How do you solve a problem like misogyny?
When I was in my final year of primary school, my friends and I used to walk along one of the main roads in Portsmouth and count how many wolf whistles we got from cars that passed by. We found it amusing and, on some level, validating to us as girls on the cusp of our of teenage years, that we were worthy and good. We collected the wolf whistles like we collected novelty erasers and Polly Pockets.
When I was in my very early years of secondary school, some friends and I were hanging out in the woods, and we saw a man watching us from the bushes, wearing nothing but an open rain mac. He opened his jacket further when we saw him, and we shrieked and ran away at the sight of his bare, hairy flesh. We laughed about this too – ‘What a weirdo!’ we said - as though his hobby of being naked in the woods was nothing more alarming than someone fishing or birdwatching. But we didn't go back there again.
When I was 16, a workman crossed the road to ask me for the time. I worked at a nursery just at the top of our street - it took less than five minutes to get there. He approached me with a sinister smirk, and when I told him I didn’t have the time, he put his grubby hands on my chest and squeezed my breasts, and said something about my tits. It was eight o’clock in the morning. When my dad insisted on phoning the police, I was mortified. I remember saying, ‘It’s not like he raped me!’ as though that was the benchmark for things to be outraged by, and everything else was fair game.
At some point during my time at university, I was travelling between Manchester and Bangor by train, and I felt someone reach their hand through the gap between the headrest and the window, and tickle my ear. I turned around to see a man wearing headphones looking absently out of the window. He didn’t turn his gaze to meet mine, so I thought I must have imagined it. I shrugged it off, only to find that he did it again, and again, touching me more deliberately, putting his finger in my ear and down the neck of my top. I kept looking back at him, but was repeatedly met with a blank face. I thought I was going mad. I didn’t tell anyone, apart from my friends back in halls, but it became another amusing, completely normalised anecdote about a ‘just another weirdo’, a theme that I now recognise as the backdrop to most of our younger lives.
Because over the years, as we talked more and shared our experiences, it became apparent that all my friends have their own set of stories to tell, ones of 'weirdos' and discomfort and abuse and things that didn’t feel right. The creepy teacher who called you ‘hot legs’, the man who stopped and asked you to get in his van, the gymnastics coach who cupped you between your legs, the driving instructor who squeezed your thigh as a signal to change gear, the employer who made you take your wages out of his pocket, the one night stand who had ‘sex’ with you when you were asleep, the surgeon who stitched your vaginal tears after childbirth and offered to do an extra one ‘for the dad’, the stranger who slapped you when you were running, the ex-boyfriend who set your house on fire, the police officer who arrested you under false pretences in order to destroy you. These are real stories from real women, and we all have them. They’re there on a spectrum of unwelcome behaviour, with wolf whistles and ‘Smile, love’ at one end and rape and murder at the other.
I have been thinking about this recently, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder. Wayne Couzens was a police officer, but he could easily have been Sarah's electrician, or a delivery driver, or someone who’d stopped to ask her for directions, or her colleague, or her teacher, or her neighbour, or her boyfriend. The story would be equally shocking, but equally believable. There seems to be a focus on hunting out ‘predatory officers’ now, but that is simply putting a plaster on a gunshot wound. When 85% of people sentenced in court for violent crime are men, and 98.5% of rapists and attempted rapists are men, and 95% of the prison population are men, and 93% of killers are men, we need to acknowledge that this is a bigger problem to fix than street-lighting and police vetting.
We need to start joining up the dots if we have any hope of addressing the issue of misogyny and male violence. We need to go right back to the start.
We need to stop printing t-shirts that say, ‘Move out of my way!’ and ‘Lock up your daughters!’ for little boys, and stop giving them nothing but guns and swords to play with. We need to stop telling boys to ‘man up’ and sending the message that they shouldn’t talk or cry or feel things. We need to stop printing women in their underwear alongside everyday news articles, and we need to stop teenagers circulating violent porn. We need to stop telling little girls that they look pretty, as though that’s all they’ve got going for them. We need to stop telling jokes about dumb blondes, and gay men and using phrases like ‘under the thumb’ and ‘who wears the trousers’ and ‘he’s got balls’. We need to stop underpaying women for their work, and we need to stop giving men so much bloody air time on TV. We need to value women in sports and women in science and women in film, so that boys and girls grow up seeing an equal representation of positive role models. We need to stop sexualising boys’ and girls’ friendships, and stop asking little kids who they’re going to marry. As well as telling the girls to ‘be strong’ and ‘be brave’, we need to start telling boys to ‘be gentle’, and ‘be kind’ and ‘don’t abuse your physical and social privilege’. We need to stop dismissing all those funny looks and bad feelings that women report all the time, all that odd behaviour and those crossed lines and things that happen without consent. We need more women in positions of power, with an understanding of these lived experiences, who can champion for change. We need to call out misogynists when we see them, and we need to stop glorifying lad culture and this toxic masculinity that is not only harming women but harming men too.
Of course, none of these things in isolation make men kill women. But they drip feed into the notion of women being decorative, of being accessories, of being submissive, of being objects, of being less than, and one of men being powerful and entitled and deserving and unaccountable. Not all men, but too many men.
There is so much work to be done, to stop the next generation of girls having their own long list of stories before they even finish school, or worse - becoming the next dead woman on the national news. Until we start weaving a new thread into the tapestry of society - a new way of thinking and talking and behaving and raising children - women and girls will continue to pay the price; with their social status, their economic value, their freedom and their lives.