Statement on VAWG in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder

The abduction of Sarah Everard on 3 March as she was walking home in London, and her subsequent murder and the surrounding events, have brought into sharp relief the scale of male violence that women and girls experience throughout the UK– and how this constrains and constricts our lives – in violation of our human rights to safety, dignity and equal participation in public life.

Many women are demonstrably and understandably angry that in spite of public policies claiming otherwise, our safety, equality and human rights are still not being addressed effectively. Rather than improving, the reality for women and children is rapidly deteriorating.

To bring about real material change, we must stop seeing male violence against women and children (VAWG) as isolated incidents and open our eyes to the fact that it is a cultural phenomenon that is implicitly, if not explicitly, condoned by the Government and other public bodies along with the media.

We need to ask, what is it in our culture that gives men and boys the entitlement and impunity to treat women and girls as second class, as less than human, as ‘other’? What makes employers think women’s work is of less value than men’s work? What makes politicians and policy makers disregard the negative impact on women and girls of their legislation, budgets and policies?

There are clearly many factors, but one of the most important is the objectification and commodification of women and girls in the prostitution system and its normalisation and trivialisation – along with the explosion of pornography online, its violent and misogynistic nature, children’s easy access to it, and its seepage into the mainstream culture.

Research shows that most online porn now consists of misogynistic aggression and violence that is often extreme, meaning that it acts as a form of propaganda against women and girls, and incites violence against them. Pornography consumption is associated with attitudes that are known to underpin VAWG, and an increased likelihood of acting this out on real women and girls.

Other research has found that men who use prostitution are also more likely to rape, abuse and harass women than other men. This is not surprising because prostitution is one-sided sex – he pays precisely because she doesn’t want to have sex with him and so that he can do whatever he likes to her without considering her feelings and while being assured of her flattery. This feeds his sense of entitlement and also fuels the very attitudes that are known to underly VAWG.

In other words, men’s porn and prostitution use have a direct impact on all women and girls and not just those directly involved. This is not in any way meant to underplay the atrocities inflicted on the women and girls directly involved.

How can we expect women and girls to be treated as equals and for equality between the sexes to be advanced when our culture is saturated in women’s portrayal as objects of consumption for the benefit of men and boys? And when the sexualised torture of women and girls has become light entertainment to which a large proportion of the population jerk off, and men can buy sexual access to women and girls in prostitution with impunity, and when prostitution and pornography are justified as the woman’s lifestyle choice?

This reality is structural and systemic discrimination against women and girls – and the Government is complicit in it – in contravention of binding human rights conventions, including CEDAW and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its first optional protocol.

The majority of women who are involved in prostitution are there because of extreme poverty, drug addiction, a childhood history of abuse or neglect, and/or because they have been groomed or coerced into it by third parties – often ‘boyfriends’ or drug dealers – and the very culture that trivialises and normalises prostitution and pornography.

The idea that prostitution is a real choice for the majority of women involved is a dangerous and misleading notion that exonerates the individual perpetrators – and the culture and those who control it – from all responsibility.

Article 6 of CEDAW implicitly recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women and girls and explicitly requires states to prohibit pimping and all third-party profiteering from women’s prostitution. Article 9 of the Palermo Trafficking Protocol places an obligation on ratifying states to address both the poverty and inequality that makes women and girls vulnerable to being trafficked and men’s demand for prostitution that drives sex trafficking. The UK Government is abrogating its binding obligations under these and other international treaties.

Shortly before the 2019 general election, the Government abandoned its plans to implement age controls on online porn, even though the legislation had been passed by Parliament. The reason for this abandonment? Almost certainly because Boris Johnson and other senior Conservative politicians were afraid of alienating the men on whose votes they were relying in the election.

This is paradigmatic of the problem. No one wants to upset the men. No one wants to end their impunity. Or at least no one who has the power to do so.

This must change. The time is now. We refuse to stand by and wait any longer.

Our demands

In addition to measures to address domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment online and in public places, etc, we call on the UK Government to rapidly and urgently implement:

  • The formal recognition of prostitution as part of the structural and systemic oppression of women and girls and a form of VAWG.
  • Age verification on online porn.
  • The Nordic Model approach to prostitution and a commitment to fully fund it and champion it at the highest levels.
  • All the holistic measures that are required for the success of the Nordic Model, including: a public information campaign; education programmes in schools; preventive measures with children and young people; training for the police, judiciary, CPS and other public officials; and the law to be prioritised and coordinated nationally,
  • A guaranteed minimum income for all, the elimination of the pay gap between women and men, better resources and support for parents and “looked after” children, an end to student fees and zero-hour contracts, and tackling of all the other factors that trap people in poverty.
  • All of the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee in its 2019 Concluding Observations.

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