Respect as Safety: The importance of ending male violence

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now about the appalling ‘alleged’ murder of Sarah Everard. For those of you reading internationally and perhaps less aware, last week she was attacked by a police officer. A search ensued after her boyfriend alerted the authorities that she was missing. She is now presumed dead after human remains were found in a local woods. The police officer in question is currently standing trial, which is why I’m using the kind of neutral language that I am here. The case remains an extreme but no less serious incident of the kind of thing many women understandably fear about being in public.

Re-enforcing this climate of fear was the police response to the vigil a few days later – an incident that has been the subject of much protest and outcry. In response to people gathering peacefully at clapham common to pay thier respects, all wearing masks and many socially distanced, the police broke up the vigil, pinned mourners to the ground and chucked them into the back of police vans. Many have rightfully pointed out that this is indicative of the climate of fear that exists towards women being out on the streets and excersing thier right to speak out against male violence.

The first part of this blog will give an overview of how I see my responsibility as a male in ending all forms of male violence no matter how subtle. As with everything else, my autism has coloured my way of looking at the issue. The second part of this blog contains a few observations from a friend of mine who is both autistic and female. In situations which are so serious, my words may have limited effect, however if I have the ability to add my voice (and Sofie’s) to the chorus of those calling for a change in how we understand and behave towards issues of safety and respect, then I feel I have a responsibility to do so.

Violence and the problem with ‘not all men’…

Before we go any further, I want to clarify what violence is. Using its broadest definition, violence is anything that directly or indirectly causes physical or emotional harm to other people. In that sense, violence could be anything from directly assulting someone, to using your words and actions in a way which makes people feel unsafe, to refusing to speak out against other, more serious forms of violence. Its not a perfect definition but its one that works when discussing men’s responsibility to stop male violence.

My first reactions to the case of Sarah Everard were emotional and upset. The police response at the vigil a few days later made me angry. I’m lucky in that neither of these incidents made me directly fear for my safety. One of the issues which means that violence against women and sexual harassment are such pervasive issues, is the deeply contradictory messaging surrounding them. A lot of the discourse focuses on what women should be doing, wrongly – in my opinion – shifting the responsibility away from the abuser on to women. As a man, it is my responsibility to make women – and everybody – feel safe, by not engaging in any wrongful behaviours. If I didn’t and followed the ‘Its women’s responsibility’ line, I would’nt have any basis on which to criticise others who verbally mock me for my outwardly autistic traits. Indeed, if it is women’s responsibility to protect themselves, why would’nt that include the right to speak out against abuse when it happens? The message around public safety and bodily autonomy directed towards women seems to be ‘take the necessary precautions so you can defend yourself if your attacked but don’t try and challenge any of the attitudes that lead to assult in the first place’. None of this is to say that people don’t have any responsibility for thier own safety. Everybody takes precautions to feel safe but no should have to feel victimized.

At some point, if you point this out regularly and to enough men, you are likely to hear someone say ‘not all men are like that’. The primal way you want to respond when you hear or see #NotAllMen is “yes, I fucking know. Nobody is suggesting that all men are abusive, simply that it is far too common, and that all men have thier part to play in stopping abuse from happening” . As far as I can see, the phrase ‘not all men’ comes from a primal desire to defend the group that you’re a part of. Its a composition error where men hear others criticisng male violence, and immediately feel under attack. Its the logical equivalent of hearing a story about someone with blue eyes doing something criminal, and immediately becoming offended because you’ve got blue eyes. Of course, in some cases people of a certain identity are made to look bad as a whole – this quite often happens when an autistic person does something bad and media outlets implicate thier autism. However, this is clearly not what is happening here. While many might – rightfully in my view – say that all men are capable of subtle forms of violence, nobody is conflating ‘individual men’ with ‘all men’. To pretend that they are is just absurd.

And yes, in case anyone is in any doubt, the problem is that severe. Evidence indicates that even using the narrower definitions,  violence by men in public spaces is disturbingly prevalent. Although the more extreme physical manifestations of violence such as abduction or murder are relatively rare, a large proportion of women report being assulted. And when women are subjected to serious physical violence or murder, it is usually men who perpetrate it. This is often despite extensive safety work from women. Contradictory messaging about being told to protect oneself while simultaneously being told that protesting is unreasonable and overreactive does nothing to keep women or anyone else safe. Fiona Vera Grey has pointed out how women are expected “the right amount of panic” to be viewed as having a reasonable response to the threat of violence. Even then, what they do may not be viewed as enough. All the while the problem of male violence goes overshadowed and overlooked.

