After Sarah Everard, Women Are Getting Advice for Staying Safe—But It’s Men Whose Behavior Needs to Change
We teach women how to avoid abuse, but we never teach men how not to assault.
When Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, was found dead in London after a weeklong disappearance, the first wave of responses flew to victim-blaming. Why was Everard, who is believed to have been murdered by a man, walking alone at night? Was she drinking, or perhaps wearing revealing clothing? Did she invite this on herself simply by existing as a female?
Predictably, the second wave of responses moved straight to providing safety tips for women on how to prevent their own harassment, rape, and murder. This advice may be well-meaning, but it’s knowledge that many of us have been armed with since childhood. It does not work, and it’s also not our behavior that needs to change—it’s men who need to do the hard work here.
Across the world, gender-based violence is terrifyingly common. In the UK, Everard’s home, a woman is killed by a man every three days; 97 percent of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment; and 80 percent of women of all ages had been harassed in public. Globally, across their lifetimes, one in three women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence, and six women are killed by men every hour of the day. For the LGBTQ community, it’s even worse, with one in two transgender people sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives, as just one example.
With statistics like these, it’s obvious that women are not fully safe anywhere, at any time of day or night, or with any friend, partner, or stranger; after all, we are far more likely to be assaulted by someone we know than a stranger in a dark alley, with victims knowing their attackers in eight out of 10 rape cases, per one study.
And until men can acknowledge that the society they live in unfairly benefits them and actively work towards making women feel safer, these statistics will never change.
Like so many women, there has not been a single year of my life that has been free from the influence of male violence. To survive, I have spoken to countless women and femmes about possible solutions for our safety, but nothing has improved. Men’s inherent privilege teaches far too many of them that women’s bodies are an open market that they can comment on or abuse with impunity—and when they are confronted with their abuses, they blame us for tempting them.
Men know how rampant assault is just as much as women do, but while we’ve been learning how to use keys as weapons, shout “fire” instead of rape, and make ourselves unattractive or amenable to prevent or speed up sexual assault, they haven’t been taking action to fix their own behavior. Often, their attempts at allyship focus on highlighting their greatness as protectors of women, which misdirects attention to them over the sexism at hand and prioritizes collecting brownie points for the grand task of not being an abuser. But the allyship that’s really needed goes far deeper.
In our society, we teach women how to avoid abuse, but we never teach men how not to assault. The damage starts early on; we raise boys to dangerously identify anger as the only acceptable emotion for them to express publicly. And while girls grow up believing it is their responsibility to prevent rape, boys frequently grow up with little awareness of their role in perpetuating male violence. This cycle of gender-based violence has been perpetuated for thousands of years, and it’s a burden that women carry every single day. But gender-based violence is a sickness that’s spread and upheld by men, and so the responsibility for healing this lies entirely at their feet, not ours.
Men must pick up the mantle and fight this battle, because we are losing the war.
We have to get to the root of the problem and teach both boys and girls about consent from a very young age, so that it’s ingrained in their psyche by the time they become adults. And as true change can only happen if men push back and recognize potentially abusive behaviors in their peers, this should start with men talking to each other through organizations like A Call To Men, Men Can Stop Rape, and ManKind Project. Additionally, men need to educate themselves about the historic oppression of marginalized genders so that they can untangle the deep roots of the toxic masculinity that contribute to gender-based violence.
This call to action should not be another passing trend. We must remember Sarah Everard’s name just as we should remember Blessing Olusegun, Alexus Braxton, and countless other murdered women. The violence endured by women and girls, transgender women, and femme presenting non-binary and genderfluid people, is a human rights crisis on a global scale. And we must stop expecting women to have these conversations alone, in an echo chamber of shared trauma, or do all the work in protecting themselves from danger. Only when men respond to the call and confront their roles in perpetuating gender-based violence will we finally see the change that’s needed.