The victim’s voice is the most important, not yours.
We can’t reclaim the streets without changing attitudes
By Eilidh Keay
Trigger Warning: Sexual Assualt & Murder
Sixteen is a funny age. For the young, it is a glimpse into the adult world. You may start driving, you may be allowed to drink, in some places you may even be allowed to vote. A kind of being of both here and there: an in-between. For the old, you maybe remember sixteen with a fondness. An almost sickly nostalgia that reminds you of your once weightlessness and light-footedness in the world. They don’t say sweet sixteen for nothing. My world, however, turned sour at sixteen. It first happened at that age. I became heavy with the weight of others’ wrongdoings. And it happened again at seventeen. And at eighteen. And again, at nineteen. For every year since I was sixteen, I must write ‘and again.’ Will I become so heavy that my existence is crushed? I wish I could tell you when I will no longer need to pen this phrase, but I am neither a fortune-teller nor an optimist.
Image courtesy of Katie Tegtmeyer via Flickr
It is now reported that 97% of women have these ‘its’. Its are now shared experiences amongst women and gender-marginalised people. A deeply unfortunate given of our existence.
Sarah Everard’s murder has created a ripple effect in the conversation and discussion surrounding sexual violence and the safety of marginalised genders. I have spoken to many about my experiences, both in person and in online spaces. In many of these conversations, I find support, solidarity, and a shared sense of grief. Yet this growing sense of hope is extinguished as quickly as it is lit.
Sarah did all the right things. She wore bright colours. She stayed on the phone to her boyfriend. She stuck to the well-lit path. Yet, she was killed.
There’s that old and clichéd saying, life is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you’re going to get. But say once, you get a chocolate that was rotten, you may become weary of the whole box. Later, you find out that many of your female friends, colleagues, and family members all too have had some rotten chocolate. It almost seems like the problem isn’t with those eating chocolate, but the chocolate themselves. ‘But it’s not all chocolate!’ you say.
When we highlight the possibility that this may not just be a women’s issue (that this may in fact be larger than just us) or when we mention the way the intertwining of oppression and violence may be at the responsibility of the perpetrators and not the victim, we send you into a panic. How dare we try to implicate you? You would never do such a thing! It’s quite frankly outlandish for us to question your acceptance and passive benefit from a system that kills us.
It’s almost laughable, isn’t it? How this conversation has panned out? We are told this is a women’s issue. Our behaviour is deemed risky and unsafe—that we’re asking for it. So we change. We impose parameters on our already limited mobility in the hope of some safety. But, of course, nothing changes. We are still harassed. We are still assaulted. We are still raped. We are still killed.
That’s the beauty of oppressive structures: although large and dominating their architecture operates on a small, yet sophisticated method. A brilliant ability to shift the narrative so that the onus is somehow always placed on the victim. But not all are quick to dismiss. Some listen. I don’t write with a complete sense of pessimism. I almost do. Almost.
Some that listen like to remind other men of the fact she is someone's daughter/wife/sister. I think it is meant to be well-intentioned, but I can’t help but become frustrated. I call this the proximity argument. The proximity argument serves as a reminder of our place in this world. Our place is dictated by our relations to men, with our value being found in our proximity to them. Men are someone. Women are someone’s. This rhetoric is harmful, it reminds us of our otherness, and it teaches men to only care about this issue under the assumption that it indirectly affects them. I shouldn’t have to justify who I am for you to listen. Please recognise me for my entirety. Please act on the basis of our shared ‘someoneness’.
So the next time you think of saying ‘but it’s not all men’ or ‘I’m not like that”, think about what you’re doing. Think about how you continually centre the conversation to be about you. Think about how whenever we raise our voice, you shut it down. Think about how your failure to act endangers us. We know it’s not all men. You don’t need to keep telling us that. But we can’t help but think it.