‘Women’s Safety: Sexual Harassment, Violence, and Unwanted Behaviour and Attention’ – Leeds Becket Panel Event with Dr Jessica Simpson
Dr Jessica Simpson of the GSRC wrote up her reflections on the event
As Leeds Beckett Sociology Department alumni (or Leeds Met back in my day!), I was kindly invited by organiser and chair Dr Christopher Till, to talk on a panel – alongside Dr Natalia Gerodetti, Emily Turner (Women Friendly Leeds), Em Hubberstey (Reclaim the Streets) and current student, Hannah Crossley – to discuss the ever-important issue of men’s violence against women. The event was inspired by the vigils – and subsequent police response – for Sarah Everard who was kidnapped and murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens in March 2021. The question – what factors do you think create an environment for women which stops them from being and feeling safe? – was posed to the panel and each speaker shared their insights, followed by a thought-provoking Q&A/discussion with the audience, some of whom bravely shared personal experiences of violence.
Hannah kicked off the discussion on ‘women’s safety’ by explaining why this is an unhelpful starting point. Instead, we began by unpacking the power and consequences of discourse as she challenged the passivity of the commonly used term ‘violence against women’ which removes the perpetrators and therefore, men from the conversation. The panel were in agreement that we must shift our focus from ‘protecting women’ in public places – through basic interventions like better lighting and CCTV – to the socialisation of boys and men within patriarchal institutions, cultures and structures that condone and reproduce male violence. Indeed, the ‘protection’ of (white, middle-class) women has long been weaponised by governments and used to maintain gendered, racialised and classed power, while at the same time disciplining and excluding women of colour, trans women, sex workers, working-class women and migrant women among others, who are not considered ‘deserving victims’. We discussed how experiences of violence are always intersectional and how the government’s (paternalistic) vow to put more police on streets and plainclothes officers in bars/nightclubs ignores that it is a privilege to even consider the police a source of protection and not further violence. The latter point also sparked conversation on the problematic white, masculine police culture and the institutionalised violence and impunity of law enforcement, evidenced by the exoneration of officers who manhandled women protesting against male violence.
Talk shifted to the myriad of issue’s women face when deciding whether to report incidences of violence to the police including fear that they won’t be believed, of victim-blaming, slut-shaming or the damming effects on their communities due to racism, to name but a few. Based on the discussion, it appears that laws criminalising gendered and sexual violence do little to prevent violence or to protect women and that in many ways, they are a ‘cruel hoax’ given that more women than ever before are reporting cases of rape to the police, and yet, convictions are at a record low in England and Wales. Such legal remedies then become an empty shell if they are not coupled with support services to ensure that women can leave violence, however, the government continue to slash funding leaving specialist services -offering lifesaving support – unable to function. If we take a closer look at those making such decisions and ultimately wielding power, we see Boris Johnson (alongside David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt), a former member of Oxford University’s male-only Bullingdon Club, renowned for its ‘sexism, vandalism and bullying’, which is indicative of the broader ‘lad culture’ that remains prevalent across all university campuses. As Dr Darren Nixon added, UK politics is toxic masculinity in practice, leading us to question why we continue to rely on the patriarchal state to remedy the symptoms of patriarchy?
We discussed how universities have for too long ‘turned a blind eye’ to sexual harassment and violence and actively silenced women through non-disclosure agreements. Specific examples included Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s University in protest against the normalisation and generalisation of sexual misconduct as simply ‘part of academic culture’; and Warwick University’s failure to respond to the ‘rape chat group’ whereby male students earned bragging rights and status through the rape, sexual harassment and general degradation of female students. I shared my own experience of being silenced by universities as they blocked my research on the topic of student sex work. I explained how for many institutions, the project was considered to be a potential ‘reputational threat’ rather than a student wellbeing issue; despite the fact that sex workers face whorephobia and are disproportionately at risk of violence and murder.
The panel were asked how we respond to #NotAllMen (which was trending on social media, even above Sarah Everard’s name at one point) and when asked ‘what about violence against men?’ We agreed that #NotAllMen are violent, however, statistically, men are the main perpetrators of violence against women and against other men (which one audience member reminded us are not mutually exclusive!). Furthermore, while #NotAllMen are violent, nearly all women will experience violence in their lifetime. We collectively questioned how 97% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed, how 1 in 3 women have been subjected to violence or sexual violence and yet, no man seems to know a rapist, abuser or violent man? We talked about how the #MeToo movement was powerful in highlighting the magnitude of the problem and still, the debate – particularly on social media – appears stuck on the idea that it is down to a few bad apples i.e., Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, which allows men more generally to disidentify and claim – that’s not me!
As we returned to the initial question of women being and feeling safe, we started to think of potential ‘solutions’ and how, as we move back into public space post-lockdown, we might reclaim such space differently. Education and disseminating information on issues of power, consent, gender, sexuality and intersectional inequalities were seen as key drivers of change, and we highlighted the need to create spaces for boys and men to examine their identities, actions and values. There was resounding agreement from the panel and audience that the responsibility of tackling male violence has for too long fallen on the shoulders of women and survivors and that men must collectively do the work. On an individual level, this could include calling out problematic behaviour/beliefs of other men, listening to women rather than challenging their experiences and standing in solidarity with women as allies. We concluded the event by emphasising the power of collective action, and I would like to end this post with an inspiring example of students campaigning for meaningful change from their institution and to urge students and staff elsewhere to unite and demand the same!
Thank you again to the Sociology Department at Leeds Beckett, it was an absolute pleasure to talk with such a fantastic panel and audience and I hope we continue this important work in the future!