In March this year, the news broke that Sarah Everard had been snatched when walking home in South London, and murdered by a serving police officer. People came together, in person and online, to mourn her death and to share their own stories of fear and of anger, of harassment and abuse. At Clapham Common, her local park, thousands gathered for a vigil and protest that was violently broken up by the police.
The history of how gendered violence has been treated in law tells us a lot about how sexist our society is. In 1857, a man was able to beat his wife, so long as the implement he used to do it was no thicker than his thumb. In 1895 a City of London bye-law criminalised wife-beating between the hours of 10pm and 7am, because the noise was keeping people awake. In 1956, rape was legally defined for the first time. In the 1970s, in the context of a flourishing women’s movement, significant steps forward were made: the first Select Committee on violence against women was held in 1975; the first legislation to combat domestic violence was introduced in 1976, quickly followed by legislation facilitating women to get housing if they are leaving an abusive partner; and the first domestic violence refuge in the world opened in London in 1979. It wasn’t until 1991 that rape within marriage was criminalised.
Feminist political norms around violence against women — manifested in calls for more police and stiffer sentences — reflect decades of having to fight to have sexual and domestic violence recognised as crimes, victims as victims, and perpetrators as perpetrators. The battles won by the feminist movement in the 1970s and since have gone a long way to improve the lot of victims of gendered violence in Britain, as well as changing social attitudes more broadly. Recent victories over up-skirting (made a crime in 2019) and revenge porn (in 2015) show that there are still victories to be made on this front.
But there is a difference between acknowledging that progress has been made in terms of the law on the one hand, and simply trusting the state and the police on the other. When the police attacked the Sarah Everard vigil on Claphham Common earlier this year, Keir Starmer described it as “deeply disturbing”, and made a series of public statements calling for action to end violence against women. But among the sensible — if rather vague — Labour responses was something quite different: a call for “more police on the beat”.
Are the police a solution?
Seeing a heavier police presence as a solution to gendered violence relies on a worldview that sees the police as a neutral body working in the interests of the public, and not as a partially-armed (and dangerous) force working in the service of the state. We see this latter role constantly in the violent repression of protest, or when police break up strikes. An FOI request made earlier this year revealed that between 2012 and 2018, there were 594 complaints of sexual misconduct made against Met employees, 119 of which were upheld. Not only are the police bad at dealing with abuse — they are often a source of abuse and harassment themselves.
Then there is the role that they play in terrorising migrants and ethnic minority communities. The fact that police forces across the western world are rife with racism is not a coincidence, or simply a passive reflection of racism in society. The primary role of the police is to protect private property, patrol borders and wage campaigns on behalf of the state (from the war on drugs to crackdown on anti-social behaviour) which are proxies for a policy of racial and social exclusion and oppression.
The basic thing that police are permitted to do is to use violence — whereas ordinary citizens are not — and the crucial question for feminists therefore has to be: is police violence — and the punitive criminal justice system that runs alongside it — the solution? The answer we must give to this is: no.
Of course, we do often rely on the police if we are in danger, and — again, of course — we rightly celebrate when men like Harvey Weinstein are finally called to account, and their victims vindicated. But police can only be seen as a sticking plaster; a minimal source of protection in the absence of bigger, better solutions to deep-rooted social issues.
And when victims of sexual and domestic violence turn to the police, the system systematically fails them, and not only in terms of the tiny number of rape or domestic violence cases that reach court. In the unlikely event that a perpetrator is successfully convicted, the evidence shows that prison doesn’t work, at least not on any reasonable metrics.
It doesn’t stop people committing crimes — 47 per cent of prisoners reoffend within one year of release — all the while churning people through a system that is itself incredibly inhumane and violent. Rather than seeking to make perpetrators better people — to come to terms with what they’ve done and nurture empathy with the victim, prison works on the basis of “serving time”. Between four and five percent of the global prison population are sexually assaulted every year, and one percent are raped — all part of a cycle of violence and dehumanisation which makes us less, not more, safe.
The system is also remarkably blind to the needs of victims of violence, who are regularly criminalised themselves. A 2017 report by the Prison Reform Trust found that 57 percent of women in prison have been victims of domestic violence, and that 53 percent have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child (compared to 27 percent of men). The report also found that women often commit criminal offences in the context of coercive relationships, and that when they turn to the police for help, they are met with disbelief and hostility.
Reverse cuts, support victims
The problem we have then is that, by and large, the police don’t keep us safe — and prisons don’t work. So, what will?
