Opinion: How men can help make Guernsey feel safer

For years the onus has been on women to take action to keep themselves safe, but it’s clearly not working. It’s time that more men did their bit too, says Helen Hubert

WHAT a time to be a woman.

It has been an eye-opening few weeks, to say the least.

If you wanted to take a slice of time as the perfect paradigm of how modern society treats roughly half of the population, the first half of March 2021 would make an excellent choice.

Was it all bad? No sirree. On 8 March we had International Women’s Day, celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women (Yay! Go women!). Then on 14 March we had Mother’s Day, honouring and thanking all the maternal figures in our lives (Yay! Thanks mums!).

Unfortunately, those two female-centred celebrations proved to be the shining lights in a storm of, well, far less pleasant incidents.

The most high profile of these was the tragic case of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who set off at 9pm on 3 March to walk home from her friend’s house in south London. As we surely all know by now, she never made it.

Somewhat predictably, in the aftermath of her disappearance, police warned women in the area not to go out alone. This well-meaning advice was nothing new. Ever since the 1970s, when women in Yorkshire were put under curfew and told not to go out alone, or else they might become the next victim of the then unidentified serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, this rhetoric has become all too familiar.

Every time a lone female is attacked on the streets, other women are told to alter their behaviour, lest the same horrors might befall them.

Meanwhile, men are free to carry on their merry way, as if nothing has happened.

Thousands of people attended the vigil for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common on 13 March. (Vincenzo Lullo/Shutterstock

Unsurprisingly, many women are getting tired of being told what they must or mustn’t do to keep themselves safe. After all, they’re not the ones doing anything wrong. They’re minding their own business, walking home, or wherever else they might be going. It doesn’t actually matter where they’re going, or what they’re wearing, or what time of day it is. That’s the point. They’re just... walking. Going about their normal, everyday life.

To put the icing on the increasingly sour cake, that same week a UN Women UK survey* revealed that 97% of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed. NINETY-SEVEN PER CENT. If that is not indicative of a major societal problem, I don’t know what is.

So all these weary women started sharing stories, with each other and on social media, about just how much they have had to put up with in their lives as a result of the behaviour of a minority of men (yes, I know – #notallmen). Their revelations were met with a mixture of sympathy, disbelief and disdain. The latter reaction merely added to their ire.

Green Party peer Baroness Jones then had the gumption to suggest a 6pm curfew should be introduced for men. This concept was picked up and endorsed by others, including feminist writer Caitlin Moran. Unsurprisingly, there was an uproar. A tidal wave of vitriolic abuse was aimed at these audacious women.

But guess what, people? It wasn’t serious. It was a thought experiment to give men a teeny tiny inkling of what it feels like for women to be told they should stay at home for their own safety.

While that furore was still raging, thousands of women and their allies decided to gather for a vigil on Clapham Common in memory of Sarah Everard and, probably because many of them were already feeling a tad tetchy, what began as a peaceful event turned into a noisy protest against gendered violence. The police, who had already warned that the event could be deemed unlawful because of Covid-19 restrictions, decided to wade in. The resulting pictures showed women being arrested, handcuffed, forced to the ground.

Given what they were protesting about, the optics did not look good.

The fact that by now a serving police officer had been charged with Sarah’s kidnap and murder probably did not help matters.

So that brings us pretty much up to date. A lot of women are feeling angry about it all and a lot of men are not best pleased either.

How to make the streets safer for women has become a hot topic.

We might like to imagine we’re sheltered from such problems in Guernsey, but the stories of women’s sexual assault experiences we have published in recent days have made it clear that is not the case.

Murder might be rare here, but gendered violence and harassment? Not so much.

A protestor showing support for Baroness Jones’s suggestion. (Shutterstock)

The most recent Guernsey Police Annual Report, released last year, lists 137 sexual offences, including 51 rapes and five counts of intercourse with a girl under 16. There were also 58 indecent assaults on women and girls (compared with just seven indecent assaults on male victims, six of them children). And that’s not counting the numerous cases that go unreported.

So it’s clear it is an issue in Guernsey, as it is the world over.

Can men be victims too? Of course they can, but there’s no point in pretending that the type of sexual violence and harassment that we’re talking about does not predominantly impact on women and girls. And yes, women can be aggressors too, but it’s still a fact that the vast majority of perpetrators are male. So let’s abandon the whataboutery.

