It feels almost ironic that such a heartbreaking week started with International Women’s Day. Whilst women across the country were not only worried about the safety of Sarah Everard but deeply shaken about how easily it could have been us; discussions placing the weight of responsibility on us once again surfaced.
This isn’t new nor was it a surprise, I have lost count of the amount of times women have pointed out that we have been doing everything we can to avoid gender based violence. These measures are almost second nature.
We’re cautious (read: terrified). We’re vigilant about how we get home; whether it means carrying a makeshift weapon, like keys or an umbrella, or planning exactly how we handle interactions with men in situations where we genuinely fear for our lives. But this has little effect on the conversation and the solution when the majority of men have views enshrined in victim blaming. The continuous focus on what women need to do differently is only a detriment, whilst providing a scapegoat for men who simply should not be attacking women.
Discourse around how women should do X, Y & Z to prevent harassment and attacks are conversations that many of us have experienced repeatedly since childhood. When will the focus shift to the perpetrators instead of (potential) victims? And when I say shift, I don’t mean justifications of how violent men seemed like they wouldn’t hurt a fly when they’re killing women.
Continuously emphasising on how we must change our behaviours is futile, it doesn’t come from a place of concern; it only serves to let rapists, abusers and murderers off the hook, harming us in the process. When a man I know told me that being raped was my fault for what I wore (when he didn’t even know what I wore at the time), I was “assertive” enough to be adamant that it wasn’t my fault, because I knew that the blame doesn’t lie with the victim. Or that’s what I thought, until I discovered that I had PTSD years after as a result of the rape. I learned through therapy, that whilst I thought I knew it wasn’t my fault, underneath the surface, I had a lot of self blame. Through therapy, I realised that behaviours I had normalised as “just taking precaution”, such as taking Ubers before 8pm sometimes because I was frightened of walking to my house from the bus stop, were trauma led responses. I wonder how many women have significantly modified their behaviour in the name of “staying safe” as a result of the trauma they’ve experienced. All that victim blaming does is amplify trauma and pain, shifting the spotlight away from where the responsibility really lies.
We’re told that when we are the victim of gender based violence, we should report it to the police. It seems that the ‘solution’ to injustice is to turn to a force, and a justice system, that only hurts us further. Many women who experience gender based violence don’t turn to the police – myself included. The police have already fuelled the view that the onus lies with women. I wish I was joking when I write that more women were convicted for not paying their TV licence fee in 2019, than men were convicted for rape and convicted of domestic abuse combined in 2019-20. Of course, there are the arguments that some of these crimes are ‘easier to prove’. Yet there were almost 700 cases of alleged domestic abuse involving police officers and staff between 2015-18, 1500 accusations of police sexual misconduct between 2012-2017 and a 2008 study shows that over 50% of officers used their gut feeling to determine whether a rape victim was reliable.
Is it any wonder that many of us don’t trust this institution when we experience gender based violence? The announcement that there’ll be more police on the streets as a result of Sarah’s murder brings me no reassurance, when I know the harm that they’re capable of.
The continuous emphasis on modifying womens’ behaviours, rather than that of men, leads to a perpetual burden on our shoulders that makes us feel even worse along every step of already traumatising gender based violence. We’re petrified before anything happens to us, we’re riddled with shame and self blame if/when it does, we’re made to feel like shit if we report it, and guilty if we don’t. Victim blaming is not just infuriating or frustrating – it adds to the danger we face by constantly excusing men whilst leaving us in a pool of self loathing. At the end of the day, all of the Ubers, rape alarms, keys through your knuckles and baggy clothes in the world does not, and will not save us all the time. Only men not attacking women will. It’s not too idealistic, or too much to ask for. That’s what we should be focusing on.