Warning: This article contains reference to sexual assault and violence.
Today (25th November) is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. With recent reports about the shocking use of violence against women as a weapon of war in the Ukraine and the reports of assault alongside the protests in Iran, it might feel like the need for change and action is far away. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
While the tragic deaths of people like Sarah Everard and Zara Aleena are often labelled by the police as ‘isolated incidents,’ the truth is that a woman is murdered every three days in England and Wales. That in the year leading up to March 2022, the highest ever number of rapes was reported. With statistics as startling as this, it’s unimaginable why there isn’t there more of an outcry against all of these women being attacked.
But what if the stories we are told, and tell ourselves, actually excuse the behaviour that leads to these awful statistics? From the media, to books, to the TV, to our educational and workplace environments, the message we receive is that certain behaviours are normal and expected. That women should just expect to feel fear on the streets. That ‘boys will be boys’ from the days of the playground and it is up to the girls to avoid or dissuade it. These messages are so subtly woven into our daily lives it’s hard to even see them, or consider the devastating impact they can have. I’ve been leered at, catcalled, touched inappropriately, and I guarantee that you will find the same experiences have happened to most women you know. It feels normal. It isn’t. It shouldn’t be. It enables behaviour to escalate to far more violent abuse and it is reinforced daily by the stories we tell.
But this can change. We are starting to see a shift in the way women’s stories are told, something that might just hold part of the solution to ending this global pandemic of sexual violence against women and girls. Hollywood is getting in on the action. She Said explores the Harvey Weinstein case from the point of view of the women who made the allegations, while the BBC2 Drama Maryland showed the treatment at the hands of the police that women often face on the reporting of a crime, and how it is far worse for women of colour. The recent series Anatomy of A Scandal also offered a much more nuanced view of the interplay of power and assault. Most importantly, women’s stories are being put to the forefront, rather than being treated as a plot device to spur the hero forward by their death, or to be used as ‘violence porn’ where we are shocked and horrified by the things done to a faceless, nameless woman, rather than hearing her story.
Books have a huge role to play here too. Activist by Louisa Reid is a fantastic example of a YA book that reveals uncomfortable truths about our education systems and young people, while offering powerful inspiration for action. Following a young girl’s experience of assault at the hands of her peers at school, she finds the system will not support her and takes matters into her own hands. It's a hard read. It’s not nice to think that the girls in our schools are being repeatedly subjected to abuse while getting an education. It’s equally upsetting to imagine all the boys perpetrating this behaviour and believing it’s either ok, funny, or not a serious crime.
It’s also depressing to think things haven’t changed. I remember having sexual comments made to me by older men in the street while I was wearing my school uniform, being ‘pinged’ by the bra strap in the corridors was considered funny, and there were several lists circulated about us girls rating how ‘up for it’ we were. And that was before social media and mobile technology made these threats more pervasive. Considering the stories we are told, it all too easy to see where these ideas come from. When a school tells its girls to wear shorts in response to ‘upskirting’ photos taken by boys through a glass staircase, and ‘modesty shorts’ are proposed for girls as young as four, the message is clear – the boys' behaviour is expected, there is nothing to be done about it, and it is up to the girls to take evasive action.
In Laura Bates’ book Fix The System, Not The Women, she looks at a range of systems in society (education, policing, criminal justice, media and politics), and examines the inherent flaws in them that are often framed as weaknesses against women. When talking about male violence, she raises the important issues of intersectionality – disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic abuse, and yet only 1 in 10 refuge spaces are accessible to them. She offers alternative stories about the systems that frame our world and encourages us to engage with the many campaigns that already exist in order to make real change.
Which leads to depictions and assumptions about consent. All too often, the way sexual assault is portrayed is akin to the ‘isolated incidents’ that make the big news. While walking alone, a woman is attacked by a scary, monstrous man. There is much fighting and screaming. She is physically hurt or killed, and the evil guy runs away. From crime thrillers to films, we are so used to seeing this, it warps our sense of the truth of sexual assault.
In fact, half of rapes are committed by a partner or ex-partner. 5 in 6 are perpetrated by people known to the victim. Only 15% happen in a public place. We are very rarely shown the truth of these incidents in stories. It was something I was repeatedly frustrated by, and wasn't sure how to tackle when it came to writing a book. I decided to write The Shadows We Cast as a dual narrative, showing the aftermath of a sexual assault from the point of view of both the victim and the perpetrator. I wanted to challenge the idea of an 'ideal' victim – the perfect and innocent person who clearly didn't deserve it, as if there is ever a case when someone should.
The make character was even more challenging. I knew that creating a ‘human’ rapist would be difficult, but it was incredibly important. To begin with, the character doesn’t realise something non consensual has even happened. Unless someone is screaming and fighting you off, there is consent, right? Never mind that freezing is the body’s very natural response to threat. If a woman is quiet, she must be too embarrassed to admit that she wants it, right? Pervasive ideas about slut-shaming and female sexuality persist. Nice girls can’t admit they like it, so silence, or even ‘no,’ is perceived as a yes.
Showing the character as a real person coming to terms with his actions was really important in showing that abuse is a nuanced, societal problem. That we can’t dismiss all of this as isolated incidents, one-off cases, bad eggs. There are simply too many of them for that to be the case.
These stories make for uncomfortable reading. It’s never pleasant to discover that the places we send our children every day are unsafe. That it’s our homes and the people we know that are more of a threat to us than the streets we walk on. That we can't instantly recognise a rapist by looking at them. But until we address all types of abuse, from verbal to physical, we will never manage to untie all the knots that weave a society where women are attacked in such high numbers.
Stories have power. They have been used for too long to excuse perpetrators and blame victims. Let’s use them instead to shed light on the ways we can all reframe the narrative around men and women in order to create a safer environment for everyone. Let’s UNITE! to end violence against women and girls.
For more information about the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women go here.
For action you can take to support the UN campaign go here.
To buy the reading guide for The Shadows We Cast (all proceeds will go to Rape Crisis England and Wales) go here.