Women all know that queasy shock of hyper-awareness when a man on the street or the Tube or bus begins to behave in a threatening way. It is a moment in which an action plan is hatched and, in the vast majority of cases, that action plan is to try and disappear. Walk, do not make eye contact, say not a word and hope for the best. If he has you captive, for instance on a Tube carriage, ignore, ignore, ignore. Grimly stare ahead. The goal, after all, is to escape, not to inflame. But all too often this is not effective.
The reality is that women feel afraid because we know three things: we know we don’t know how to fight. We know we are physically weaker than any would-be attacker. And we know that men know all this. We therefore understand that if we are attacked, it is entirely the attacker’s whim whether to rape and kill us, and that all we can do is try to be some tricky combination of neutral and pitiful. In most cases, our harmlessness is our only weapon.
No wonder, then, that when the Peter Sutcliffes of the world hatch their plans to rape and murder women, they have no personal fear. Apart from the abstract idea of criminal justice, they know that almost any attack on almost any woman will be successful in the moment, which is when, for the woman, it matters.
All of which is why the response from politicians to the Sarah Everard murder has been so vexing. At lightning speed (since #Metoo they’ve had time to learn), they have responded with vows to combat ‘everyday sexism’ and to institute classes in schools teaching men to respect women. They have also proudly added misogyny to the billowing roster of hate crimes. It's all worse than silly.
Kit Malthouse, the minister for policing, apparently thinks the solution is to teach kids about ‘the way people are treated in the street and the way women and girls are contemplated in the public realm.’ This is an amazingly useless idea. Not only does it treat all boys as would-be harassers or murderers, it seems to assume that if they are, they will be led off the evil path by Personal Social Health Education (PSHE) lessons. They won’t.
Boris’s response to the cold-blooded murder was even more excruciating. In his estimation, the ‘underlying issue’ is not the small proportion of sadistic men getting away with murder and how to stop them, but ‘everyday sexism and apathy towards women’. ‘Everyday sexism’ is as woolly as it sounds – a subjective grey area that ranges from assault to a stare held slightly too long. So no, Boris: the ‘underlying problem’ isn’t ‘everyday sexism’ or ‘apathy’ – it’s that even in the most peaceful societies, a proportion of men are violent, and a proportion of those are rapists and murderers.
Indeed in a society obsessed with ‘calling out’ isms and cooking up new crimes, it is remarkable that the single most useful thing for women facing life and death at the hands of men is the single thing that is never recommended: self-defence. The only way to make men think twice before threatening women is fear of immediate consequences for their person – or at the very least, the absence of total certainty that they will be able to overpower their victims easily.
Until women are taught robust self-defence skills that can cause severe pain, injury or even some kind of genital horror for their attacker, men will know that they can do whatever they want. Instead of more useless classes, more empty allyship and more virtue signalling, why not make martial arts training mandatory for girls? Why not teach us to operate pen knives? Most of us wouldn’t even know how to chuck some mace in a man’s eye if it came to it. And as long as that small proportion of murdering, raping men know that, nothing will change.