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The tragic case of Sarah Everard is a chance to better educate our sons

This is not about imposing shame or pre-supposing guilt, writes Jane Graham. It’s about finding a practical solution to an unacceptable, centuries old, problem.
The tragic case of Sarah Everard has highlighted the daily lived experience for women in the UK. Image credit: Metropolitan Police.

Talking to my 17 year old daughter about the disappearance of Sarah Everard was hard. But talking to my 14 year old son was harder. 

This isn’t because he didn’t want to speak about it, or didn’t think it was pertinent to him, or even because it was a reality too unimaginably awful to deal with. It was hard because, unlike my daughter, already so familiar with the behaviours and choices women make every day, this was territory my son had never given serious thought to. He listened with incredulity while my daughter and I swapped stories about avoiding solo walks in quiet places, scanning train carriages for potential threats and allies, bracing ourselves as we walked past large groups of men.

These were concerns one half of his family were so used to acting on they’d become a habit, a basic instinct we weren’t even conscious of having formed. Yet for him, and he was sure for his friends, they sounded paranoid, super-sensitive, and unnecessarily self-curtailing.

Many men, confident that they’re not violent or predatory, tune out. They’re not the problem, they assure themselves, they’re decent, enlightened chaps no women need fear. And so as far as further thinking goes, it’s over and out.

This is an issue many parents will be considering in light of the horrendous and heart-breaking news about Sarah Everard, and the conversations on social media which have arisen as a result. It’s been fascinating and enlightening to hear so many women come together to share their experiences. But what should come next? After so many words and demands, how can we really, practically, make things better? Perhaps most crucially – yet historically least considered – how can we raise a future generation of men more aware and alert to the concerns of the women they live among?

It’s easy and obvious to tell teenage boys not to threaten, intimidate, or hurt women. There’s not a lot of confusion over the rights and wrongs of that message. And the vast majority of young men already get it. But that’s when things get complicated, and the conversation more difficult. Because many men, confident that they’re not violent or predatory, tune out at that point in the exchange. They’re not the problem, they assure themselves, they’re decent, enlightened chaps no women need fear. And so as far as further thinking goes, it’s over and out.

But really, it’s at this point the serious and profound further thinking needs to start. We parents need to explain to our sons not only the unintended impact their own behaviour might have, but the importance of keeping their heads up and their eyes open when they’re around women, and recognise signs of anxiety and discomfort. I want my son to become the kind of man who considers the creeping fear many women feel when they hear footsteps gaining on them, and to cross to the other side of the road or take a different route in response. To understand that a women travelling on her own on a train might prefer to sit next to another woman rather than an unknown man.

If we parents want to change the culture his sister and his own female friends are growing up in, we need to burst a few bubbles.

Even better if he stays alert enough to notice when a woman is feeling intimated by a man and do something about it, whether track down a figure of authority or enlist a few allies to intervene. And best of all, if he resolves to confront one of his own friends if they cross the line. That’s the hardest, and biggest ask, because it risks ending what might have been years of good friendship. It takes guts and might mean a heavier heart, but that’s why it’s also the act which would make his parents most proud.

My own son is a gentle, non-confrontational sort, likely to walk a long way round to avoid any kind of trouble. And he’s had enough lectures from his fiercely feminist sister to spot a misogynist at ten paces. But only in the last few days has he been made to look at the world through an alien brain – that of a hyper-vigilant and vulnerable woman. Like many 14 year old boys, he’s a naturally happy-go-lucky, unburdened kid. I don’t relish the serious and unhappy conversation I and his dad felt compelled to have with him. But if we parents want to change the culture his sister and his own female friends are growing up in, we need to burst a few bubbles.

This is not about imposing shame or pre-supposing guilt; it’s about finding a practical solution to an unacceptable, centuries old, problem. Of course it’s only one part of the required response – there are other, more direct challenges regarding the mental health, trauma, and rage of violent men. And those are mountainous & many, and may never be fully overcome. But a gradual positive shift in the male default position can be worked towards, and if my lovely son is part of a more enlightened generation of men, I’ll get old and grey with a spring in my step.