Sarah Everard’s murder concerns all men

Sarah Everard’s femicide highlights the inadequacy of policies tackling violence against women, where blame is often shifted from aggressors to victims. We speak to Jackson Katz, who works with men to prevent such injustice.

In early March, people in the United Kingdom and beyond were deeply shaken by the murder of Sarah Everard. The 33-year-old woman was kidnapped and killed while walking back home in South London on the evening of 3rd March. The police investigation later confirmed that Sarah had adopted many of the extra precautions that women take to feel safe, and which most men wouldn’t even consider.

For example, upon leaving her friend’s home at 21:00, Sarah Everard chose a well-lit route and was on the phone with her boyfriend, updating him on her movements while walking. These steps weren’t sufficient to discourage her alleged killer, Wayne Couzens, a London Met Police officer who is currently the only suspect in the case.

sarah everard, clapham
A placard commemorating Sarah Everard in Clapham, London © Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Sarah Everard and the inadequate response to violence

Over the following weeks, hundreds of people across the UK gathered to commemorate Sarah Everard. At the main vigil in Clapham Common on 13th March, police intervened to interrupt the gathering. Tensions were aggravated as the city’s Met Police told women in the area not to leave their homes alone after dark, which caused outrage and protests across the country. The UK has witnessed an alarming surge in femicides and episodes of violence against women in recent years, and the authorities’ inadequate response has led to widespread and profound indignation.

Once again, they’ve have failed to provide the protection women need and shifted the responsibility for solving the problem onto women themselves. Rather than focusing on stopping men, who are overwhelmingly responsible for these attacks and crimes, police and government institutions are telling women that they should limit their freedom of movement to stay safe.

Jenny Jones, Baroness of Moulsecoomb, a member of the House of Lords affiliated with the UK’s Green Party, spoke out in support of the protests and suggested that an 18:00 curfew be instituted for men to keep women safe. Grievances about the supposed absurdity of such a provision swiftly came to light, forcing Jones to clarify that her statement was intended as a provocation and to highlight how asking women to limit their rights is considered acceptable, whereas if the same is even suggested for men, the proposal (and the proponent) immediately comes under attack.

sarah everard, violence against women
In the UK, 97 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 report having been sexually harassed © Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Focus on men

We spoke to Jackson Katz, a researcher, educator, director and writer from the US who is internationally renowned for his activism on issues of gender, race and violence. He has long been an important figure and thought-leader in the growing global movement of men working to prevent gender-based violence and foster true equality between men and women.

Katz believes that violence against women is a men’s issue, caused and perpetuated by men and, therefore, strategies to reduce this endemic phenomenon should be focused on men.

Men continue to adopt predatory and violent behaviour towards women in societies across the world. So why doesn’t anyone feel like they’re part of the problem?
A good first step is to reflect on how we talk about this issues, because this clearly indicates its underlying structures. By continuously framing gender-based violence as a “women’s issue,” we perpetuate the idea that women are the only ones responsible for its resolution.

Try to imagine what would happen if women regularly raped men, constituting almost the entirety of individuals perpetrating this crime. Would we talk about rape as a “men’s issue”? Surely we wouldn’t, we would call it a women’s issue and work on them.

Men, who should be on the frontline in fighting this problem, are the first to trivialise it.

Jackson Katz

In my experience, the men who should be on the frontline in fighting this problem are the first to trivialise it. When they’re presented with the list of precautions that women regularly take before leaving their homes, they claim these behaviours are exaggerated compared with the actual risks. Paradoxically, when women are the victims of violence, their behaviour is scrutinised. Somehow, women are being blamed based on whether or not they took measures to keep themselves safe. They’re blamed for how they were dressed, the time they went home, the places they were in. They were either too paranoid or too unprepared, but in any case, the responsibility lies with them.

sarah everard, london
A vigil held in London to commemorate Sarah Everard © Leon Neal/Getty Images

We can’t possibly know what drove Sarah Everard’s murderer to take her life, but it would be intellectually dishonest to separate extreme acts of violence like this from the sexism and harassment that women suffer every day at the hands of men. These forms of violence aren’t comparable to murder, but they’re part of the same cultural system that sees women as inferior, and as deprived of autonomy in comparison to men’s needs and desires. This patriarchal culture creates the conditions that allow violence against women to happen daily in many different ways and ensures that the responsibility for resolving the problem doesn’t fall on the perpetrators’ shoulders.

