James Kirkup

The case of Sarah Everard should make us all stop and think

The case of Sarah Everard should make us all stop and think
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At the time of writing, we don’t know what happened to Sarah Everard. However this story ends, it should be an important national moment of reflection, because the way it has made a lot of people feel deserves serious attention.

When I say 'people', I largely mean 'women'. And that reflection should come from men. Men need to learn some lessons about the way this case makes women feel.

Perhaps there is something jarring about me, a man, writing a column about women’s feelings and thoughts. Should I even be trying to describe and report the experience of a group to which I do not belong? There’s a lot of identity-based thinking and argument that would say 'No' to that question. In other contexts, it’s become common to hear the assertion that a person who does not belong to a category of people cannot speak for that category.

I don’t buy that assertion, not least because it’s based on a category error. Describing the experience of a group is not the same thing as purporting to speak for that group. If it was, the entire practice of journalism would be impossible. It is surely possible for a person to report the feelings and experiences of others, even though those others belong to other groups and categories. If the media industry forgets that and accepts the false notion that only a person of X group can report on X group, journalism is lost.

So what I’m trying do here is describe what I see and hear many women saying about the Sarah Everard case. It makes them afraid. Afraid that they live in a country where a woman doing the most mundane of things – walking down the street – can disappear.

A lot of the women expressing that fear are young to young-ish, in their 20s and 30s and 40s. Women of that age were born when Britain had had its first female prime minister, where 'girl power' and 'ladettes' were little more than historic curiosities on the road to what superficially looks like an almost equal society.

Women of that age grew up and now live in a country where women are at least as likely to go to university as male classmates, can aspire to do pretty much any job and generally be as free to live their lives as they please. Of course, there remains a long way to go on the journey to real equality, but surely the big fights over the really fundamental stuff – the vote, property, basic physical safety – have been won, right?

Here, I draw on my experience of writing a lot about the women who feel strongly about trans rights’ impact on their own standing in society. Time and time again in covering that story, I’ve heard women confess that they hadn’t previously seen the need for feminist activist or women’s organisations. As confident, independent women in a world that afforded them near-equal status in most regards, it never occurred to them that the system of politics and government might do things that would affect them without consulting them. On encountering a seemingly unstoppable political and social agenda with what they see as implications for their rights, that proceeds without regard to their wishes, many began to feel disconcerted and even frightened.

One conversation that will always stick in my mind was with a fairly prominent politician, a woman who has held high office and done some tough jobs. She told me that the trans debate made her feel afraid and made her re-evaluate how secure her place in society is. 'I thought we’d won all the big fights so we could just get on with life. I thought we were safe,' she said. 'I was wrong.'

Conversations like that troubled me, and still do. I’m a 40-something white man with a professional job and an established career. There are things in this world that scare me, but they don’t include the possibility of being denied a say on political questions. And they certainly don’t include being attacked or abducted while walking home.

My guess is that a lot of men will be a little surprised at how deeply and widely the Sarah Everard story affects women. It is not an easy or comfortable thing to accept that a great many people in our country do not always feel physically safe as they go about their everyday lives. This is one of those areas where that idea of 'lived experience' (though it’s still an awful phrase) does have real merit. A man and a woman walking down the same street at the same time will very likely have vastly different experiences of that action. We live alongside each other, in very different cities.

Those differences are obviously rooted in biology. I’m more than six feet tall and weigh more than 14 stone: a younger, fitter man could pose a physical threat to me, but it’s been a long time since I was last punched in the face and the thought rarely crosses my mind as I go about the world. A woman could reasonably regard almost any male adult as a potential threat, since that person will almost certainly be bigger, stronger and more aggressive than her.

Such a view would not be without justification. Men kill women, not quite every day but every week. The Femicide Census project finds that on average, a man kills a woman in the UK every three days. About two thirds of those killings are committed by the woman’s current or former partner.

Men kill men too. And the majority of all murder victims (around 64 per cent) are male, which is the sort of statistic that a certain sort of man likes to introduce into conversations about violence against women. See also: claims about men suffering as much from domestic violence as women.

Much of that is shabby whataboutery and I see no need to dwell on such things, beyond observing that as is so often true, two things can be true at the same time. It’s true that men suffer violence and abuse. It’s true that men abuse and kill women, and as result, some women routinely feel afraid.

It’s also true that the fact of that fear is not adequately reflected or discussed in British society. Discourses (sorry for another one of those words) public and private do not give enough weight to that residual quotidian fear. That is the fear that is activated and heightened by the Sarah Everard story.

That women’s fears are not fully acknowledged in our national life is, I’m afraid, down to a failure by men, a failure to take that female fear of violence – and violence itself— seriously enough.

This includes those men who help lead our national conversations. Where are the male politicians who campaign on and speak about domestic violence and femicide? They exist, but they are few. 

Where are the male commentators who address these issues? Why are stories of men killing women rarely regarded as newsworthy, and when they are, is the focus so often on explaining and exculpating male violence? Why isn’t domestic violence against at least 1.6 million women a year much, much higher up the political agenda? Why are Commons debates about domestic violence one of the few parliamentary events where most speakers are female?

And why does it take a story such as Sarah Everard’s to bring women’s widespread and routine fears to light? Women can answer that question. Men should too.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph.

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