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Jennifer O’Connell: Good men need to act like they’re part of the problem

Men need to learn to give women space in situations where they might feel vulnerable

Just in the taxi, I’ll be home in 15 minutes. Don’t go down the lane. Avoid the building site. Be back before it gets dark. Buzz me when you get in. Text me the number of your taxi. You’re not getting the bus at this time? You’re not going for a run on your own? Did I double lock the door? Why is he sitting so close? Where are my keys? Why is he staring? Why is he walking so fast? Why has he stopped? Am I safe? 

This is the secret language of women. It is a language of silent prayers, dire warnings, private deals with fate. It goes like this. If I do everything right – if I walk my friend to the bus stop; call my partner from the taxi; fearlessly meet the gaze of oncoming strangers; carry my keys in my right hand – I will be okay.

If I’m always good and vigilant, if I exude invincibility while making my world as small as possible, I will survive. And so will my friends, my sisters, my mother, my daughters.

It is a fiction, of course. Men who are intent on violence are undeterred by our pathetic bargaining with fate. The threat of their violence shrinks our world, as Dr Cliona Sadlier of the Rape Crisis Centre put it this week, and "undermines any attempt to bring about gender equality." But still, society continues to insist a women's personal safety is entirely her responsibility, as though the thing she is protecting herself from is an unstoppable force with no agency of its own.


We know the thing we fear is not all men. The vast majority of men we will ever encounter – the men in our lives, the strangers walking behind us on the poorly lit street – mean us no harm. But we can’t readily tell the good ones from the abominable, or even just the casual harassers. So society – and experience, our own and others’ – have taught us to be wary.

Suggesting to women that they reduce their world even further in order not to be attacked, abducted, raped, murdered, or just plain old harassed, is not a solution

Sarah Everard was walking through Clapham in London, shortly after 9pm on March 3rd. She had been at a friend's house and was going home. The conventional way to describe what happened next is that "she vanished". But that is far too passive, far too whimsical a description. She didn't vanish. Someone took her. Human remains were discovered in a woodland area in Kent, and a man was arrested. Police confirmed yesterday that the body was indeed that of Sarah Everard.

It didn’t take long before the self-appointed guardians of women’s behaviour, a cohort which includes both men and women, decided if she had not entirely brought it on herself, she was unwise to have been walking in a city after dark.

During door-to-door enquiries after her disappearance, British police advised women not to go out alone in the area, leading to protests that this amounted to victim blaming. The anger was not unfounded. Where does this stop, women wanted to know. Should we stay home after 8pm, just to be safe? It’s dark at 6.30pm; should we make it earlier?

But it was 7.30am on a day in January 2020 when 21-year-old Martin Gallagher from Hartstown in Dublin grabbed a 70-year-old woman off the street, and bundled her into the boot of his car. When he couldn't close the boot, he tried to get her into the front, and when she fought to stop him doing that, he threw her against a wall and drove off. The court, which sentenced him to six years last week, heard he mistook her for his friend "Alex" and thought it would be "a joke".

In the pages of this newspaper last week, Sarah Grace described a brutal assault she suffered at the hands of a stranger as she slept in her bed. She, too, fought heroically.

So, no, suggesting to women that they reduce their world even further in order not to be attacked, abducted, raped, murdered, or just plain old harassed, is not a solution. Putting the onus on women implies that the actions of the abominable men are out of their control. It ignores the reality that while violence at the hands of a stranger is rare, low-level harassment by strangers is depressingly common. And it shuts the good men out of the conversation altogether.

But what, a friend asked me this week – echoing the refrain of these good men everywhere – are we supposed to do? "Don't make the mistake of sitting back and thinking I'm not part of the problem; therefore I must be part of the solution," Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss says in a video that went viral. Men need to start pulling other men up for their behaviour towards women, he says.

Men need to talk about it, not just to women, but to each other. They also need to recognise that moving through the world largely unimpeded by fear is a privilege. We learned how to give each other space during Covid; men could apply the same approach to women in situations where they might feel vulnerable.

"Sometimes, you think I've got just as much right to walk down the street as anyone, and I am one thousand per cent not a predator, so actually I don't have to do anything," the BBC journalist Adam Fleming said in a podcast this week, describing the internal monologue that goes through his head. I have sympathy, but he's missing the point. When a man finds himself alone on a dark street with a strange woman, the thing he fears is social awkwardness. The thing she fears is rape or murder.

We were told to act as though we had Covid in order to protect others. We should take the same approach to protecting women from sexual violence. Good men need to act like they’re part of the problem, or nothing changes.