There is a man sexually assaulting young women in Manchester City Centre at night. This is information that the public, especially young women, need to know. But telling women not to go out at night unaccompanied, as Greater Manchester Police have done, is an absurd, insulting suggestion. Targeting women's behaviour, as the result of men's sexual violence, is a classic example of victim blaming. In this 'warning', the woman is the subject; it's up to her, now she's been given this information, to make the right, safe decision (i.e. not to venture out alone).
What of the women who have no choice but to be unaccompanied at night; those working night shifts, those who can't afford a taxi home? Encouraging women not go out at night only puts the women who have no choice but to do so at greater risk.
The police may argue that these recent series of assaults are exceptional, due to there being one suspected perpetrator. Therefore, this 'special warning' is necessary. But unfortunately, sexual violence isn't exceptional, and the police of all people should know this. Violence and sexual violence is something a staggering number of women experience in their lives; from street harassment, to domestic abuse. This warning from the police implies that once they catch this 'monster', all women can return safely to the streets at night. But it won't end when he's caught, and it started before he began. Violence towards women is pandemic, and should be treated as such.
The streets stopped feeling safe for me when I hit adolescence, and this is the same for the majority of women I know. But that's our reality; and we mentally and physically prepare ourselves for that every time we enter these spaces. When I walk alone at night, I carry my keys in my hand, I pretend to be on the phone, I never have my headphones in, I check behind me on a regular basis, I stay alert, I stay ready. For myself and many of the women I know; being followed is not a rarity, being heckled, grabbed or worse. But this isn't restricted to night time. Ironically, the worst case of sexual assault I've experienced in public has been in broad daylight.
So, what's the police's advice for me? Perhaps not only should I stay accompanied in public at night, but during the day too? Perhaps I shouldn't leave the house without my partner? Perhaps I shouldn't leave my house at all? But statistics show the vast majority of sexual and physical violence towards women is perpetrated by their partner or family member, within the home (and the police should know this, they've been 'nearly overwhelmed' by the recent spike in domestic violence incidents). So, what are our options, when it seems our mere existence as women puts us at risk of abuse, no matter where we are?
We need to turn our attention to men's behaviour rather than policing women's. I don't care if a woman choses to walk alone at night, I care that so many men are assaulting women.
Why is this happening? And women aren't the only survivors and victims of men's abuse; the overwhelming majority of violent or sexually violent offences are committed by men - both against women, men and children. We should be interrogating why this is, instead of putting women under the spotlight. And instead of telling women what to do, we should be listening to them. Most women don't need to be told by men how to stay safe; ever since hitting adolescence (and for many from much younger) they've been navigating how to stay safe around men. Men need to listen to women about their everyday experiences of sexism, harassment and violence, and then they need to step up and take action.
It's men that should be policing each other's behaviour, questioning themselves, their friends, their colleagues. The calling out of inappropriate behaviour, be that in the office or the nightclub, should become the norm. If misogynistic behaviour was as taboo as a women wearing a short skirt or walking alone at night, perhaps we'd be in a very different situation.