I think we are, in terms of violence against women, particularly sexual violence, in very much the same place as we were in terms of drink driving in the sixties. It’s not legal, but there’s a suspicion of an underlying feeling that everybody does it, it’s sort of understandable, everyone’s gone a bit too far when they’re drunk, could happen to any one of us, it’s a shame if one poor decision is allowed to ruin some chap’s life, especially if he’s otherwise a promising young fellow. And so on. The women who suffer, like the people killed by drunk drivers, are just collateral damage.
This underlying feeling comes out in so many ways. The reluctance of the police and prosecutors to pursue rape cases. The lenient sentences handed out by the courts in some cases. The way that advice on how to avoid rape and sexual violence is directed primarily against potential victims and not potential attackers. The difficulty that women have obtaining help who suffer from domestic violence, honour killings, female genital mutilation. The way we normalise violence against women in so many ways in our culture: via films, video games, advertisements, and by our tolerance of online threats on social media.
Regarding this last, another woman MP made a highly pertinent point about the appalling murder of Jo Cox. Threats of rape and murder against women online? It’s not real life, get over it. A real woman really murdered? A wholly unexpected tragedy. Unexpected? Really? There is of course no way of knowing whether the killer of Jo Cox would have attacked her if she had been a man, and at least one male MP has been similarly attacked. However, women in public life get used to constant online abuse and threats. Even if Jo Cox’s attacker didn’t put two and two together to make a particularly hideous five, every day men (and, indeed, some women) are making the calculation and coming to the conclusion that they can get away with a bit of sexual harassment, a bit of trying it on when she’s drunk, a bit of abuse, a bit of slapping around, because society doesn’t worry too much about that sort of stuff so long as it’s directed against women.