When I was 16, I witnessed a sexual assault. At school, of all places. This was in the 1980s, early on. I knew this was wrong but I had no idea how to deal with it. There were several of us around, mostly male. Most of us were probably as uncomfortable as I was. A slightly older boy grabbed a young woman who was passing by, touched her, pushed her. Laughing. Said she was asking for it.
Probably none of us had the conversation we should have had with a father or an elder brother, even with a teacher (sex education in that time and place was essentially biological. Nothing at all about consent). None of us felt telling a teacher would make a blind bit of difference. But we should have done something. Raised hell that nothing would be done. We might have if we’d had that conversation.
My dad might have had that conversation but for various reasons was not around at that time.
There was no way the young woman could have known which of the boys was a threat. But we knew. He was a bully, spoke degradingly about girls, had little respect. If we’d had the conversation with male peers and role models we could have told all our female friends. They may or may not have listened. But we would, perhaps, have been empowered about our responsibility as men. Because all men are potential threats in the eyes of women who suffer unwanted attention, abuse, sexual assault and worse. So in the absence of labels, we need to create safe space.
Two or three years later a female friend told me about being raped by two soldiers when she was 17. I myself intervened to stop a women being beaten in the street not long after even as a police van drove by ignoring it. I received kicks and punches for my sins. Perhaps I felt a need to atone.
Much older, as a night manager in a London hotel, I witnessed and intervened in another incident. This time the police were involved.
I’m not I think exceptional. Many other men will have similar stories to tell.
More from Central Bylines:
- Whisper who dares
- 8 March 2021: International Women’s Day – Janet Lane-Claypon, Lincolnshire’s public health pioneer
Violence and threatening behaviours against women are all too common. There will have been another 700 sexual assaults since I started writing this some 12 hours ago, with the Guardian recently reporting 80% of women have been sexually harrassed.
But many of us men have stayed silent or turned a blind eye, perhaps all of us at some point. Some of us may even have cheered and applauded as we saw men behave in threatening ways or during an actual assault. Out of ignorance, afraid of not being part of the crowd, even perhaps because we felt that these behaviours were OK. Banter, heavy flirtation, because people were drunk, because, heaven help us, we might miss a lift home or a party…perhaps we did eventually learn to look out for female friends on nights out, but did we look out for those we didn’t know? At best, too rarely.
The thing is, we cannot plead ignorance. We haven’t really had that excuse for all of my adult life (since those aforementioned 1980s).
So why are women still being assaulted and attacked and threatened and made to fear?
Yes, most of us men are not attackers. But how many of us have never come close to the line of persistent, unwanted flirtation, chatting up, chasing, making a women uncomfortable or afraid because we would not accept that she was not interested or otherwise engaged in just having a night out, a dance, a chat? How many of us challenge our fellow men when we see that behaviour? How many of us stay silent, when we could try and persuade individuals or groups? Deter those who look like or already have crossed the boundary?
How many of us have conversations about respect, boundaries, safety, protection, behaviour, safe space with other men? How many of take a friend or relative aside to suggest they change their behaviour, stop, desist? Ostracise or report them if we have to? How many of us warn female friends and relatives about someone?
And if we don’t, what we are we waiting for? Because it still goes on. I heard just a few hours ago that a women I know had had someone expose himself to her on a deserted street a few days ago.
Someone should have a word with him, should have had years ago. Because by now it may be too late for someone else. And if we don’t act, we condone. It’s not up to women to avoid harm or risk, it’s up to men to create a safe space by talking to other men.