Fortunately, making Guernsey feel safer benefits all vulnerable people, regardless of gender, so surely that’s something we should all be happy to support.

As is often the case with crime, the fear often outweighs the actual risk. So how do we reduce the fear? My dear men, this is where you come in. Tempting as it might be, we know a male curfew is not the answer. All we are asking is that you take a little time to think, to empathise, to consider modifying your actions ever so slightly.

To help you on your way, I’ve put together some advice for those of you who might care to listen.

I won’t pretend it could change the hearts and minds of any cold-blooded killers in our midsts. Thankfully, they’re a rare breed and this is not aimed at them. It’s aimed at the good guys. Those who mean no harm but might be unwittingly contributing to the problem. It’s aimed at you.

My advice for men

1. Make sure you fully understand what constitutes sexual assault and consent

I genuinely don’t mean to be patronising here. Everyone knows what rape is, right? No one is going to accidentally attack someone because of linguistics. You don’t need to know the definitions of the words to know what is right or wrong. Or so you would think...

In a study of a group of college men**, published in 2014, participants were asked what sort of behaviours they would engage in if no one would ever know and there would be no consequences. Shockingly, 13.6% admitted they would rape a woman. Even more shockingly, almost a third (31.7%) said they would force a woman to have sexual intercourse.

Leaving aside the horrifyingly high numbers, these two acts are the exact same thing, so why the difference? Further analysis showed that those willing to identify as rapists were found to have hostile feelings towards women and callous attitudes to sex. However, those who considered using force or coercion acceptable, but not rape, tended to have more of a ‘benevolent sexist’ mindset. They might like women, love them even, but see them as subordinate, as delicate, helpless creatures in need of men’s protection. They don’t necessarily mean to harm women; they just fail spectacularly to consider their feelings, and focus instead on fulfilling their own, far more important, wants and needs.

This latter group are far harder to spot, for both women and other men, but they are also potentially more open to education.

The key here is consent. When it comes to sex, if a woman doesn’t outright say no, or try to fight you off, that is not an automatic green light. What you are looking for is enthusiasm, not a body frozen in terror. You shouldn’t need to use force.

The best explanation of sexual consent I’ve ever heard is to compare it to offering someone a cup of tea. If they say no, don’t make them one. If they say yes then change their mind after you’ve made it, don’t force them to drink it. If they take a few sips, they’re not obliged to finish the whole cup. If they’re asleep or incapacitated in some way, don’t try to force tea down their throat. If they wanted a cup of tea yesterday, it doesn’t mean they have to have one today.

If this sounds absurd to you when it refers to tea, but not to sex, then I suggest you work on your mindset. And maybe avoid ‘tea’ in the meantime.

The same applies for all sexual acts and intimate touching, so don’t kid yourself that avoiding penetration is the aim of the game. Even a ‘playful’ squeeze of a derrière requires consent. I’m not saying you need to get permission in writing; consent can be implied in a multitude of non-verbal cues. However, not everyone is good at reading them. If you’re in any doubt whatsoever, take a step back. Proceed only with extreme caution. If you unwittingly overstep the mark, stop immediately and apologise for the transgression. Don’t try again unless she initiates it.

2. Take heed of the little things too

Of course, if even the most serious end of the sexual assault scale can cause confusion, what chance have we got when it comes to the lower levels of general harassment?

I’ll level with you: it can be a bit of a minefield.

Here, context is everything. Even if you have the best of intentions, it’s important to look at the effect you’re having. For example, wolf-whistling at one woman might make her day, but the same action could scare the bejesus out of another. How do you know beforehand? Frankly, you don’t. Overall, it’s best avoided.

There will be those among you concerned that all this is ‘political correctness gone too far’. After all, what’s wrong with a bit of fun and flirtation?

The secret is to know where to draw the line. For example, if you want to compliment a woman on her appearance, expressing admiration for her hair and clothes is generally acceptable, but commenting on her body is usually a no-no. Also, consider extraneous factors, such as whether you know her, where you are and whether others are around. Telling a friend or colleague they look good will likely illicit a very different response to declaring the same thing to a woman you have never met, on a dark, deserted street. Even kind words can appear threatening in certain situations.

