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‘Men aren’t even a part of it’: Why we need to change the way we talk about gendered violence

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The now-confirmed murder of Sarah Everard has rattled everyone I know. Friends have been in touch with safety tips, I’ve timed jogs so I don’t have to go outside alone at night, and women have taken to social media in their thousands to bravely share their own stories of sexual harassment, assault, and violence.

The case has sparked a huge wave of discussion around women’s safety. For many women, latent fears have been thrown into stark relief, proven right after years of second-guessing: that we weren’t wrong to take out our headphones at night, or cross the road if we felt we were being followed, or grip our keys between our fingers “just in case.”

One number in particular has received a lot of attention on my social media feeds: 97%. According to a survey from UN Women UK published by the Guardian, 97% of young women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed. It is a horrifying statistic, but to women at least, a grimly unsurprising one.

And whilst it’s vital that everyone is made aware of these figures, the trouble is that women should not be the statistic. The men who stalk, cat-call, flash, rape, and even murder women – the perpetrators of these awful crimes – should have the full weight of these numbers placed at their own feet. Instead, men are so rarely visible in statistics that it becomes almost possible to forget that there are at least two people involved in every single one of these cases.

Of course, that is not to say that all men play a role in these incidents, or that all incidents have been carried out by men. But the fact of the matter is that men “are the major perpetrators of violent crime,” as Julie Bindel highlighted in her piece for the Standard this week, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that this is true of most cases. And that is why clarification is all the more important – because we need to be able to point fingers at those men who do pose a threat, and do more to reduce their risk to society.

Author and psychotherapist Philippa Perry drew attention to the issue this morning when she tweeted a quote from anti-sexism educator Jackson Katz:

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harrased girls,” Katz explains.

“So you can see how the use of this passive voice has a political effect. It shifts the focus off men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term violence against women is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term violence against women, nobody is doing it to them. It just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it!”

If men are held apart from the way we talk about gendered violence, they become invisible. And we all know that when you can’t see a threat, it becomes more powerful – untouchable, almost – something you feel less able to control, trace, or fight against.

In the case of the 97% statistic, MP Nadia Whittome tweeted her support of an alternative title: “Men have sexually harassed almost all young women.”

But perhaps we should start asking questions differently, too – “Have you ever been sexually harassed by a man,” for instance, as opposed to “Have you ever been sexually harassed” – so that results can be reported as part of a wider frame that makes the role of perpetrators clearer, instead of placing the onus solely on women.

Sarah Everard should not be remembered as a number. We should share her story and the stories of so many others by using our language more thoughtfully – so that we can start shaping a discourse that does not flatten the role of women, that points the finger where it must be pointed, and that gives us more power to bring an end to such horrifying stories.

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