actions such as altering pronouns in children’s books – so female characters have the rich lives and adventures that the male characters have – will help over time to build a world where it is harder and harder to not see women as people.”

So, are new laws the right way to tackle the problem?

Exploitation

Absolutely, say some. The reason so many men feel that they can carry out violence against women is that they are very unlikely to be punished. Introducing new laws to prosecute them, and new legal measures to increase the likelihood that they will be caught, will act as a deterrent against abusive men and ensure that women are safe.

Not at all, say others. New laws are worth very little if women do not feel confident or comfortable bringing their stories to the police. What is needed to guarantee the safety of women is a wholesale shift in our attitudes, ensuring that men are taught from an early age to respect women, and not to objectify, exploit or abuse them.

You Decide

  1. Is it too easy to find indecent pictures and videos online?
  2. Would you feel safer or less safe in a nightclub or a bar knowing that some of the people there were undercover police officers?

Activities

  1. Make a poster encouraging boys to rethink their attitudes to women and sexual relationships.
  2. Write a letter to the prime minister describing some of your own ideas for ending violence against women.

Some People Say...

“Sexual harassment works—as does bullying more generally—by increasing the costs of fighting against something, making it easier to accept something than to struggle against something.”

Sara Ahmed (1969 – ), British-Australian feminist theorist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the vast majority of violence against women takes place not in public, but behind closed doors. One study in 2019 estimated that about 1.6 million women suffer domestic abuse every year, a problem that has been exacerbated during lockdown, when it has been harder to escape an abusive home. Sexual abuse is much more likely to be committed by a partner, friend or family member than by a stranger. However, the vast majority of these cases are never reported to the police.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not plain-clothes police will be helpful or counterproductive in the fight against male violence. Supporters argue that men will behave themselves if they think a police officer could be watching at any time. But critics warn that the system is open to abuse. Any random man could lure a woman out of a club on the pretext of being a plain-clothes police officer. Worse still, an officer might use his cover to assault women himself.

Word Watch

Plain-clothes police
Police officers who seek to go unnoticed in crowds by wearing ordinary civilian clothes.
NSPCC
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children campaigns for child protection. It was founded in Liverpool in 1881.
Enthusiastic consent
The idea that before having sex with someone, it is necessary to ensure not only that they are consenting to it, but that they are consenting to it because they really want to do it, and not because they feel pressured to do it.
Puritanical
Moralistic authoritarianism. The name derives from a 17th-Century Christian sect, the Puritans, who banned many forms of fun, including gambling, wearing fancy clothes and celebrating Christmas.
Sex work
Any kind of work involving sexual services, ranging from stripping, to performing in indecent videos, to prostitution.
Misogyny
Hatred of or discrimination against women. The term comes from the Ancient Greek “miso”, meaning “hate”, and “gyne”, “woman”.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.