When words fail us

Nearly 50 years ago, Robin Lakoff considered what feminists might learn by paying close attention to language:

Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing.

Everyday ways of speaking and writing are highly revealing about the attitudes and assumptions which our culture takes for granted; analysing language can help to make these visible, and show us more clearly what needs to change–which is not, as Lakoff goes on to point out, just language itself, but the ‘external situation’ which has made certain ways of speaking and writing seem reasonable, natural and self-evident.   

This week we’ve had a grim demonstration of that point, in the way various people and institutions responded to the news that Sarah Everard, a London woman who went missing in early March as she walked from Clapham to her home in neighbouring Brixton, had been murdered. On Wednesday we learned that a search had uncovered what are now known to be her remains, and a man (identified as an officer of the Metropolitan Police, which is also the force investigating the case) had been arrested on suspicion of abducting and killing her. Women responded with an outpouring of rage that lit up social media to the point of becoming news in its own right. But the reactions this anger prompted showed how powerful certain assumptions, and the linguistic formulas that encapsulate them, still are.

There are many examples I could give: I could write, for instance, about the number of men who expressed their sympathy ‘as a husband and father’, or made an analogy between sexual violence and theft (‘it’s too bad that your lives are limited by the threat of male violence, but that’s just the way of the world: you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked with the key in the ignition either’), or pointed out that more men than women are murdered (because god forbid that the killing of a woman should spark a conversation about, specifically, violence against women). But since this is just a blog post, not a treatise, I’m going to concentrate on what is arguably the most basic of all the inadequate and misguided responses we have heard this week: the idea that women, those irrational creatures, were ‘getting things out of proportion’.

This was, among other things, the official message put out by the police (and then echoed by other authorities like the Mayor of London). After initially telling women in the area where Sarah Everard disappeared that they should avoid going out alone after dark, the Met pivoted to insisting that there was no reason to feel unsafe, since, in the words of Commissioner Cressida Dick, ‘it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets’. ‘Abducted’ is doing some heavy lifting there: the fear Sarah Everard’s case prompted was primarily a fear of being killed, whether or not the killer abducted them first. And if Dick’s real point was that it’s rare for women to be killed by strangers, well, it depends what you mean by ‘rare’. The women who run the UK’s Femicide Census provided some helpful input: while their data show that most women victims are killed by men they know, around one in every twelve is killed by a stranger. If we applied that statistic to the data for the last 12 months (as presented last week in Parliament by Jess Phillips MP)–bearing in mind this record is probably incomplete because some recent cases remain unsolved–it would mean that around 10 women have been killed by strangers since March 2020. That’s one every 5-6 weeks. With all due respect to any statisticians reading this, most people would not define something that happens every few weeks as ‘incredibly rare’.

But at least Cressida Dick’s words were meant to be reassuring. Other contributors to the discussion seemed more interested in upbraiding women for their ignorance and irrationality. Marian FitzGerald, a Kent University criminologist who was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, said:

I think I’m entitled to say, as a woman, we shouldn’t pander to stereotypes and get hysterical. Let’s not get this out of proportion and let’s not wind each other up to be unduly fearful.

The reason we become so fixated on cases like this one, she opined, is not that they are somehow typical, but on the contrary, because they are so unusual.   

Boiled down to basics, FitzGerald’s ‘rational’ argument seems to be that it’s stupid to worry about such low-probability events as the murder of a woman by a stranger. But violence against women exists on a continuum: while it’s true that the probability of being murdered by a stranger is low, the probability of an encounter with a stranger that could potentially turn violent is extremely high. This week UN Women UK reported on a survey which found that 97% of young women had been sexually harassed in a public place; for all ages the figure was 80%. Women know that most of these incidents probably won’t escalate, and certainly not to the extreme of murder (though violence doesn’t have to be fatal for us to want to avoid it). But we can never know for sure if a specific encounter will turn nasty, or if a particular male stranger is basically harmless or actively dangerous. (Read, for instance, this account by the Guardian writer Marina Hyde of a recent encounter with a stranger in public, and ask yourself if she was ‘unduly fearful’.)

It is hardly irrational for women in this situation to err on the side of caution. Nor should we overlook a point made by Fiona Vera-Gray, who has researched women’s responses to male intrusion in public space—that there’s no way to measure how many potential crimes are averted by women’s evasive action. The mere fact that nothing ultimately happened does not license the conclusion that a woman ‘got things out of proportion’: it’s possible that she correctly assessed the risk, and did what she needed to do to prevent the worst from happening.  

Another thing FitzGerald’s argument glosses over is that women don’t just get ‘wound up’ about male violence because of fear, but also because of anger. And the anger isn’t just about what some men do to some women, it’s also about the way that constrains all women’s lives. A woman who lives for 100 years without ever experiencing male violence directly will still have expended significant time and mental energy on the kind of ‘safety work’ Vera-Gray describes—knowing all the while that whatever happens, the consequences will be on her. She’s supposed to be able to judge, as one of Vera-Gray’s respondents put it, what would constitute ‘the right amount of panic’, and in hindsight it will always appear that she either under- or overreacted. If she’s attacked people will say she didn’t do enough to protect herself; if she isn’t they’ll call her ‘unduly fearful’ or ‘hysterical’.

