Violence against women: confronting the silence

Dr Rebecca Barnes, Lecturer in Criminology.

Last week, statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that one in three women worldwide are subjected to either physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner or sexual violence from a non-partner. It might have been easy to miss this news, with newspapers preoccupied with discussion surrounding the infamous photos of Charles Saatchi grasping the neck of his wife Nigella Lawson as they dined, and debate regarding the sentencing of Stuart Hall to fifteen months in prison for fourteen offences of indecent assault. Meanwhile over on social networking sites campaigners called for the criminalisation of ‘rape pornography’, whilst a radical feminist campaign led by UK Feminista and Object focussed its attention on lobbying Tesco to ‘lose the lads’ mags’.

Elsewhere, the @EverydaySexism Twitter feed continued as ever to be flooded with tweets from girls and women empowered to break their silence about their experiences of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence: followers recall countless incidents of being groped as young girls; having men put their hands up their skirts or into their knickers in crowds or dark bars and clubs; being subjected to lewd comments at work or on the street; witnessing men masturbating in front of them on public transport; being followed home from the bus or tube; and being threatened with rape or actually raped for failing to ‘take a compliment’ and rejecting male advances.

Whilst it is appalling to read what these women have experienced, what is really galling is that in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrators of these acts executed them without consequence. As government statistics published earlier this year showed, sexual offences are overwhelmingly not reported and only a small minority of recorded sexual crimes results in a conviction. Challenging under-reporting is a major hurdle to overcome. Too often, non-reporting or delayed reporting is regarded as a sign of poor victim credibility. However, we need to examine the conditions which deter victims of physical and sexual violence from reporting rather than chastising them for delayed reporting.

Whilst discussion often focuses upon the responses of the police and the courts, public responses can shape victims’ perceptions of the severity of the situation and whether they will be believed or supported. Friends, family members and strangers are collectively much more likely to become aware of violence than the police or other criminal justice agencies. We have to question why it is that witnesses to Saatchi’s aggressive treatment of his wife – most notably the photographer who was more motivated to capture the incident than assist somebody apparently in distress – did nothing?

Similarly, when reading one of the @EverydaySexism Twitter sessions about sexual harassment on public transport a few weeks ago, what struck me most was not that these incidents had happened – as degrading and distressing as they were – but the reactions of fellow travellers, who looked the other way and bus drivers and station staff who dismissed the incidents and failed to comprehend why a woman would take issue with being groped, propositioned or followed. Thankfully there were encouraging stories where others had successfully intervened, but these were in the minority.

Whilst there are often few, if any, consequences for perpetrators of violence against women, the same cannot be said for its victims and survivors. In the starkest terms, statistics collated by the United Nations indicate that globally, women aged between 19 and 44 are more likely to be killed or impaired by violence against women than by cancer, malaria, road traffic accidents or war combined. The WHO infographic on the impact of intimate partner violence on women’s health highlights increased alcohol abuse, greater risk of contracting HIV and higher rates of depression. A much longer list of physical, sexual and reproductive harms could be added, alongside recognition that even if the physical scars can heal, the psychological impacts of fear, anxiety, betrayed trust, self-blame and shame are far longer-lasting.

When compared to these devastating harms, one might be forgiven for questioning whether a few lewd remarks (often dismissed as harmless ‘banter’) or the appearance of some topless or scantily-clad women in magazines, really deserve our attention. Feminists who campaign about these issues are often mocked for being uptight, spoilsports and lacking a sense of humour. Yet the connections between these different violations cannot be underestimated. Lads’ mags encourage boys and men to sexualise girls and women and to maintain certain expectations of women, while rape pornography eroticises domination and violence and conveys the message that women, whilst initially reluctant, enjoy rape.

That men can masturbate in public places to intimidate women and that there is typically no penalty for putting a hand up a girl or woman’s skirt creates particular conditions which sustain female vulnerability and silence and positively reinforce the behaviour of the men who choose to commit such acts. These are social facts which are inseparable from the reality that a third of women experience physical and sexual violence. It is too late to reserve our condemnation for the few and most serious cases of physical and sexual violence which receive widespread coverage. Instead, we all need to be willing to condemn and take a stand against the everyday experiences of sexism which permeate the lives of millions of women and girls worldwide.


Dr Rebecca Barnes is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester.

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