TW: Mentions of sexual violence

The recent murder of Sarah Everard has sent shock waves through society. It has brought the extent of systemic victim-blaming and internalised misogyny to light, perpetuated by patriarchal ideas still present in our society. Internalised misogyny – the unconscious biases our patriarchal culture enforces upon us – must be examined in ourselves and others to tackle victim-blaming. Once we address, call out, and overcome our own internalised misogynistic attitudes, we can become more open-minded and prepared to support others facing sexual harassment and assault. It is a crisis that currently rages throughout schools and universities which can only be tackled by cultural and systemic change through education.

Sarah Everard’s murder is a gruesome sign that women are still unsafe on the streets. Her killing was not simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is resultative of a misogynistic culture which asserts continued male dominance over women’s bodies and lives, derived from the patriarchal ideas our society is steeped in. Her murder has triggered testimonies from women on social media, previously silent about their experiences of harassment and assault. Instagram account, @everyonesinvited has received over 5,000 testimonies from women and girls who have experienced harassment and assault within schools and universities. 

The continually increasing outpouring of testimonies shows women’s growing confidence to speak up about their experiences, once silenced by a toxic culture of victim-blaming which enforces the precedency of male sexual desire, and stifles women who have been forcibly subjected to it. Social media has exposed the breadth of misogyny within the education system. Though social media is an extremely powerful platform which raises awareness for these issues, meaningful changes must be made to challenge institutionalised chauvinism and misogyny – a power only wielded by education. Social media must also be treated with caution; though it can be used for positive change, it simultaneously provides a platform for misogynistic voices to be heard.  

Twitter is awash with comments about the route Sarah Everard took home, with many criticising her choice to walk across the dark Clapham Common. It seems history has repeated itself, placing a similar sense of responsibility on Amelie Delagrange, 22, who was murdered when she cut across the dark Twickenham Green, London, in 2004. It is as though nothing has changed in 15 years. This continued pattern of victim-blaming shows society must cease finding ways to shift blame from attackers onto their victims, and focus instead on the issue at hand: misogyny still reigns as a woman cannot wear what she wants and walk wherever she wants. 

Women’s clothing is too often used as an excuse for the actions of predators, as some conclude she may have been ‘asking’ for sexual attention. When a woman does assert agency over her body by dressing as she pleases, she is often blamed for the unwanted male attention she may receive. This culture of slut-shaming demonstrates that society still fails to accept women’s ownership over their bodies. Slut-shaming constantly finds a way to critique and control the way women should feel about their appearance. Victim-blaming and slut-shaming protects predators by placing responsibility of harassment on women, demonising them for enticing the male gaze. Society maintains that ‘boys will be boys’, a mentality which holds that predators are unable to control themselves and cannot be made accountable for their actions.  

These recent events have led women to reflect on their experiences of misogyny, including myself. One evening last summer I walked down a quiet lane and saw an older man looking at me from his car. He rolled down his window and asked “what’s your snapchat?” He then strode towards me, repeatedly shouting the same question. I blamed myself for this experience as I had walked alone down quiet roads and considered myself lucky I did not experience worse. I was ashamed to talk about it, as if it was my fault. A year on, I have realised my own internalised misogyny placed blame on myself, rather than this man. 

It is this internalisation of the patriarchy that makes myself, and many others, too afraid and ashamed to discuss their experiences of harassment. However, we must overcome our anxieties about victim-blaming. By refusing to discuss our experiences, the patriarchy continues to dominate women as our silence enforces the idea that cat-calling is something we should be ashamed of. Instead, we must call-out our cat-calls. By speaking up about harassment we draw attention to its extent within society and slowly break down the internalised misogyny which reinforces it.

The patriarchy enforces internalised misogyny which infiltrates almost every area of our lives. It permeates into our minds and becomes unconscious. It is all-pervasive, holding that men have a right to women’s bodies and resultatively makes us believe women are culpable for receiving unwanted attention. A 2017 rape case heard a judge suggest it is a woman’s duty to protect herself from assault when drunk. This behaviour institutionalises misogyny and victim-blaming and deters other women from reporting assault, believing that they will not be taken seriously. 

Instagram accounts such as @whyididntreport document the struggle of women to reveal their experiences of harassment and assault due to fear of violence and victim-blaming. Internalised misogyny is quick to invalidate a woman’s experiences; numerous accounts of how women believed they “did not fight hard enough” to avoid assault prove the shocking extent of victim-blaming within our society. Rather than teaching men that to assault is wrong, society teaches women to do all they can to avoid it. Women must be alert in case of attack. Women must grip their keys between their fingers at night. Women must change their clothes and route. If we do not, then we have not done all we can to protect ourselves. It is our duty to fight victim-blaming tendencies and place sole responsibility where it belongs: on offenders.

We must address such victim-blaming and internalised misogyny through education. Programmes such as the Oxford-based Good Lad Workshop teach university students to respect women through the concept of ‘positive masculinity’ rather than to merely obey the law on assault and harassment.  Environments such as these must be sustained as they create a discussion and challenge misogynist culture within the formative years of our lives.

Schools, universities and workplaces must learn from the testimonies of women and girls, and impose a reformed and rigorous education system surrounding misogyny. As well as education about the importance of respect, women must be assured that their experiences of harassment and assault are valid and resultative of an institutionalised culture of sexism rather than their own actions. Slut-shaming culture and other issues dependent upon internalised misogyny which plague and invalidate the experiences of women and girls must be broken down through education.  

The government’s latest proposals fail to emphasise education to challenge systemic internalised misogyny. The proposed introduction of police into nightclubs and bars, increasing street lighting and CCTV is inadequate in tackling misogyny, harassment and assault. It fails to acknowledge and eradicate institutionalised and internalised sexism – the root of violence against women. Respecting women cannot be immediately enforced in society by greater curbs against harassment and assault. Rather, it needs to be taught. A state based on fear of being found disobeying the law is not a society we should live in, rather education must be used to deconstruct the misogynistic attitudes which drive harassment and assault. Instead, the education system’s power must be wielded to challenge misogyny. 

Cultural and systemic reform brought about by education must take place to solve the inequalities faced by women. Though these inequalities span centuries, they can be gradually challenged when we educate men and women on gender injustice, and hopefully bring about a decline issues such as victim-blaming. In 100 years women in the UK have been transformed from politically voiceless, lacking the right to vote, to politically and financially empowered. The mammoth rate of change seen in the 20th century anticipates greater reform for the position of women to come, will the erosion of internalised misogyny follow?   

Image credit: Tim Dennell via Flickr & Creative Commons.


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