Men: this is not just a women’s issue

Published by The i paper (4th October, 2021)

When Sajid Javid was interviewed over the weekend about the hideous Sarah Everard case, he delivered the classic political response to a disturbing issue that flares up in the news.  There was a bit of emoting, vague talk of reform, promises to learn lessons – the most devalued phrase in Westminster – but no clues about real action. The health secretary is, bear in mind, a former home secretary and brother of a high-flying cop. Yet after waffling about a women’s rights strategy, he would not even say if he thought misogyny should be a hate crime despite having ordered a Law Commission review on the issue. “I like to be led by the evidence,” he said.

If the government wants to be led by evidence, there is plenty to examine. Since that unfortunate young woman was kidnapped and killed in March, at least 79 more women have met violent deaths including Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old teacher murdered on her way to meet a friend. The number of rape cases has risen sharply, the number of prosecutions almost halved in a year to such a dire level the Victims’ Commissioner talks about the “de-criminalisation of rape”. Fewer than one per cent of sex offence incidents end with conviction. Domestic abuse surged in the pandemic. Cash-starved courts are in crisis. Studies indicate more than two-thirds of women have suffered harassment in public; even more feel unsafe after dark.

This intolerable situation is even worse for women of colour and women with disabilities. Boris Johnson talks about wanting to level up our country; perhaps his government might start with remorseless focus on ensuring half the population can go about their daily lives without fear of abuse or attack. Everard’s death was uniquely horrifying, but it was far from an isolated case of police failure regarding sexual offences. Think back to the depressing tale of black cab rapist John Worboys, who may have attacked several hundred women in the back of a vehicle they saw as a place of safety. One teenager said police laughed when she detailed her case; little wonder it took several years for that man to be prosecuted.

Yet it is too easy to think these problems can all be blamed on police, too simplistic to think they might be solved by shuffling the Met’s top brass. Yes, warning signs were missed with catastrophic consequences, people should be held accountable and procedures revamped. I have written here before about Alice, a friend in her thirties, who wishes she had not told police about a sexual assault from a stranger, such was the intrusion on her life that left her feeling more like a suspect than victim. More than three years after the attack, her case has still not gone to court while officers push to access notes from a therapist to trash her mental health. The way she has been treated, like too many others, is utterly disgraceful.

Reforming this broken system should be among the government’s top priorities. Ministers should look at abandoning the adversarial approach in sexual offences, examine restorative justice concepts and boost rehabilitation services. They should pour funds also into the shattered court system, along with helping underfunded local authorities create safer streets. Yet these issues go so much further than shattered public services. For what does it reveal about male attitudes when a killer’s work colleagues nicknamed him the ‘rapist’, knew he used violent pornography and some exchanged misogynistic material on WhatsApp? 

This unsettling case exposes far wider flaws that remain pervasive in our society and lie behind daily harassment, intimidation, sexism and violence that torment women. Any man knows all too well the banter, the gags, the brags that demean and objectify women. Any woman knows the comments, the jokes, the jibes, the put downs, the innuendo, the ignoring of views that demean and undermine them on a constant basis. Many of these attitudes have been lethally inflamed by the social media snakepit and torrents of often-violent online porn that flows unchecked onto phones and computers.

The impact is seen across society. Look at the sacred health service, for instance, and ask why so many of the worst horror stories involve female patients whose concerns go ignored for years by arrogant male consultants and managers? We saw this with a rogue breast surgeon, pelvic mesh implants, fatal maternity services failures. The answer, reported Baroness Julia Cumberlege in her landmark review of three safety scandals last year, was that serious issues were dismissed as “women’s problems” so there was “complete denial of their concerns… written off by a system that was supposed to care”.

Wayne Couzens was a grotesquely twisted human being. His depravity horrifies men and women alike. Yet is he also an extreme example of corrosive attitudes that seep into far too many places and are tolerated with damaging consequences? We know, for example, abusers often carry out lesser offences, then like this creep become emboldened if not caught. Yet while we focus so heavily on female victims, we ignore everyday male attitudes that lurk in the background of such appalling cases. This is the culture that starts with banter but can culminate in violence.

We must fix police failings and a criminal justice system that let abusers carry on committing their crimes of terror. Yet we should not shy away also from asking if men such as Couzens are simply the most disturbing example of a failure to tackle the more toxic elements of masculinity that scar so much of society. Men need to recognise this is not just a women’s issue. This is a problem that starts in the office and pub with laddish jokes, entitled attitudes and female stereotyping – and ends with our wives, mothers and daughters walking home with their hearts in mouths and keys clutched in hands as a potential weapon when we pass them on the street.

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