This article contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.
On March 3, 2021, London police officer Wayne Couzens kidnapped and later murdered 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who was walking home from a friend’s house. Before the police apprehended Couzens, they knocked on Clapham and Brixton residents’ doors warning women not to leave home by themselves until the suspect had been found.
“Don’t leave home by yourself” reminds me of the all-too-common phrases used by men to scapegoat women for their own violent actions. People often say, “her skirt was too short,” or “she had too much to drink,” but rarely stop to ask why her abuser felt it was okay to violate her in the first place.
Women, especially victims of abuse and harassment, are regularly told that they are somehow responsible for the actions done to them, and, as such, must act differently in order to protect themselves. We are forced to take self-defense classes, share our locations with friends and walk with our keys in our hands, all to give ourselves the illusion of safety. However, these precautions are simply fleeting fixes for a societal and institutional issue where the true solution is far outside any one person’s control. Short skirts and dark streets are not what is endangering us — men and the structures that support their behavior are.
When discussions about harassment and abuse are only framed around what women can do to protect themselves, it suggests that this reality is inevitable and that the only possible solution is censoring the way women act, dress and live their lives. It is the violent behavior of men that needs to be controlled — not ours. The discourse around the topic should reflect that.
Even the way language is structured when talking about abuse against women deflects accountability from men to women. In conversations surrounding abuse people too often use the passive voice. We hear “she was raped,” but not, “he raped her.” The term “violence against women” talks about the problems of abuse and harassment without actually calling out perpetrators, which are often men. Even calling women “accusers” centers the incident around them. These experiences do not just happen to people; assault is something that one actively does to another, and our language should communicate that.
While this conversation has been happening for a long time, it is often led by men who fail to understand the gravity of this issue. However, things are finally starting to change. The collective uproar in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard proves that people are ready for the real solution: a cultural change in which men recognize that this is not a women’s issue. All people, but especially men, must commit to combating the sexist and misogynistic language that creates a culture where men continue to harass and abuse women. Comments about what women could do differently or the passive description of violence might seem like nuanced details, but accepting this kind of framing will only lead to its continued toleration. Until we change the way we talk about the experiences of women, we cannot hope to eliminate the behavior that endangers them.
Mary Hester ’22 is a political science major from Bloomingdale, Ill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.