For the past few days, every time I have opened my internet browser, with the BBC website as my default home page, I have been presented with the smiling face of a young woman. She looks so bright and engaging and that makes the shock all the more acute that this is the photograph of a young woman whose body has now been found in woodland in Kent. As I write this I do not know the details of what happened to her. But I do know that a heart-wrenching tragedy has struck those who are close to her and now grieve with the deepest tears – and this is Mothering Sunday weekend. A mother weeps for her child.
The reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder has been striking. It has brought a torrent of stories from women online who have had to navigate unwanted male attention on buses, taxis, walking home, out jogging, in the office, oh the list is so long. They have told of the constant ways they adjust their own behaviour to take account of this and protect themselves when they should just be able to go about their business in assumed safety. And the stories have been accompanied by raw statements of ‘male violence’ and ‘mens behaviour’ towards women. It has sparked a reaction in turn of #NotAllMen, possibly well-meaning in attempting to show solidarity or ‘we’re not all like that’, but as one woman pointed out, of course you’re not, the trouble is we don’t know which are and which are not.
That struck home. Of course they don’t. Because rapists, gropers, coercive controllers and bullies are not bar-coded. As a curate in Maidstone in the 1990s I regularly visited the prison as a chaplain. As I walked on the sex offenders wing I would meet men you would not suspect of anything if you passed them in the street. Many had used this ‘safe appearance’ to groom and win trust which they then abused. And so on the surface, the woman who said ‘we don’t know which are dangerous and which are not’ is right. She doesn’t.
This shouldn’t surprise those of us who are involved in safeguarding because we are used to keeping an open mind and always being on the alert for behaviour that seems iffy. One safeguarding officer described this simply as ‘does it pass the sniff test’? In the world of safeguarding we don’t know who is safe and who is not and so we make sure there are measures in place to reduce risk. I wish it were otherwise, because a constant state of vigilance is quite wearing.
I am also used in church circles to having to make it clear that we are an inclusive church, who welcomes everyone regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, education or social background, politics or conviction of faith. I know we have to make this clear that this is a safe space because I know not everywhere is, and have been told so many stories to reinforce this observation. I know that I have to demonstrate trustworthiness because it isn’t assumed. And that means I have to make sure I don’t do things which make others uneasy or project a message that makes them feel unsafe. And sometimes we have to be reminded because sometimes we forget.
For men the reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder is a reminder that we have to adjust our behaviour to show we are safe, and that means not invading space, not following a woman in the street in a way that could be unnerving or seem creepy. It may mean crossing the road if walking at night. It means not making inappropriate comments that demean or objectify. And it means calling it out when we see it in others. ‘That’s not cool’ or find a way of making clear that that wasn’t right. This is assuming that not groping and not abusing is commonly accepted.
And then there is the over simple reassurance of #NotAllMen. Quite simply, are you sure? All of us have grown up with assumptions drummed into our heads and it runs down the generations. As a child of the 70s I know that the cultural wallpaper included Miss World, women draped over cars, the general assumption of availability and assumed willingness rather than checking consent. Of course this cultural backdrop met the cold reality of real encounters with real girls. It’s what happened next that makes the difference. Never mind ‘no means no’, this was more likely to be ‘not interested so back off’. And it is what happens next that separates those who got the message from those who didn’t or were not remotely interested in being sensitive to it.
Cultural change comes slowly. Developing a counter-cultural ethic comes when cultural assumptions meet an alternative being articulated that is understood and a more healthy way of being emerges.
When I think of how far we have travelled it was a shock to discover Hip hop and later cultural scenes bringing similar challenges for later generations. The assumptiveness did not go away. The culture of rap music with scantily clad girls draped as trophies and disposable accessories feeds young minds in a very unhealthy way. TV news reports still frequently make sure there is a pretty young woman walking down the street, strangely framed in the centre or as the focus of the short shot. Sports events scan the crowd looking for the ‘eye candy’. All reinforcing objectification and commodification of women for men’s enjoyment.
The prevalence of pornography affects minds in how others are seen. There is a reminder in ‘The Professional Ministerial Guidelines’ document for the Church in Wales that “pornography demeans a person who is a child of God into a disposable object” (2007, p4). While legal, it is not without consequences for shaping the mind and is not conducive to healthy relationships, attitudes and behaviour. That this is spelt out is telling. When looking for lives modelled on Christ, treating others as less than fully human, as an object is not compatible.
Sexual attraction is not the same as coercive, violent, abusive and aggressive behaviour. Just because someone is attractive does not mean that they are fair game for unwanted attention. Self-control means that not everyone tries to jump every attractive person. And remembering they are a person, not a thing, is a start. Sex within relationship rather than casual enjoyment is also one where boundaries are set and nurtured. The key here is relationship – two people with mutual and consensual intimacy.
All of us are shaped by the cultural framework around us, especially as we grow and develop. These attitudes can feed us well or poison the system. And we rely on others to help us assess them and make the changes accordingly. Listening to the experiences which have been triggered by the murder of Sarah Everard is a sharp reminder that how we as men behave can make someone feel safe or reinforce fear developed through so many other experiences. That so many women have effectively said #MeToo means we men have to up our game here.
All are beloved children of God, heirs of grace and carriers of the image of the creator. It is incumbent on us all to make sure those we encounter are honoured and not demeaned. Given the context, the sons of Adam have a responsibility to the daughters of Eve.