It was a week that started with International Women’s Day and ended with Mother’s Day. Yet despite the promise of these two days to honour and thank women, it turns out there wasn’t much to celebrate after all.
In early March, reports of a white, middle-class missing woman, Sarah Everard, had hit the news. A few days later, a white serving Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens, was charged with her kidnap and murder.
Everard was, at times, blamed for her own death after disappearing from a London street. Women were advised not to become “hysterical” over her disappearance. But women couldn’t help but recognise their own experiences.
Countless stories have been shared online of women being frightened to walk alone, of holding their keys as a weapon, and of feeling a sense of constant threat and anxiety. At a time when lockdown has curtailed freedom of movement, it felt especially cruel that women felt safe nowhere – in their homes, in the street or online.
On the night before Mother’s Day, hundreds came together for a vigil on Clapham Common, near to where Everard disappeared. It was understandable that for many, the need to pay their respects to Everard – and also to show their solidarity for someone who disappeared while walking down a street on her way home – overrode concerns about breaching COVID regulations. Many saw this as a moment to talk about their experiences of harassment and violence as they go about their daily lives.
If there is an image that has come to represent what transpired on the night of the vigil, it is the photo of a young woman, who we now know to be Patsy Stevenson, clad in a face mask and pinned to the ground by a group of male police officers, her head held up, as she stares into the camera. Much of the searing power of this viral image comes from how it captures what appears to be the aggressive demeanour of the police officers, while also showing the outrage and defiance of Stevenson. Serious questions are now being raised about the Met’s handling of the situation.
Can’t go out, can’t stay in
As a research team, we are not surprised by women’s outrage. But we are surprised at the government’s response of proposing that increased infrastructure alone, like better lighting or CCTV cameras, will make women’s lives any safer. During COVID-19, multiple charities and organisations have recorded increased rates of violence towards women. This so-called “shadow pandemic” includes the domestic violence experienced in their own homes, cases of online harassment, “revenge porn” or image based sexual abuse, grooming and more.
Our ongoing research explores how extended periods of lockdown have worsened online forms of gendered harms for young people. Our recent survey, administered to 13- to 18-year-olds, found 32% of girls had received unwanted “dick pics” online (cyberflashing). Most reported feeling “disgusted” and “confused” by these images.
Young people struggle to know how to deal with this kind of online sexual harassment and abuse. The numbers of young people who reported their experiences were staggeringly low with only 6% reporting it to the social media platform, 3% telling parents and a mere 1% reporting it to their school.
Cyberflashing as a “normal” part of being young, female and online is just one of the many ways that sexual harassment and abuse has become accepted as the everyday backdrop of gender and sexual relations for young people. But while women and girls have long spoken about these experiences, the wider public and the media don’t often pay attention.
Sarah Everard’s disappearance and death fits within a broader pattern of the privileging of stories involving white and middle-class people in the media. Social media users have specifically pointed to the lack of similar media exposure after the death of Blessing Olusegun, a young Black woman found dead in September last year.
Rather than teaching women how to protect themselves, our research dating back over a decade shows there is a need for education that tackles the gendered and sexual inequities that normalise violent, predatory forms of masculinity. This education must start from an early age. It starts with talking about the connections between so-called low-level offences such as flashing and cyberflashing, and how they are connected to intersecting structures of oppression, including sexism, racism and class hierarchies.
As recent petitions show, there is a demand from young people for better education, regardless of their gender, on issues such as consent, healthy relationships and sexual violence. And in an increasingly digital world, this education must account for everyday online practices, like pestering girls for nudes or sending unwanted dick pics, in addition to offline forms of sexual violence.
If there is something heartening to be taken away from the bleak events of the last couple of weeks, it is in the forms of on and offline activism against rape culture and the way we talk about women’s freedoms that have emerged. Digital technologies offer a platform for women to reframe the debate – such as by shifting the focus from giving safety tips to women to educating boys on their responsibility to not harass, abuse and rape.
Education is not just needed for young people, but also for teachers, school leaders and parents. That’s why we have teamed up with the School of Sexuality Education, and have already created a series of resources, guidance and policies covering relevant laws, best-practice and evidence based approaches to managing young people’s experiences of sexual violence.
Although our evaluation of these resources is ongoing, our preliminary findings show that schools adopting our training and policies have led to dramatic reductions in online sexual harassment, increased teacher confidence in handling these issues and improved student mental health.