The death of Durham alumnus Sarah Everard has been absolutely devastating and deeply upsetting not only for the Durham community but for the nation as a whole. Coupled with the revelation that 97% of women in the UK have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime, a wave of women have come forward with their own stories, imploring men to recognise, address and dismantle the culture of misogyny and violence that they contribute to and benefit from. This conversation has taken many forms across social media, including a proliferation of online resources that men can consult on ‘How To Make Women Feel Safer.’ While well-intentioned, my question is this: why, in 2021, do we still have to provide basic guidelines on how to appropriately treat women to a fully-grown, adult male population?
This circulation of Instagram-friendly content and blog articles that contain the most basic instructions for how to appropriately behave towards women is deeply unnerving to say the absolute least. From the early, formative phases of their youth, children are brought up within the constraints of a social system premised on gender roles. “Boys will be boys” culture, which professes the inherent immaturity of young boys in comparison to their female counterparts, has created a society that largely places the onus on women to keep themselves safe, rather than holding boys accountable for threatening their safety. Consequently, what has emerged is the solidification of a climate that not only tolerates, but often celebrates, toxic masculinity, aggression and brutality.
From antiquity, the burden of ensuring personal safety has been placed on the shoulders of women, which in itself is starkly hypocritical. Cases like Sarah Everard’s are a testament to the fact that you can do absolutely everything right, and still fall victim to tragic attacks of violence. The only guaranteed way to prevent women’s sexual harassment is for aggressors to not sexually harass women, plain and simple. The well-worn narrative that contends otherwise is victim-blaming at its worst, and only benefits men by exonerating them for their actions, instead blaming female “irresponsibility.”
That is not to say that discussion about building a safer environment for women is redundant. Having dialogue and raising awareness for women’s rights and gender-based violence is of course incredibly important – make no mistake. But what is seriously concerning about the fact that society is having to actively distribute resources to educate men on treating women decently is that this reinforces a culture in which they circumvent liability for directing and regulating their own behavior.
Everyone should be involved in conversations about how to combat the pervasive misogyny that permeates contemporary society; listening to the voices of women in order to understand their perspectives and concerns can only augment this process. What does become problematic, however, is the failure to differentiate between hearing women out and being wholly reliant on them for education. When these discussions treat men as juvenile, ignorant or immature, we veer into the dangerous territory of paving the way for “boys will be boys” to be transcribed into “men will be men.”
Men are more than capable of being proactive, recognising inappropriate conduct and, quite frankly, by now should know better. There is a wealth of resources out there that clearly delineate how you can make an impact – if you make the effort to actively look. Women, who have independently developed their own extensive nexus of covert precautions that by now is basically second nature to them, should not have to assume the dual burden of protecting themselves alongside teaching others how to protect them. At the end of the day, the only way to avoid endangering women is for men to stop endangering them. We both need, and deserve, greater initiative from their end. For change to be substantive, it has to come from within.
More concerning still is that so many of these instructions are ludicrously basic: “keep your distance,” “do not stare,” “show you’re not a threat.” It is absolutely horrifying that we have to lay out how to meet the bare minimum of treating women properly, let alone the matter of treating them well. Avoiding invasion of space and intimidation is base-level decorum, not behaviour that should have to be spelled out. “Spoon-feeding” not only reveals a gross lack of awareness, but places women in a position where they are once again responsible for protecting themselves against male aggression in order to rectify wider society’s own abysmal failure in not having done so earlier.
The bottom line is that the act of not dehumanising women should not require a step-by-step instruction manual. While constructive and open discussions about making women feel secure can absolutely help to provide further insight on upholding women’s safety, men should be equipped with the common sense to recognise what behaviour is acceptable and should be exercising their privilege to combat that which is not. Women, too often held at fault for not being smarter, for not covering up, for not asking for help, for being intoxicated, for being alone, cannot and should not be held culpable for ensuring that men do not put them in harm’s way. We should not have to hold your hand through navigating how to protect us from the culture that you help perpetuate. And if you are having to learn how to not objectify women via an Instagram infographic, I don’t know what to tell you.
Photograph: Tim Dennell via Flickr.