More needs to be done in stopping men from acting out violence against women, rather than focusing on victims, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sexual abuse
TODAY IS International Women's Day, this year’s hashtag being #BreaktheBias.
UN Women Australia will focus this day on climate change and its effects on women and girls, gender equality and a sustainable future.
However, at this time it seems important to point out, yet again, that decades of women speaking out, calling out and protesting have not reduced the incidence of violence of all kinds against women and girls, perpetrated largely by men. We do not feel any safer than we did 40 years ago and that’s because we aren’t any safer. In Australia, one of us is still murdered every week.
Many women who speak out, including me, are survivors of male sexual, physical, emotional and psychological violence. We publicly revisit our traumas in the hope that we might effect change that will protect others from suffering as we have. Victims of abuse often believe that once the situation is public knowledge, it will stop. But this is far from the truth and is grounded in hope, not reality.
As someone who has been doing this in various ways for going on 30 years, it’s heartbreakingly apparent to me that talking about it is not achieving the improvements we initially hoped and believed it would.
This is not to suggest that we should shut up. Far from it. However, it is chilling to understand that despite the attention violence against us receives, it does not abate. What was hidden is now in plain sight and still, it continues.
Nothing we have said and done has so far managed to curb the need of toxic men to rape us, beat us, harass us, coerce us, constrain us and kill us. No amount of national plans, reports, recommendations, public revelations of our traumas, breakfasts, lunches or coloured ribbons are preventing, or even reducing, the violence women endure at the hands of men who all too often are not held accountable.
We need to face the fact that none of it is working. We are permitted our protests, we are permitted our personal revelations – up to a point and that point is provided we are civil about it – only if we behave and are acceptable victims. The acceptable victim must look and sound relatable. In Australia, this usually means she is White and middle class, as writer Sisonke Msimang points out in her incisive article on who gets to speak about these matters and who does not.
Grace Tame has come closest to challenging the societal requirement for a victim to be good and worthy, because she can skilfully and with immediacy articulate her fury. In this, she is an inspiration. However, generally, we are permitted to speak because we are not a threat. When we become a threat, we will be shut down and indeed women who generally support us will not offer the perceived unrelatable survivor a platform.
We are permitted to provoke, at most, temporary discomfort in our audience. We do not cause men to stop their violence against us and we never will, because we can’t. Women cannot make men stop behaving violently towards us. And what we have learned in the decades since feminism’s second wave is that calling them out isn’t going to stop them either.
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison infamously observed on the occasion of the 2021 Women's March for Justice that in countries not far from here protesters are shot, he was reminding us that we protest only because we are permitted to do so and that permission can be withdrawn at any time should we become too threatening.
We are tolerated because it serves the interests of a hollowed-out democracy to continue to merely perform its principles, rather than honour and value them. Violence against women should be a profound affront to those democratic principles politicians are sworn to uphold and yet, here we are.
We need most of all to understand the horror of the reality we face, which is that no matter how public discussion about violence against women and girls has become, no matter how many survivors’ stories are told, the men who abuse us are not stopping.
We need, as a society, to stop focusing on victims and survivors while still making space for our voices. We need to focus our attention on perpetrators. We need to focus on the toxic men and the toxic masculinity that enables their brutality. We need, as a society, to get very, very angry about such men and their enablers.
They are not stopping. And they will not stop just because we speak out.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.
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