Similarly, asking a woman out is fine, but refusing to take no for an answer is not. This should be simple enough to understand, but the concepts of ‘playing hard to get’ and the ‘thrill of the chase’ have muddied the waters somewhat. Just beware: you might think the woman in front of you is engaged in some sort of flirtatious game with you but it’s possible she is merely being polite and friendly out of fear of enraging or upsetting you. Most women have learnt that denting a man’s ego can be dangerous so they will often try to let him down as gently as possible. The unfortunate by-product of this is that their response might not always be as crystal clear as it could be. So if they smile at you, don’t automatically take that as a signal that they’re into you. Listen to their words. Read the cues.

3. Show you’re not a threat

Even if your intentions are nothing but honourable, remember that others don’t know that. If you see a woman you don’t know walking by herself, particularly on a dark, deserted street, the idea that she might be fearful of you is not something to take offence at. This is one situation when assuming the worst of someone is not just acceptable, but positively encouraged. Most women have learnt from a young age to be wary of all men they don’t know, just in case. Don’t take it personally. Instead, do what you can to reduce the perceived threat level.

That doesn’t mean trying to win her over, by persuading her of your inherent goodness. This is no time to woo. It also doesn’t mean offering to walk her home, to protect her against the ‘bad men’. She doesn’t know if you’re one of them, remember.

It means giving her space.

If you’re walking towards her, try to look elsewhere to make it clear your mind is on other things. Allow as much space as possible as you pass one another.

Looming up unexpectedly from behind should be avoided at all costs. It doesn’t matter if all you’re doing is trying to overtake her to get home. Those few seconds of terror she experiences as you approach will stay with her long after you’ve gone. Once you’ve passed by, she might feel relief at the realisation you’re not about to attack her and will probably tell herself she was silly to feel afraid. But those few seconds will be added to the many other few seconds of terror she has previously experienced and the ball of fear inside her will grow ever stronger.

You don’t want to be responsible for that, do you? No.

Instead, here are some things you could do if you find yourself walking behind a lone woman at night. Firstly, cross the road if you can. This might seem like a mild imposition to you, but it sends a clear signal to her that you mean her no harm.

If that’s not an option, consider holding back to allow more distance between you. Be aware, however, that if she knows you’re there, creeping slowly behind her, this could merely add to her fear. Even better, stop for a while instead. Study a window display for a few minutes or check your phone. Give her time to get further away before you continue.

If you’re in a rush and you really need to get past her, try to make yourself known first so you don’t make her jump. Talking on the phone is a great way to do this as hearing you in conversation with someone else will help her to know she is not the focus of your thoughts. Another alternative is to call out with a friendly ‘Don’t mind me, just coming through’, but don’t try to use it as a conversation starter or linger afterwards. This is no time for small talk, and anyway you’re in a rush, remember? Get out of there as quickly as you can.

4. Be an ally

You might not be a threat yourself, but there are other men who are. If you notice someone’s behaviour is making a woman uncomfortable, or worse, don’t look the other way. Help her. If safe to do so, put yourself between her and the harasser. Ask if she needs help. Try to distract him. If you see someone else intervening, back them up. If the situation is serious, call the police.

If you hear other men making sexist or derogatory comments about women, don’t laugh along or dismiss it as locker room talk. Call them out. Point out that their comments are not acceptable.

If the ‘banter’ goes as far as boasting about sexual assault, report it.

Make sure you ‘walk the walk’ at home too. Ensure your own relationships with women are based on equality and respect. That includes sharing household chores and childcare and letting her express her opinions and feelings without judgement.

Above all, listen to women. Be part of the wider conversation but don’t try to dominate it.

The culture won’t change on its own. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

. Reclaim These Streets Guernsey, a vigil and peaceful protest in memory of Sarah Everard and all of the women affected by and lost to violence, is due to take place at 8.30pm this evening in Market Square. Further information can be found on Facebook.

* Prevalence And Reporting Of Sexual Harassment In UK Public Spaces, by the APPG for UN Women. March 2021.


** Denying Rape But Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders, by Sarah R. Edwards, Kathryrn A Bradshaw and Verline B Hinsz, December 2014. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/vio.2014.0022

Top Stories

More From The Guernsey Press

UK & International News