What we accept as normal

You can judge a society by what it accepts as ‘normal’ and whose truths it takes at face value, I think. What it doesn’t see as particularly remarkable, or out of the ordinary. Who, when they speak, it decides to automatically believe, and who it chooses to doubt and interrogate. We started the week of International Women’s Day 2021 watching a considerable number of people rush to doubt a high-profile woman’s account of being driven to suicidal thoughts, and we’re ending the week watching details of a woman’s suspected abduction and murder gradually unspool.

All the women I know are grieving today, hearts heavy and aching for Sarah Everard. All of us are exhausted, but unable to look away. Unable to look away because we can’t take any more shocks. We want the details, almost against our better judgement. Because if we have them, then we can plot the depth and ferocity of the misogyny we’re up against. The scale of the fight ahead.

We’re exhausted because we still seem to spend so much time fighting. We take precautions just to live, and at every turn, round every corner, lurks a reminder that it’s not our world, not really. We just have to try and survive in it.

I can’t even say anything that bad has happened to me personally; most of my female friends have far more shocking stories than I do. I mean, sure, I’ve been followed through an airport right from the check-in queue and had to hide in the ladies’ loo at the gate to finally get shot of the guy. I’ve had a man ascend the steps to my flat in the grey light of a winter morning even after I’d politely asked him to give me and my dog some space. I’ve been filmed without my consent and I’ve been groped on a residential street on a sunny afternoon and I’ve experienced what I guess you’d call harassment (I mean, I considered telling the police about the emails and the calls and the messages. You know, just in case the guy went on and did it to someone else), and there’ve been a couple of intimate situations where I have had cause to wonder if this it, my time as ‘unassaulted’ is up. But I do not consider myself especially traumatised and I have women close to me who have experienced far, far worse. 

However, I do imagine a world in which I would say the things listed above are, you know, quite bad – a world where downplaying them would be seen as mad. But that is not our world. Women carry their experiences with them – they check them in somewhere low in their minds, like hold luggage, in order to go about their lives, using the extra weight as a reminder to do everything they can to keep themselves safe. We know the statistics; we know the numbers are not in our favour. Just this week, it was reported that 97% of young women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment. 97% looks like a norm to me. If 97% of young women had at some point won the lottery, you’d correctly assume that winning the lottery was essentially an everyday occurrence.

Now, ‘some sort’ of sexual harassment is a broad term that can cover everything from ‘minor’ comments to outright abuse. But I don’t think differentiating between behaviours is helpful any longer, I really don’t. When almost all women have experienced a thing, we have to acknowledge that it’s all coming from the same place. Because when a society accepts the micro-aggressions – the catcalls, the uninvited approaches, more or less easily dispatched – it allows the ‘medium’ aggressions. The rejected date who turns nasty. The groping in clubs and bars. The groping on public transport, or just on a quiet street in broad daylight. And by allowing the medium aggressions, you’re opening the door for the assaults and the killings. All these things, plotted along the same line, a spectrum we just accept. So don’t call them monsters, the rapists and murderers. They’re not monsters, they are men. Men operating in a system where women are still second-class.

Male violence is our normal, and it must change. We have to find a way to make it not normal, not unremarkable. We have got to find methods to make it look weird, all of it. And I think the only people who can do that are… men. Stop letting the small things slide. The friend who’s “just a bit like that, but he’s harmless really”. Zero tolerance on even the slightest bit of creepiness, that would be a start. Sometimes to address a problem, you have to overcorrect. Women have spent their lives overcorrecting, erring well on the side of caution because we know if the worst happens, they will find a way to put at least a fraction of the blame on us. By saying, “well, had she been drinking? Why was she out late, alone?” you are accepting male violence. And right now, acceptance looks like silent approval. 

Sarah Everard did everything she was ‘supposed’ to do. She wasn’t out that late, she wore bright clothes, she called someone. And it didn’t work. So telling women how to keep themselves safe – giving them tips on what to do, say, wear, and carry with them in order to prevent the worst from happening – no longer looks remotely useful. Maybe these things were superstitions all along. Lies made to look like ‘common sense’, devised to grant false power and displace responsibility: by doing these things, you have some control over what happens to you, and if you choose not to do all of these things, you must take some of the responsibility when the worst does happen to you. We will find the chink in the armour – “he didn’t stop when you said no but you didn’t fight him off, did you? You didn’t scream or shout?” or “you weren’t drunk and it wasn’t dark but you did talk to him, right? You did go along with the conversation?” – and you will have had a hand in bringing about your own tragedy. No, no more. No more acceptance of male violence disguised as safety tips for girls.

The cliché goes that power and responsibility come as an inseparable pair. Our behaviour, our precautions and measures, clearly have no bearing on what happens to us at the hands of violent men. So if the power is false, the responsibility must be too. This is not, and never was, on women to solve.

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