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Editorial: Women's oppression and the epidemic of misogynist violence

RISING domestic abuse — which statistics show is overwhelmingly male abuse of women — cannot be dismissed as a by-product of lockdowns.

It’s clear that lockdowns — by enforcing proximity, closing off escape routes and potentially exacerbating mental health issues — increase the frequency and severity of incidents. This is a serious matter which must be taken into account in public health decisions.

But as in other areas, what the pandemic and lockdowns have done is throw pre-existing crises into sharp relief. 

Nowhere is this clearer than in the chronic lack of refuge spaces for women fleeing abuse — with a staggering 63 per cent of referrals to refuges in England being declined over the past 12 months. The main reason refuges gave was a straightforward lack of capacity, a clear indication of the low priority given to women’s safety in our society.

As we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the left must recognise how routinely women’s right to safety at home, at work and in the community is violated in Britain today.

The horrific murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa this year prompted mass demonstrations of women both to pay their respects — though those doing so on Clapham Common for Everard were attacked by police, a particularly grim touch given her murderer was a policeman — and to demand change.

The outpouring of anger was reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in the United States, and like racism the oppression of women is a systemic problem, reflected in everything from lower pay to lethal violence.

If Black Lives Matter in the United States referred to last Friday’s acquittal of killer-of-two Kyle Rittenhouse as evidence that “white supremacy lives and breathes within our institutions,” there is plenty of evidence that male violence, even when deadly, is trivialised by British officialdom. 

This month the Court of Appeal declined to increase killer Sam Pybus’s four-year, eight-month sentence for choking Sophie Moss to death in February. 

With apparently mitigating factors being his drunkenness and his claim that choking his victim was a consensual part of their sexual relationship, the lenience appears to undermine claims that last year’s Domestic Abuse Act would put an end to “rough sex” defences for killing women — and implies, as We Can’t Consent To This spokeswoman Fiona Mackenzie said at the initial sentencing, “that strangling a woman to death is still viewed in law as an unfortunate accident.”

Women are being failed before cases even make it to court, with the proportion of reported rapes resulting in a prosecution dropping by more than half in the last five years.

Everard’s murder led to accusations of institutional misogyny being levelled at the Metropolitan Police, and pressure for an overhaul of a toxic sexist culture in our institutions should be stepped up.

But nor can the epidemic levels of violence against women be divorced from the social context they spring from. 

Education unions have sounded the alarm over soaring levels of sexual harassment of girls in schools. 

An international study by professors Nicky Stanley and Christine Barter found a significant association between “boys’ viewing of online pornography and their use of sexual coercion and abuse,” yet the role of pornography in objectifying women is seldom acknowledged on the left. 

A concerted effort to legitimise the sex trade is also weakening the labour movement’s longstanding opposition to the commodification and exploitation of women’s bodies, sanitising a brutal industry riddled with slavery, human trafficking and murder and entrenching a liberal, transactional attitude to human intimacy that has wider negative consequences.

Decrying the abuse of women while turning a blind eye to its causes is not good enough. A systematic assessment of the roots, role and reality of women’s oppression is essential to addressing the crisis of male violence.

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