Content warning: discussion of sexual violence
8 March is International Women’s Day. Women and allies around the world are joining together in celebration of our strength, and we’ll be commemorating all of us who have died at the hands of men.
We are, of course, gathering in solidarity against against sexism and misogyny. Over the past few months, I have spoken to a number of people who feel that misogyny isn’t as bad as it used to be; that somehow our UK society is learning to be better. They cite the fact that sexual consent and boundaries are now practiced in many relationships. But let’s face it, a man checking whether his sexual partner consents is the bare minimum of what he should be doing anyway. It’s disturbing that it’s taken us until 2023 to get this far. The bar is very, very low when it comes to how we expect cis men to act.
If you think this shows that men are somehow better these days, you’d be wrong. The number of women who are being spiked on a night out is alarming, and in 2023, it’s now normal for notices in club toilets to suggest politely that men “stop spiking”.
On top of this, violence against women during consensual sex is now completely normalised. We are often labelled and shamed as being ‘vanilla’ if we don’t want to be strangled, or if we don’t want to consent to a man’s kink. Strangling during sex is highly gendered, and is now the norm, rather than the exception. Men often strangle us without our permission. In 2019, the BBC wrote:
more than a third of UK women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex…”
Four years later, I would argue that not much has changed.
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Are rough sex laws really protecting us?
The ‘rough sex’ defence has been consistently used by violent men who have murdered women. In 2021, the Domestic Abuse Act did, in theory, rule out this defence. The new law states that:
Consent to serious harm for sexual gratification [is] not a defence.
in November 2021, the Court of Appeal decided Sam Pybus’s sentence of 4 years 8 months should not be increased, after he strangled Sophie Moss until she was dead, and claimed that she had encouraged him to do it. We think there could be no clearer sign the law is not yet working.
The lead appeal judge argued that Sophie had consented to being strangled; quite how the misogynist judge could know this is a mystery. And how exactly could she consent to being strangled until she was murdered? Pybus had a history of violence against women, and had strangled his previous partner, too. But, of course, Sophie was held accountable, even in her death, because Pybus’s actions were apparently consensual.
With the introduction of a 5 year sentence for Non Fatal Strangulation, shockingly, it’s possible to kill a sexual partner and get a shorter sentence than you would have for not killing her. These short sentences for manslaughter are common – in each case the violence used is shockingly severe.
Misogyny as the norm
Of course, misogyny doesn’t just rear its ugly head during sex. It’s so normalised in our society that we don’t even see it for what it is. An obvious example of this is the treatment of famous women when they dare to challenge famous misogynist men. In 2022, the world witnessed Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in court. I felt sick when I heard how Depp had treated Heard. But I felt even more sick when I realised that the world was defending him; that it didn’t matter how disgusting he was towards women – nothing could pull him off his pedestal.
The misogynist backlash Heard received – surprisingly from all genders – was absolutely sickening. As Canary guest writer Annie Stevens wrote at the time:
Any man that uses terms like “idiot cow”, “withering cunt”, “worthless hooker”, “slippery whore” or “waste of a cum guzzler” (Depp’s words) to describe women is clearly a misogynist.
And yet, despairingly, the world still stood by Depp, hero-worshipping him as a cis man who could do no wrong, even when his vile misogyny was shown to the world, plain as day. This case is a prime example of how society excuses and emboldens men to act however they want. Stevens wrote:
there is no question that it will impact survivors here who have seen friends, family and colleagues back Johnny and claim that Amber is a liar.
Women have already been pulling out of cases due to the fear of going through what Amber did. Not only that, this case has also emboldened abusive men.
Prioritising feelings of men
Since then, the case of another cis man, footballer Benjamin Mendy, has been in the public spotlight. He, along with his friend Louis Saha Matturie, was accused of multiple sexual offences, including rape, by 13 different women. It will, no doubt, have taken the women all of the courage they could muster to be involved in this prosecution, particularly after they witnessed how Heard was treated by the world.
Unsurprisingly, the majority-male jury found Mendy not guilty of six counts of rape and one count of sexual assault. A retrial is due to take place after the jury couldn’t reach a verdict about one count of rape and one of attempted rape.
Instead of focusing on whether a majority-male jury should even be allowed in such cases, the mainstream media commented on how Mendy’s life had been shaken up by the accusations. Rather than talking about how the women will have been traumatised by such a man, the BBC wrote that:
The allegations and trial had been “absolute hell” for Mr Mendy.
‘Not all men’
Of course, you might be a man reading this, thinking to yourself that “not all men” are misogynists, “not all men” are predators, and that “not all men” are sexist. But this is a tiresome argument, used by many of you around the world to excuse yourselves from doing any work on your own patriarchal behaviour. By saying “not all men”, you’re refusing to self-reflect. And this refusal is insulting to the very women who you claim to care about, and who you say you would never harm.
The “not all men” argument is useless to us. It doesn’t make me or my friends any safer in our homes. It doesn’t prevent us from being harassed, or spiked in a club, or murdered by people who claim to love us. 1,425 women have been killed by men in the UK over a decade, between 2009 and 2018. 62% of women are killed by their current or former partner. Others are murdered by relatives. In 92% of the cases, the women knew their killer.
Men, it’s time that you step up
I have previously written about how UK society likes to victim-blame women for the misogyny we encounter. I said:
As women, we are sick and tired of being told to moderate our behaviour. “Follow the rules”, they say. “Don’t walk alone in the dark”. “Don’t be drunk”. “Don’t dress a certain way”. How, exactly, does moderating our behaviour in any way address the root issue: the misogyny entrenched in our society?
It is not, in any way, a woman’s responsibility to change how we act. The time has come for men to step up. Look at yourselves, your own behaviour, and the behaviour of your male friends. Look at how patriarchy is entrenched in all of you, and how you all need to do the work to unpick it. Call out your friends who have misogynist or sexist opinions, and challenge them. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations.
And if women call you out for being sexist, don’t get defensive, and don’t let your male fragility rear its ugly head. Instead, take the time to reflect. When you want to open your mouth and protest, “but not all men”, think twice. After all, you can never, ever know what it’s like to live in a misogynist world.
We need your understanding. But more than that, we need you to be actively willing to fight sexism and misogyny within yourselves and in society, wherever it manifests.
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