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Blog: How to stop sexual terrorism: a multigender alliance

Updated: Aug 8

​This month, we at Thriving Survivors have sought to have productive conversations around female safety, not least in the wake of the devastating murders of Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard, and many more whose assaults and deaths have not been as widely report. Some have responded by trying to offer more tools and services to help women and femme-presenting people feel safer while walking at night. For instance, there are now a multitude of apps that identify ‘unsafe’ areas, send alerts to the users’ contacts by identifying certain spoken phrases, or send out the user’s location on Google Maps in emergency situations. There is also the new helpline run by the community organisation Strutsafe, who will chat to people walking home who feel vulnerable. These responses are certainly useful, thoughtful, and potentially lifesaving, but they’re analogous to putting a plaster on an open wound.

The problem is that they do not interrogate the underlying ideologies behind gendered violence, and are unfortunately part of a long history of putting the onus on women and other victims of male violence to defend themselves or to “know better”. This victim-blaming was no more apparent than in the case of Sarah Everard, arrested and later assaulted and murdered by a police officer. In response, the police commissioner commented that ‘women, first of all, need to be streetwise about when they can be arrested and when they can't be arrested’ and that Ms Everard ‘should never have been arrested and submitted to that’. How long will it be before comments turn into: “well, she should have downloaded that app” or “she shouldn’t have gone out without her phone charged”? Perhaps it is easier to understand these horrific assaults and murders as random acts of violence that someone could feasibly prepare for rather than a systemic problem that severely limits women’s and femmes’ happiness and freedoms. Otherwise, we must confront a long legacy of cultural misogyny; strict notions of binary gender, enforced through coercion, harassment, and violence; and heterosexist notions of men and women’s sexual “role”, somehow naturalised in our discourses through faulty understandings of “biology”. Certainly, the idea that male sexual desire and all its accompanying biological apparatus (hormones, genitals, etc.) cannot be controlled has a pervasive history, as well as the idea that women must set sexual boundaries by “not giving in” to men’s advances. Not only does this preclude the possibility of female sexual desire, it provides a convenient excuse for men who engage in sexual violence. It segregates male and female sexuality as fundamentally and biologically opposed, with one active and unstoppable, the other passive and controlled. There is no reason to believe testosterone (or any other biological fact of the male body) causes this. The consequence of this social construction of male and female sexuality is that it makes women vulnerable, because it frames them as sexually passive, or as prey to be pursued. This ideology is what results in sexual terrorism, a term inspired by the writings of feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich. In a century of terrorist acts that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, this term is not to be used lightly; and here it is not. Part of the purpose of terrorist acts is not just to kill and injure people, but to create a public atmosphere of terror, and to intrude on the ability of people to live their daily lives. If this doesn’t describe the experience of women and femmes walking to and from places they need or want to be, what does? In her writing Rich demonstrates how sexual terrorism inhibits women’s freedoms, describing the characteristics of male power which includes the power of men ‘to confine [women] physically and prevent their movement – by means of rape as terrorism, keeping women off the streets; purdah; foot binding; […] sexual harassment on the streets’ as well as ‘to force [male sexuality] upon them – by means of […] socialization of women to feel that male sexual “drive” amounts to a right [… and] pornographic depictions of women responding pleasurably to sexual violence and humiliation.’[1] Certainly, the criminalisation of marital rape as late as 2003 in the UK speaks to this idea of male sexual drive as a ‘right’ men have over women, a cultural idea that we are still unpicking. Admittedly, Rich was writing this in 1980, in the context of a surge of hardcore and violent pornography, most (in)famously the film Deepthroat. This explains her condemnation of pretty much all pornographic depictions of women. However, feminist debates over pornography have since evolved into multiple strands, with some actively against all forms and some hoping to reshape this problematic power dynamic and give women more agency. The latter group has taken the porn industry by storm, meaning there is now more access to ethical and feminist porn than at any other point in history. What this shows is that we can change the constructions and depictions of male and female sexuality for the better, helping women and femmes be seen as individuals who deserve the same rights, freedoms, and safety as anyone else. Typically, these projects have been led by women and LGBTQ+ people, which has been a wonderful way to have these voices and perspectives heard. However, there is one key gender missing from this picture: men. This is why it is so fantastic to see projects like That Guy, which actively encourage ‘better ways to be a man.’ Interestingly on their website, they have a section dedicated to ‘pornification’, asking their readers ‘can you tell fantasy from reality?’ and ‘is pornography conditioning the way you behave in bed and how you relate to women?’ It is precisely these kinds of discourses that help unravel these problematic ideas of male and female sexuality, and hopefully undercut the ideologies that drive male violence. While we are of course thankful for new technologies and apps that will help those who feel endangered, even more so do we push for projects that target the underlying ideologies of male violence. We need more, and we especially need discussions that help men engage differently with women and support victims of gendered violence. The hope is that when a man becomes police commissioner, for example, he does not resort to victim-blaming. These are pursuable cultural changes that we want to see more of, and that we hope will gain traction in the years to come. [1] Rich, Adrienne. [1980] 2010. ‘From Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism second edition ed. by Vincent B. Leitch et. al. (London, New York: Norton & Company), pp. 1591-1609

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