The abuse of women – what ‘us men’​ are supposed to do

“I’m not sure what us men are supposed to do. The vast majority respect women completely so these stories are aimed at nutters, who will always be nutters regardless”
(Tweet in response to Marina Hyde’s “What happened to me was nothing – the nothing women know all too well” Guardian, Friday 12 May, 2021)

For those who haven’t yet seen Marina Hyde’s article, and for those who want to try to bridge that gap between male and female understanding, I thoroughly recommend you seek it out.

What makes it essential reading – and, in all likelihood a seminal piece of journalism to lead the debate from here – is that it’s Marina’s ‘live’ account of being verbally abused by a man publicly in daylight on a spring afternoon in England.

This vivid description of surprise, shock, humiliation, fear, anger, hopelessness and even unwarranted self-flagellation gives ‘us men’ an insight – one from which we can garner specific empathy not just the general sympathy that I am sure most of us already felt – for an account that will be all too familiar to the majority, if not all women reading it.

Placing myself on the empathy scale, I would say I am reasonably high up – less because I am naturally more enlightened than other men and more because, for me, this has happened closer to home. To offer a few examples, my wife, in broad daylight, being called a “c*nt” by a drunken man last week; me, fearfully intervening two years ago when I found my daughter in the street surrounded by six intimidating men unknown to her; and again, my daughter shrugging her shoulders (alongside many of her friends) about the “rapey boys” that she and others know to avoid.

The phrase “educate our sons” to “protect our daughters” has been doing the rounds this week but it’s far from a new concept.

In 2014, Yvette Cooper (then Shadow Home Secretary) called this out (see https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/we-must-educate-our-sons-save-our-daughters-9588177.html) with her conclusion being that no teenage boy should grow up persuaded that abuse is normal.

Without wanting to detract from the importance of this message, it’s a little obvious and it’s comforting to think that we have ‘the answer’.

Something more awkward and, in my view, equally necessary, would be for us to live by the phrases ‘educate ourselves’ to ‘educate our friends’. Adult men (perhaps predominantly those in positions of leadership) can and should take personal, thoughtful and considered ownership of this issue.

To take the lead on this one, as a 48 year old man who has some experience of leading organisations, I tend to think very deeply (for my own health, perhaps, too deeply) on issues that matter to me – equality and the safety of women being one of these. For what it’s worth, I also don’t believe that I’m a ‘nutter’. That said, my speciality used to be intervening, sometimes physically – to the embarrassment of my children – against harassment of women on trains and buses. I’m likely a little old now for such a direct approach – drawing attention to an incident can be just as effective as physical intervention…….).

But I have also sat silently:

  • as a member of WhatsApp groups where acquaintances volley around ‘male banter’ that is demeaning of women; and
  • in a work meeting where an inappropriate sexualised comment was made about women in the presence of a female colleague.

This is less to assuage any guilt I might feel but more to ask ‘Can many grown men really claim to have never been a ‘Bystander” in similar situations to those I admit to above?’

Just as every woman has first-hand experience of planning a route home with “keys in hands”; “shoes you can run in”; “talking loudly on phone”, it’s difficult to think that many men have not sat silently in situations similar to those above, likely due as much to embarrassment as anything else.

To offer an explanation, Bystander Effect is a psychological theorem where the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. There are two factors involved:

1. Diffusion of responsibility – the more onlookers there are, the less personal responsibility individuals will feel to take action; and

 2. Social influence – individuals monitor the behaviour of those around them to determine how to act.

Now the bad news – this is not about sitting back and saying “see, there’s science behind my inaction”. Instead, it is about a starting point to counter behaviour that has likely become engrained in many of us.

There are a number of extremely valid points of deflection:

  • The sticking plaster of meeting your wife, girlfriend, daughter or friend at the station to protect her from danger;
  • The hope of persuading governments; and improving police forces;
  • Campaigns for some considered governance of social media; and
  • Educating our sons about the dangers of pornification in mainstream culture.

Equally, I’m afraid it’s about, “Us” ,“the majority who respect women completely” and our responsibility to check and check again our own behaviour and that of our male friends.

There are many historical examples where the intervention of Bystanders has stopped a developing violent crime. It is rewarding to hear that, currently, many schools, colleges and universities are highlighting Bystander Effect and in some cases providing training courses to overcome our tendency to fall victim to it.

However, ripples of casual sexism tolerated by ourselves and our friendship groups create a societal acceptance of unacceptable demeaning behaviour towards women. My view is that the responsibility to counter this lies with male leaders just as much, if not more than anyone else.

David Farquharson