One of the biggest ironies of the government response to the issue of women’s safety following the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and countless others this year is that they appear to have employed a tactic survivors like me are all too familiar with: gaslighting.
This form of manipulation is often used by perpetrators to silence the “buts” and “ifs” of their victims, keeping them in a state of perpetual confusion and forcing them to question their realities.
Three weeks after the sentencing of Wayne Couzens, the conversation still revolves around how women transport themselves from A to B without being murdered. We have Sadiq Khan bringing back the night Tube. We have seen plans scrapped for a female-only taxi service in Glasgow City. We have an 888 number for women to call if they believe they are being followed that allows the police to track their movements right to their front door. And yes, we have our street lights.
Despite the odd inquiry, requests made by the Women’s Equality Party for the police to stop managing male violence and get to the root of the problem – men – have largely gone ignored. The fact is, the majority of male violence that happens against women in Britain does not happen in the streets at all, but in our homes, in the places we work. Our perpetrators are not random strangers, but people we know well. Partners. Family members. Bosses. The scale of the problem is so staggering, the ONS reports that 1.6million women experience domestic abuse every year. Rape Crisis figures indicate that one in five women in this country are sexually assaulted over the age of 16. This figure climbs for the under-19s – school girls, in other words – to one in four.
What keeps this happening is a culture of misogyny that is so tightly woven into the fabrics of our society, the systems meant to protect us often end up inflicting more harm. Misogyny is so baked into our police forces, it even influences how they respond to women reporting crimes.
Perpetrators of domestic abuse and rape can also be police officers, and most of them, recent reports suggest, get away with it and keep their jobs. But we are screaming out for complaints of police misogyny to be taken seriously too. We are red in the face and exhausted by our efforts, while policy makers sit down with the very same people who are part of the problem and deflect the blame back at us.
Let me give you an example. The man who raped me in 2013 wasn’t one “bad apple”, or a creep waiting in a park, but someone I knew who crept into my bed one night and raped me while I slept. No time to call 888. No well-lit street to defend me.
The officer who interviewed him wasted no time in telling me what he thought of the man. “He’s very charming, isn’t he?” he said. The blood drained from my face and my stomach dropped. This person was leading my investigation.
It took a year for charges to be brought. The court dates were moved repeatedly into the future. When I was asked to review the video of my witness statement, then made two years previously, I was called into the police station to watch it. A group of male officers ate pizza and drank beer and laughed in the background. The case was thrown out days before I was due to take the stand.
And I am far from alone. I spoke to several survivors with similar testimonies of police misogyny – some of which could have cost them their lives.
“I was walking home one evening on a busy road in London, and a young guy started heckling me,” Lori says. “Eventually he came over and got angry that I was ignoring him so started being really aggressive. Someone came over to help and he then put his cigarette out on that man’s face so that’s when I called the police.
“He ran off so I went home and left it at that. About an hour later the police arrived at my front door with the guy in the back of the police car asking if I wanted to press charges. I felt like I had no choice but to say no, because he now knew where I lived. I tried to get this across to the two male officers that it wasn’t appropriate to bring him to my home and they just batted away my concerns. That’s when one of the officers said to me, ‘What do you expect when you live in London’?”
Domestic abuse survivor Rose found the police at her door after neighbouring flats had called 999.
“They said they wanted to talk to us separately,” she says. “One of the officers took me out to the flats landing while the other stayed inside and spoke to my partner. The officer went through what seemed like a checklist and I begged him to take me with them, even if it meant putting me in a cell.
“The officer inside came out and said he was done and asked the other officer if he was. The guy replied, “Yes”, and they both walked off. I was too gobsmacked to say anything after that and then my partner appeared at the door and I figured it wasn’t safe to make a scene.”
“When I was 20 I was in a very violent relationship,” Freya recalls. “My best friend had been the one picking me up and taking me to hospital every time I needed it. One day, after I told her my ex had threatened to kill me with a kitchen knife, she told my family. That day they staged an intervention and called the police. That evening a lone male police officer showed up and asked to speak with me alone.
“He proceeded to describe my personality, and said the reason he knew me was because I was a ‘victim’ and all victims are the same. He then went on to ‘explain’ that ‘a victim and abuser will find each other in a crowded room’ and therefore I had to take responsibility for choosing him and putting myself in that position – because I was a victim and that’s what we do.
“He said he was happy that I had a good family, and I was young and pretty and he was confident I wouldn’t make that choice again. Therefore he said he would not report. He didn’t give me a choice – he told me what he was going to do and what he believed I would do.
“I believed him. I blamed myself. I had made that choice.”
Freya’s ex was later convicted of a brutal assault on another woman. She blamed herself for that, too.
Thousands of similar testimonies were read outside the steps of Scotland Yard recently, as women came together to grieve all that we have lost to male violence and misogyny at the hands of the police. We know this does us mental harm and places us in physical danger. It also does society harm by adding extra barriers to our individual pursuits of justice and further eroding public trust. The fact is, almost all rapists get away with raping women. And most domestic abusers go on to abuse again – often fatally.
We shouldn’t have to keep sharing one traumatic experience after another to make the point that misogyny is so rife in our police forces, it conditions how they respond when women report violence or abuse. It influences how they do their jobs – which are supposed to be about protecting the public.
Yet for Freya, Rose, Lori and myself, the police weren’t protecting us – they were protecting the men who had harmed us. And yet the government and police continue to behave like this isn’t happening, insisting instead on piecemeal measures and shifting the blame to a few “bad apples” rather than dealing with the heart of the issue – the criminal justice system’s rotten core.
Until they can admit that among them there are perpetrators too – that this isn’t a case of monsters and men, but a toxic culture that can only be eradicated if they start listening to what we are saying – nothing is going to change.
Hold violent men to account, whether they are officers or members of the public. Believe women. And take misogyny seriously as the gateway to violence it really is.
Jenn Selby is a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Women's Equality Party. She is a freelance journalist and was previously people editor for the Independent