A few thoughts from Sofie Bainbridge…

While I as a man have a responsibility to educate myself about sexism and forms of aggression against women to make sure I do not act in subtly discriminatory ways myself, I am actually incapable of claiming to know everything about the experience of being a female. For that reason, my friend Sofie, who is also on the autism spectrum, has provided a few thoughts which I’ve added some of my own notes to.

…”with me being a woman a woman and autistic, I feel more scared when hearing about these things happening“…

This connotes a degree of anxiety arising from news stories of assult and violence. My friend does take care to point out that violence can happen to anyone for a range of reasons. However, that does not mean anyone can specifically relate to this form of sexualised violence which is so common. That’s why I think its important not to shrug off the concerns of women with ‘everyone risks experiencing violence’ – this is true, but not everyone is necessarily at equal risk. Therefore, as this observation summarises, ignoring the different forms violence takes risks ignoring the causes of the problem and oversimplifying acts of aggression as ‘crimes’ with no social significance or relevance. As Sofie goes on:

“I do believe that there is a threat, especially when I’m frequenting out of society places like bridal paths“…

This points out that while in parts of society or in certain situations, there may be accepted way’s of behaving, in isolated, less formal scenario’s the message to women is clear – ‘the right to feel comfortable in this public space is mine and not yours’. The potential for violence from male members of the public may be particularly pronounced if they see a women ‘stimming’ or acting in ways that are perceived as strange. Of course, everyone should have the right to feel comfortable in all public and private spaces but this is rarely the case.

…”It is really difficult explaining to people that I’m autistic, and they don’t respect boundaries 90% of the time. They think I’m rude or ignorant and can be hostile as a result”…

This is a particularly insipid form of violence that happens to women and autistic people, albeit in different ways. Just looking at autism for a second, when people stand to close to us or touch us in ways we feel uncomfortable with, many of us pull back. Equally, we can be very quiet and reserved when meeting someone for the first time. Both these can be perceived as rude and aggressive. Being a woman introduces a form of sexualised violence into this whereby women who reject men’s advances are met with aggression. The fact that many face the risk of one – or in cases like these, both – of these forms of discrimination proves we need better understanding of boundaries and consent throughout society. As Sofie goes on to say:

“neurotypical men could take the time to understand more. It appears unless it is told in black and white they don’t understand. I also feel they could be less domineering”

I think this is something a lot of men could work to understand. Its important to note the issue of microaggressions – subtle behaviours that make women feel less comfortable. This could be something as simple as using sexist language or intentionally and knowingly walking behind a woman for a long period of time. Importantly, if your autisitc you will still notice subtle forms of discrimination. You might not be able to articulate and make sense of what is happening to you in that moment but just because someone struggles to make sense of thier own feelings, does not give anyone the right to abuse that process.

“sexism effects me, especially when I used to work in a male dominanted industry. I also feel that being a woman on the spectrum, I’m constantly compared to men on the spectrum, as though we are all the same”

This is another example of the vicious ways sexism and ableism often intersect. Autism was presumed only to effect boys, until quite recently. This has led to many woman going undiagnosed. Think about it, count how many representations of autism are about men, and count how many are about women. It says something when the most prominent representation of autisitc females in the media is Sia’s Music. Whatsmore, the common portrayals of women and autistic people in the media is as weak and timid. The generic preconceptions of ‘all autistic people. behave this way…’ or ‘all women are like this’ or even ‘autistic women should be like this..’ contribute towards the dehumanizing and stigmatization of these identities. What right then has anyone, when faced with the idea that all men do indeed have a responsibility to educate and be honest with themselves about sexism, to claim ‘not all men’?

An Atypical Perspective…

Sofie’s special interest as an autistic person is photography and she see’s her home as her safe space – a place she can find some peace and quiet, from the hectic qualities of everyday life. She says that while her hobby gives her a sense of safety, she dosent feel comfortable taking photographs everywhere. This struck me as a great illustrative point. If you’re a creative person you don’t want your creativity to be restricted in any way. You want, to put it simply, to be free. This is not just a creative impulse but a uniquely human one. Whether its to walk, to see your friends, or to take photographs, everyone has the right to dignity and respect in all areas of life. The case of Sarah Everad and the police response at Clapham common has illustrated how we are a woefully long way from achieving that goal of safety and respect for everyone. Fortunately, creativity and freedom to be oneself, is also the solution. Women and thier allies are lifting thier voices to demand a change in a range of creative, clever and inspirational ways. My hope is that these inspire people, paticulary men, to reflect on and change thier violent and discriminating behaviours in the struggle to achieve a safer world.

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