It’s time to prioritise the victims of male violence

Written by Kirsty Strickland on 14 February 2019 in Comment

Theory and warm words over gender-based violence must be matched by action, writes Kirsty Strickland

Kirsty Strickland - David Anderson/Holyrood

We are often told Scotland is a world leader in progressive values. But the mark of any progressive society is surely whether theory and warm words are matched by action.

When it comes to tackling the scourge of gender-based violence and abuse, legislation can only take us so far. Alongside their work to steer government policy, Scottish women’s charities such as Zero Tolerance and Rape Crisis Scotland campaign to dispel misconceptions of violence against women. They recognise that societal attitudes as they currently stand are a barrier to meaningful change. 

In recent weeks, two perceived failures of accountability have sparked anger on social media and beyond and indicate that despite the Me Too movement and, seemingly, greater public attention given to the impact of sexual violence against women, there’s still a long way to go. 

Firstly, Christopher Daniel, an 18-year-old dental student from Glasgow, was found guilty of sexually abusing a six-year-girl over a two-year period and was given an unconditional discharge by Sheriff Gerard Sinclair. This means that Daniel won’t be placed on the sex offenders’ register and the guilty verdict won’t be recorded as a conviction.

Women’s groups echoed the concerns of the victim’s mother that too much emphasis was put on Daniel’s middle-class background and promising career prospects and not enough on the future safeguarding of girls.

Explaining the “wholly exceptional” decision, Sinclair stated that Daniel was “immature and socially awkward” and said that he was unlikely to reoffend.

Taking the unusual step to publish his reasoning did little to stem the fury surrounding the case, particularly as the sheriff – arguably, prematurely – insisted that the girl had suffered no lasting damage from the prolonged abuse, and that Daniel acted out of “curiosity” rather than for the purposes of sexual gratification.

This coincided with news that Warwick University had overturned a 10-year-ban on students who participated in a vile group chat discussing the graphic rape and mutilation of named female students. 

Following an investigation by the university in 2018, two students who had participated in the group chat were given a one-year ban, while two others were banned for ten years and another for life. The discrepancy between the punishments led to an appeal, where it was decided that the pair who were banned for 10 years could resume their studies later this year. 

One of the female students targeted in the group chat published an open letter, saying: “Words cannot describe the heartbreak that overcame myself and other victims. We were discussed so violently. We were humiliated, as if for sport.”

After an online petition racked up thousands of signatures and students planned to protest the decision, Warwick University announced that the two students would not be returning, in what was thought to be a voluntary decision on their part. 

These incidents have led some to question why so many ‘promising young men’ fail to be held accountable for their actions. 

Too often, we see women and girls treated as collateral damage and the harmful behaviours inflicted on them minimised. When abusive ‘curiosity’ goes unpunished and female students are expected to learn alongside men that fantasised in graphic detail about raping them, we are teaching women and girls that their safety and life chances aren’t a priority.  

We need to examine how we evaluate harm. At present, the balance seems unfairly weighted in favour of white, educated, middle-class men and their divine right to fulfil their potential. Too little consideration is given to the destructive impact on the mental health, career prospects and wellbeing of victims – as well as the message that the indifference to their suffering sends to wider society. 

When the career path of a man is prioritised over the safety and dignity of women and girls, we become inured to the impact of male violence. That leads to the so-called ‘low-level’ misogyny that women experience, such as street harassment, the sharing of intimate images, up-skirting, online rape threats and unwanted touching, being accepted as par for the course. 

Condemnation isn’t enough. Without consequences, we facilitate the conditions in which so many victims find themselves without justice. When expulsion from a university or being put on the sex offenders’ register are deemed too severe a punishment, unintentionally, we are revealing a tolerance of sexual abuse and rape threats that simply must be challenged.

Legislative progress has been made. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act criminalises psychological abuse, such as coercive and controlling behaviour towards a partner or ex-partner. The Scottish Parliament has demonstrated its understanding of gender-based violence and that it is rooted in an imbalance of power.

However, that is of little comfort to women and girls who continue to see perpetrators escaping punishment. For as long as a woman’s brutal death can be explained as ‘consensual rough-sex gone wrong’ and only two in five of the rape cases that make it to court end in a conviction, there is evidently still much more to do.

The public anger we saw in the coverage of the Christopher Daniel and Warwick University cases offers some hope that societal attitudes are shifting. In a genuinely progressive society, women and girls would be safe from violence and free to fulfil their potential. Until then, the very least they deserve is for offenders to be punished accordingly – regardless of whether that impacts their future career. 

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