Women are also angered by the (copious) evidence that most men who attack or threaten women will face no serious consequences. The police officer who has now been charged with the murder of Sarah Everard may appear to be an exception, but it’s emerged that he was reported a few days earlier for allegedly exposing himself in a fast food restaurant; whether his colleagues acted appropriately on this complaint is now the subject of an investigation. Meanwhile, another man who sexually assaulted a woman walking home in Oldham (he followed her, deliberately bumped into her, pulled her to the ground and had begun to touch her breast and genitals when she managed to activate the SOS function on her phone, at which point he fled) was given a suspended sentence because, in the words of his lawyer:

He is married and is a father to a four-year-old child. If you feel a custodial sentence is required, he would lose his job and he is the sole earner for his family, so this would have a significant impact.

The lawyer also argued that his client was not a serious threat on the basis that his crime had been ‘quite opportunistic’: he didn’t go out with a plan to assault a woman, he just seized an opportunity that happened, by chance, to present itself. ‘Opportunistic’ is another linguistic formula which tells us something about our culture’s common-sense understanding of male violence. What was this ‘opportunity’ that a man, acting on impulse, seized? It was simply finding himself in close proximity to a woman who was walking home alone. (What are the chances of that happening, eh?) While the lawyer did not condone his action, he presented the impulse itself as unremarkable–as if it were obvious that any man in this situation would see an ‘opportunity’, even if not all men would take it.

Why such ‘opportunistic’ acts should be treated more leniently, or their perpetrators as less likely to reoffend, remains—at least to me—a mystery. And in any case, there are reasons to question the absolute distinction between ‘opportunistic’ and ‘planned’ or ‘premeditated’ sexual violence. I find it hard to believe that a man would commit the kind of assault described above without ever having imagined or fantasised about this scenario, or to put it another way, planned it in his head. Yet when we talk about sexual violence we seem remarkably uninterested in the contents of men’s heads—the heads we feel the need to rummage through are women’s.

Since Wednesday’s explosion of female rage there has been a steady stream of commentaries and think-pieces musing on why women are so afraid of men and whether their fear is justified. (Here’s one, by a man, entitled ‘Why Don’t Women Feel Safe?’, which concludes that the problem is (a) rooted in female psychology and therefore (b) intractable) That question has attracted far more attention than another, at least equally pertinent one—namely, why do so many men persistently choose to behave in ways that make women afraid?

One piece which did grapple with that issue, written by Rachel Hewitt for the Guardian, suggested that the answer in most cases has nothing to do with seizing random ‘opportunities’ for sexual gratification. Rather, this behaviour is an assertion of men’s social dominance. Some men clearly do get a kick out of women’s fear, but even when they don’t, Hewitt writes, ‘street harassment is how men mark out public spaces as their own, making women into trespassers on male territory’. It’s also, as I have noted before (see here and here), a way of impressing on women that men are entitled to demand their attention—and to punish women who withhold it—at any time and in any situation.

Which brings me to the last linguistic detail I want to comment on: the constant use of the words ‘safe’ and ‘safety’. This is how the issue has been defined—not only by the authorities and mainstream commentators, but also to a large extent by feminists. You might wonder why I’m raising that as a problem: surely the issue is precisely that women don’t feel safe in public space. But what’s really at stake here is women’s freedom rather than just their safety, and I would like to see that f-word given more emphasis. To explain why, let me quote Kavita Krishnan, who put it far more eloquently than I ever could when she spoke at a protest in 2012, following the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus:

Women have a right to freedom. …I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much. Women know what ‘safety’ refers to. It means – you behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom and you will be safe. A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it. The Delhi police is running an ad campaign… [with] a Hindi film actor exhorting people, ‘Be a man, join me in protecting women’. I want to ask, what about the brother who cuts his sister’s head off when she dares to marry into a different community? Is he not playing the role of a male protector too? This machismo is not any solution to the problem of violence against women; it is, in fact, the root of the problem. This is what we need to understand.

The focus on women’s safety, rather than their freedom, is what has allowed so much of this week’s discussion to revolve around the legitimacy of women’s feelings and their behaviour—are they overreacting, getting things ‘out of proportion’, being ‘hysterical’? It is possible to debate this because (as a million Reply Guys reminded us) most women will not become victims of violent crime. What is less debatable is that the fear induced by what happens to some women makes all women less free.

As Kavita Krishnan would doubtless have predicted, ‘safety’ was quickly invoked by the police to stop women holding public vigils, aka protests, in response to a murder with which a police officer has been charged. Instead we were told to stay at home and light a candle, or to carry a flower when out and about, and post a photograph of it by a street sign with the hashtag #ReclaimTheseStreets. (Candles! Flowers! That’ll show them what women are made of!) Though the police have used the current Covid-related restrictions on public gatherings as the basis for the prohibition, I’m inclined to regard that as largely a cover for other concerns about women coming together and speaking out about the way our institutions—especially though not only the police and the rest of the criminal justice system—have failed us. Their words, and the words of many commentators on this week’s events, have also failed us. Both the words and the world they come from need to change.