It’s much easier to see the murderer as a “monster” because this allows other men to distance themselves from the problem.

Jackson Katz

It’s much easier to see Sarah’s murderer as a “monster” because this allows other men to distance themselves from the problem. They think terrible acts like murder and rape are a problem, but one that doesn’t concern them because they neither rape nor kill, and they’re not responsible for other people’s crimes. What they don’t admit is the responsibility they bear when they laugh at a sexist joke, or when they stay silent when faced with derogatory comments in which it’s implied that a victim of violence “had it coming” or “brought it on herself”; or when they witness abuse and don’t intervene. These men’s silence and inaction is a form of complicity in the perpetration of these crimes and abuses in societies the world over.

Why do you think authorities respond to gender-based violence, like Sarah’s case, by limiting women’s freedoms, rather than men’s?
Patriarchal culture has deep historical and cultural roots, closely tied to the systems of power that govern our societies. Solving complex problems like gender-based violence would require dismantling this culture at every level, but doing so requires time and profound cultural and structural changes. This is why in most cases, like Sarah’s, the authorities choose to ask women to bear the responsibility of protecting themselves. This appears easier, more immediate and more effective, at least on the surface. In reality, by shifting responsibility onto women, the focus remains on reducing risk and harm, while prevention is never considered. This would require working on the problem’s causes: men, and the discriminatory culture that privileges them.

By shifting responsibility onto women, the focus remains on reducing risk and harm. Prevention is never considered.

Jackson Katz

sarah everard, police
The police arrest peaceful attendees at a vigil for Sarah Everard © Hollie Adams/Getty Images

I should say that this doesn’t mean that the authorities and law enforcement don’t have a vital role to play in helping the victims of gender-based violence. There are support programmes for survivors and many people have been saved by police in dangerous situations. The problem is that the need for these interventions is already a failure because it means that violence hasn’t been prevented. Everyone has a right to live free from the fear of being attacked, so how can we accept that women all over the world today live with the constant, ever-present fear that they could be assaulted? This is all deeply unjust, and shouldn’t be considered normal.

You founded and direct the Mentors In Violence Prevention programme, which involves men and women together in preventing gender-based violence and achieving full equality. Given your experience, what do you think could be solutions to this problem?
We must focus on prevention, therefore work with men for them to overcome the fear of “policing mechanisms in male peer culture”. These are what maintain the silence among the non-violent majority of individuals who don’t share the values and principles of patriarchal culture. The voices of men who aren’t comfortable with the abuses perpetrated by other men are suffocated by questioning the virility of those “men” who dare “take women’s side” in the supposed “battle of the sexes”.

What men fear isn’t physical violence, but the social exclusion that could derive from not staying silent in the face of sexist practices they disapprove of. To avoid feeling at fault, they create personal narratives to justify their inaction (nothing would change anyway, I’d be causing tension, it’s not worth it so best to keep quiet…) and thus become inadvertently complicit in the behaviour of the harmful minority with whom they’d don’t actually want to be associated.

We must focus on prevention, therefore work with men.

Jackson Katz

sarah everard, vigil
A vigil in London to commemorate Sarah Everard © Leon Neal/Getty Images

We can say that the problem of the perpetuation of gender-based violence is a men’s issue: they need to become examples and guides to their peers by raising their voices and establishing a healthy model of behaviour towards women. Framing the problem in a positive way, we drastically increase the possibility that men listen and feel like an active part of the solution. This is our goal with the Mentors In Violence Prevention educational programme: making men mentors to their peers, at every level, based on their opportunities.

We want men to raise these conversations and not to have to wait for other men, teenagers and children to ask them what it means to be a man and how to relate to women. The higher the level of exposure, power and influence a man has, the more responsibility he has to be an example to others and have an impact on society as an ally to women. If this was normalised through education programmes and concrete policies to eliminate the barriers that don’t allow women to take part in social life, we would see a drastic reduction in gender-based violence.

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