The appalling murder of Sarah Everard, whose body was found last week, has led to an intense period of introspection across the country. How can this happen to a young woman on a short walk home from a friend’s house in London, seemingly without a care or an enemy in the world, until then apparently happy and trouble-free, not in any obvious danger? Are women safe anywhere any longer? What does this mean for women in the UK? Will women ever be listened to and the issues ever properly addressed? All this only a few days before International Women’s Day, when these sorts of challenges are supposed to be highlighted to the world.
The astute amongst you will notice that I have mentioned the word ‘women’ five times already in this short piece, without even once saying the word men. On the weekend, however, one of my daughters referred me to an amazing TED Talk by a man called Jackson Katz, who has been speaking the unspeakably obvious for the last decade, namely that, as the title of his TED Talk suggests: ‘Violence against women: it’s a men’s issue’. In his talk, he says this:
“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 harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and teenage boys got girls pregnant. So you can see how this use of the passive voice has a political effect. It shifts the focus off men and boys and on to girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It is passive in its construction. There is no active agent in the sentence. It is a bad thing that happens to women. It is 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!”
He explains this use of the passive in a very simple way. Take the sentence; he says, “John beat Mary”. If you make that passive, it becomes “Mary was beaten by John”. Mary automatically becomes focus; John is left to the end of the sentence. You can take that one or two steps further. You can say “Mary was beaten” and leave John out altogether. Suddenly John was not even part of this. To take it further, you could say “Mary was battered” then “Mary is a battered woman” – in this last sentence, she has even lost her very identity – she is a “battered woman”; not Mary, and no mention of John. We do this, he says, all the time – do you recognise this?
Unfortunately, a lot of the media around this issue is currently dominated by the subsequent actions of the police, which in fact risks shielding the most important issue from us all. Regardless of your view on the police response at the vigil for Sarah Everard the other night (and there has been a range of opinion), it is nevertheless a fact that many women in this country feel frightened, vulnerable, at risk. I have a wife and three daughters who all say they have felt like this at times, simply walking down a street. And it is not the actions of other women that are making them feel this way. Are we, as men and boys, comfortable with that state of affairs? Surely not.
So, where does that leave us as a school? Well, we are an all-male pupil body. We have a massive role to play in putting this right, and we must play that role responsibly. We may personally feel that it is not our own fault, and that is definitely the easy answer – I’m one of the good guys; I have plenty of female friends; I’d never hurt any of them; I pay women equal respect to men; not all men are the same. Well, that may be the case; but we do all have a voice, as well – do we use that voice enough to stick up for what is right when the chips are down? Could we challenge more directly what is going on around us, be that at parties, or when boys get together in peer groups? ‘Laddishness’, for want of a more recognisable phrase, is often encouraged in male peer groups – do we question that enough? We may well be a good guy, but it is nevertheless not easy to speak up when others are patently not being so. But, of course, it is important to do so. Jackson Katz in his TED Talk quotes Martin Luther King: “In the end what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – the question is, will the good guys stay silent?
When you learn on citizenship days about issues like consent, pornography, respect for women, gender equality, we, as men, and particularly as teenage boys, need to sit up and listen more than anybody else. It is vital that the next generation of men grows up to respect women properly; and to learn to speak up for that. In my introduction to Mr Gracie’s excellent assembly 10 days ago, I stated that, perhaps contrary to what you might think, International Women’s Day was as important a day as you can have in an all boys’ school. I hope that you will all remember this at your next party, or chatting with your mates on social media, or when you are talking about girls on the bus. Violence against women is a mens’ problem – and we men must commit to solving it.