In the wake of the tragic events of Sarah Everard, the conversation around sexual harassment and violence towards women has once again been brought to the forefront of our society. We had planned to release a blog touching on this subject last week, however, after a few rewrites, we found that the tone was still not quite right, and it deserved more care and attention.
As this is a topic that is our (men’s) collective problem, we felt having just one of us write something felt lacking. We wanted this to come from us. As such, we gathered our collective thoughts on what can be a (sadly) divisive, and (understandably) nuanced subject and asked Sam, our close friend and manager, to consolidate them.
I was fortunate enough to go to a good school. I was fortunate enough to have loving and committed parents who did everything right. They were strict but fair. I was afforded every opportunity and privilege society had to offer when it came to upbringing, and this is the extent of the information I received around consent: ‘No means no’.
Looking back, this baffles me. As a 13-year-old surrounded by boys obsessed with something they had never had, it wasn’t uncommon to hear jokes like “It’s not rape if you shout surprise” almost daily. No one challenged this. No one said anything. Teachers, parents, and students alike went about their day as though this was normal. Because it was. I suspect it still is.
In 2007 the box office smash Superbad was released on the big screen, receiving praise from critics and punters alike. I loved it; it spoke to me of my lived experience. This was what being a teenage boy was like. In the end, the film shows that being honest with that girl you’ve got a crush on is the right thing to do. But this is deeply obscured by the bulk of the film. In reality, a very different message comes through when watching. The truth of what society actually teaches teenage boys: when seeking sex, you should use alcohol to impair a women’s judgement. That is how men get sex from women. The entire story centres around the main character, Seth, desperately trying to buy alcohol for a party and, in particular, Goldschlager Vodka for a girl he likes. In the character’s own words, “You know when you hear girls say “Ah man, I was so shit-faced last night, I shouldn’t have fucked that guy?” We could be that mistake!”.
With the tragic death of Sarah Everard at the hands of a serving police officer, the conversation around sexual violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault has started up again, but this time the conversation is different. For the first time that I know of, the conversation has been framed as a male issue. Because it is. Of sexual assaults reported to the police, 99% of survivors said the people who sexually assaulted them were male. Couple this with the statistics coming from several studies in the last few months showing just how routine sexual harassment and sexual assault is, it’s clear that something has to change.
The Office for National Statistics found that almost a quarter of women (22.9%) have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, and one in fourteen have experienced rape or attempted rape. Over 80% of all victims and survivors choose not to report these assaults, and why would you when 98% of reported cases of rape end up with no conviction? These are the most heinous crimes, but it starts somewhere else. And to my mind, a much more frightening study published recently that made waves on TikTok is the APPGs study into sexual harassment. They found that 71% of women of all ages had been sexually harassed in public. When looking at women aged 18 to 24, the number jumps to 86%. Include those sexually harassed in non-public spaces, and the number jumps again to 97%.
It’s a horrifying realisation that your friends, girlfriends, cousins, sisters and nieces will almost certainly be sexually harassed in their lifetime. It’s not a rarety; it’s not something strange; it’s just normal. Waking up to this reality is how we can make a change. We need to change our behaviours, our attitudes, our thinking and our teaching. There has been an outpouring of information from women on how men can do small things differently to make women feel safer walking the streets, and this is the start. But these issues run deeper than that; Superbad is just one film. How many times is the same idea perpetuated? Sex is a contest where men seek to take something from women. Men are hunters, women are pray, men need to take, women try to stop them.
This idea is what runs through the narrative of what it is to be a man and dictates relations between the sexes. Ignored for years, this idea poisons the way men interact with women and what we as a society believe is acceptable. Why should women have to walk the long route home because there are more street lamps on that route? Well, because that’s the game the world is playing. That’s what we teach young men. It’s a competition; he’s just being friendly, don’t take any notice. It’s why some men believe they have a licence to touch, grab and grope women without permission (37% of women report unwanted groping/touching). Over two years ago, Schweppes created the Dress for Respect, which they gave to three women to wear to a club. Decked out with sensors, it registered 157 distinct gropes, grabs, and touches within just 4 hours.
Why has this become normal? Why is it accepted? Why is so little expected of young men in their treatment of women? There is significant research to suggest that, starting in adolescence, a gap between boys and girls forms in their ability to empathise with others. Women consistently score higher than men on emotional intelligence tests such as MSCEIT and TIE. However, the area where we see the most remarkable difference is empathy.
Contrary to popular belief, we are not simply born with empathy; it is not just inbuilt. Women are not inherently more empathetic than men; society just tells men that empathy is not something they should cultivate. Just consider the phrase “man up”, and you can form a reasonably clear idea of what society expects from men. According to Professor Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, there is increasing evidence to show that empathy is, in fact, a skill that can be learned, honed and improved. She believes that by deliberately teaching kids throughout school how to improve their ability to empathise, we would significantly reduce bullying and other forms of harassment. So this is where we need to start as a society, but it can’t all fall on the next generation of men.
Women shouldn’t have to be afraid of the dark; they shouldn’t have to moderate what they wear; they shouldn’t be touched without permission, followed, flashed, catcalled or harassed. But we can’t wait around for these things to change; the men of today need to put in the work now. This isn’t a women’s issue, and it isn’t something women need to solve. We’ve been leaning on our mothers for too long. Educate yourself and educate your boys. It’s not a comfortable discussion, but it’s one that needs to be had. This change can only come when we educate ourselves.
The Whole of The Great Leslie