My friend's signature goodbye greeting when I'm getting into a taxi after a night out is "text me when you get home". She always says this. I rarely ever do remember to text her, but when I do, it's just to keep her happy. She has never been bothered when I don't text, which is worrying in its own way I suppose.
When it happens, it reminds me of Karen Buckley's murder last April. Two things happened after the news broke that I noticed and hated. A judge in the UK bemoaned young women putting themselves into "vulnerable positions" by drinking alcohol, citing Karen's recent death, and an absolutely well-intentioned woman came up with a spin on the text-your-friends-when-you-get-home thing which she called "OUT" (Organise a chat group. Use it to stay in touch. Text when you get home). The idea is to check into a female pal chat group sporadically throughout evenings out, and then again when you get home, so everyone is in constant contact and accounted for and definitely not missing or raped or murdered.
It sounds so reasonable, doesn't it? Text when you're home safe. Don't drink too much or someone might target you. Don't leave your drink there, it might get tampered with. Be careful. Watch yourself and your friends. Follow the rules of responsible behaviour so that what happened to Karen doesn't happen to you. We wish very much to control the uncontrollable. We want to feel of power and autonomy over what happens to us, and thinking that we can slightly appeases the sense of fear and unease we feel, as we read article after news report on violence against women. We believe that everything happens for a reason and if we are reasonable the world will be reasonable back.
Underlying this hyper-vigilant self-monitoring behaviour is the belief that we can control other people's behaviour, which we cannot. We can only choose our own behaviour. If we manage to evade an about-to-go-for-the-grope space-invader at the bar, we are not choosing different behaviour for him. He is just going to go and invade someone else's space, someone who may not be in a position to get rid of him. He still makes his choice to space invade. The problem is not solved because we managed to to protect ourselves from harm. This attitude is harm reduction rather than harm elimination and doesn't get to the root of the problem, which is misogyny.
Although the "OUT" texting idea came from a very good place, it maintains and supports the notion that women have a hand in what happens to them, and have a responsibility not to become a victim of male violence. It's confusing and unfair. On the one hand we tell women to be constantly aware of their every move, and on the other we tell them that they are over-reacting and that not all men are rapists. I agree. Most men are not rapists or murderers. There are common sense safety precautions, and then there is hyper vigilance laced with self blame. A fun night out for me does not include constantly checking my phone to make sure that my friends are still alive. I am not going to allow the vague possibility that I might get murdered have a seat at my table in the pub. It feeds a culture of fear and control over women's behaviour. Also, it doesn't work.
If we're going by likelihood of attack, then surely this texting idea should be aimed at the group most at risk of stranger violence - young men. Imagine telling a group of young men to organise a chat group and then text throughout the evening to update each other on their safety, finally texting again when they are safe at home? Does this sound ridiculous? If so, why? Let's be logical; young men are statistically more vulnerable on a night out than young women are, so where are the campaigns for their safety? Where is the concern for their safety? When men get stabbed on our streets where are their handy safety tips?
The predator on the street waiting for a woman to target remains an uncommon occurrence, while murder by a partner or former partner remains the most common way for a woman to be killed. One woman a month is killed by a man here in Ireland. Two women a week are killed by men in the UK. 93% of people know their attacker. When women are killed by husbands, boyfriends, exes, friends - anyone who isn't a stranger, there is nothing in the media on the same scale as when the victim is attacked by a stranger. We assume that there must be an explanation. Men don't just kill their partners out of the blue. We think. We say to each other. We comfort ourselves with these thoughts. We tut and fold the paper away.
When the Karens of the world get murdered by strange men it's different. Suddenly it could have been any of us. We tell ourselves that the killer must be evil, a monster, sociopathic, a sadist. It's unthinkable to wonder at the fact that sadists and sociopaths also function normally in daily life. The man who killed Karen presumably has a life and a family. We ignore the fact that the man on the street and the man in the home are the same man. We ignore it because it is an unsettling fact. It definitely makes me uncomfortable. It's much easier to think of him and others like him as psychopathic crackpots, but this is not the case. The fact is that women are more vulnerable at a party surrounded by friends and acquaintances than they are in a pub surrounded by strangers. What makes a woman vulnerable is not her womanhood, but the presence of rapists and murderers.
We need to look at the behaviour of those who are actually committing the crime. We have to stop putting out fires and start looking at where the fire is coming from and prevent the fire from starting in the first place. If we didn't know what caused fire, we'd remain in constant fear that one could spontaneously explode into life at any time. How can we get to the root and prevent sexual violence? Through the education of our children. Through challenging our attitudes. Through the forming of a new culture.
Here's a new "OUT" idea:
O - Organise education among young people to educate them on sexual consent, boundaries, power and entitlement, and to create a culture of curiosity about societal messages.
U - Undo victim blaming when and where you see it.
T - no Tolerance to behaviour that condones, minimises or jokes about violence against women, - in our friend groups, in our workplaces, in our relationships, in the police, and in the courts.
If we want to see change, all of our energy needs to focus on the root of the problem - onto what makes a perpetrator. All of it. Not some of it. Not most of it. All of it. No more casual musing on the activities of victims, their previous partners, their sex lives. No more speculation, generalisation, assumptions or judging. Lets start unpacking how we think about these crimes. Lets start challenging ourselves to think more critically, deeper, and bigger. Let's start imagining the kind of world and society we want and go with that idealistic instinct, while staying rooted in realistic possibilities. Let us contribute positively to the debate with openness and compassion, rather than shutting it down out of defensiveness and fear. And above all, let us recognise that life is learning, and remain kind, curious and non-judgmental in the face of these life-shattering crimes.
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