The simplest place to start is with demands that will allow women to leave abusive relationships and violent situations. Cuts to services have made it immeasurably harder for people to leave dangerous situations, live in safety and without fear, and move on. Cuts over the past decade have seen refuges being shut down, a crisis in social housing provision and devastating cuts to legal aid. Specialist domestic violence services are being outsourced and hollowed out. We need long-term funding for sexual abuse and domestic violence services to meet the needs of all victims, including specialist services for BAME and LGBTIQ people and the provision of flexible mental health support and counselling for victims, through long-term recovery. Services must be under public control and run for the benefit of victims, not for profit.
We also know that those most likely to be trapped in violent situations are those on the margins of society. Undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, sex workers, workers on poverty wages struggling to feed themselves and their children: these are the people who are most at risk, and are being systematically let down.
We need access to safe and secure housing for all, which means rent controls and building more social housing.
We need a proper living wage and decent conditions at work, the right to organise, and a generous benefits system that treats everyone with respect.
We need an end to the Hostile Environment and “no recourse to public funds” policies for migrants, and the closing down of all detention centres.
Within the criminal justice system, we must demand a system that works for survivors — one which does not ignore, neglect and re-traumatise. That means ensuring that survivors are not criminalised and investigated as guilty parties by the police. Legal aid will need to be provided universally, and the family court system will need complete reform. The police, too, need a complete overhaul. For the time being, we do rely on the police for minimal protection, but it needs to be made fit for purpose and purged of its worst elements. Some proposals for police reform have been published below.
But if we are going to work towards ending gendered violence, treating the causes and not just the symptoms, that will mean getting to the root of society’s greatest dysfunctions.
The commonly held belief, when it comes to the police and the prison system, is that we are by our nature, self-interested and we need the state to impose order, by violent means if necessary. But what if that isn’t true? It is true that people exhibit behaviours which are brutal and cruel. But what if these behaviours aren’t anything to do with “human nature”, but a reflection of a system which constantly brutalises us?
In her recent social history of rape, Mithu Sanyal recalls that “Sexual violence as the triumph of man’s power over woman is a trope in rape narratives. However, Hannah Arendt argued that violence signifies neither triumph nor power but powerlessness. Because power needs consensus — even the most despotic system can only continue in the long run if enough people benefit from it — violence arises out of the cracks of power.” Sexual violence is part of a system of wider of gendered oppression, in which men are empowered at women’s expense — but on some level, it is also the product of a much wider sense of powerlessness and humiliation.
Sexual violence is most prevalent in societies and institutions that are the most unequal, the most hierarchical: in the military, in private schools and in prisons. “A basic rule of thumb”, argues Sayal, “is: if an institution or a community is hierarchical and favours rigid gender roles, its members are more at risk of sexual violence than members of a society that is more equal (in relation to, but by no means restricted to, gender).”
A kind of dehumanisation is central to the way that our society functions. Prisons and the military function by robbing people of empathy — but they are only an extreme example of a much wider exploitation and alienation, one which is overseen by different kinds of hierarchies. Traditional conceptions of masculinity, at least in the west, are built on something similar: men are taught to distance themselves emotionally from themselves and those around them. The result of these processes is that we have created a society in which violence is normalised, and in which a large number of people lack common decency and regard empathy as a weakness.
This is not to say that perpetrators of violence and abuse are somehow guiltless — that society “made them that way” — it’s not that simple. We must work towards a system of genuine restorative justice which holds perpetrators to account for their actions and best enables victims to move on with their lives. But that work will be best done when we have rejected calls for “more police on the beat”, or for harsher prison sentences, and are fighting in earnest for a social order built on equality, mutual respect and solidarity.
Curb police powers!
In the wake of the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests, following George Floyd’s murder last year, Workers’ Liberty printed the following objectives for the movement to organise around, for reforming the police.
1. The right of oppressed people and the labour movement to self-defence against police violence.
2. Curb police powers, including: sharply restricting the use of force; aggressive prosecution of police who kill and violate human rights; abolition of stop and search; ending undercover infiltration of social movements; disarming and demilitarisation. Replace the Independent Office for Police Conduct with a strong, elected body. Restore and expand legal aid.
3. Accountability including subordinating forces to elected local representatives with real control over budgets and operational policy.
4. Reforms to reduce the police’s role in society and stop criminalising swathes of working-class people, including: dramatically reducing the prison population; an end to police dealing with mental health emergencies; an end to persecuting youth under the banner of combating gangs; an end to persecuting homeless people; legalisation of drugs; decriminalisation of sex work; an end to persecuting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
5. Dismantle the anti-immigrant apparatus; abolish the immigration police. Halt the Tories’ rush to a hard Brexit.
6. Instead of more police: emergency funding to block a new wave of cuts to services; reversal of all cuts since 2010; then major increases in public spending — taking collective, democratic control of wealth to ward off a social disaster and begin to meet working-class needs for decent jobs, homes, benefits and services (including youth services, refuges, mental health services, drug rehab). Abolition of anti-migrant restrictions such as NRPF and the NHS surcharge.