Violence Against Women

Fear Itself, Inc... Media Misrepresentation of Murdered Women

When a woman is murdered, as 33-year-old Sarah Everard was in London, England last week, the media shivers, and keeps shivering. The dead woman's face stares out at us for days over the heads of newsreaders.

When a man is murdered, the media is considerably more restrained.

In fact, I can't remember the last time a leading news outlet held as its top story for more than a few hours the disappearance of an ordinary man or the discovery of an ordinary man's remains in woodlands. He would have to be a child (and probably a white one), a household name, or to have met a particularly grisly end.

This double-standard in media amplification inevitably influences our internalized sense of reality.

Women develop fear proportionate to their teeming news feeds of murdered women. They walk low-lit streets with an artificial fifth knuckle formed from a jutting-out key. They feel themselves uniquely burdened by the possibility of male violence, and resent men for not relieving them of it. (As we are seeing in the social media outpourings from British women this week.) All of these feelings are natural and in a way rational, in that they are a reasonable and proportionate response to an impression formed of the world. Fear is the "reality" that inevitably internalizes in women when the murder of women bobs so insistently in the public consciousness.

But here is the actual reality:

70% of all homicide victims in the United Kingdom are men.

By the latest count from the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics, for the year ending March 2020, "the [homicide] rate for males (17 per million population) [was] almost three times that for females (6 per million population)".

I would never call those six per million of women who are murdered in the UK a small number. Not when that's six families abbreviated. Not when it's six potential artists, scientists, mothers, pilots, or even big-hearted barflies (because we do not measure human worth by resumé), taken before their beauties and brilliance unfurled to the fullness to which they were entitled. Six is not a small number when each one is a universe of tragedy.

At the same time, by another measure, six per million women is a small number. I don't mean when compared to the murder rate of other countries, such as those of Latin America, although there is that. What strikes me is how small that number is when compared to the scope and breadth of fear in women. I do not have a figure for how many women per million fear their own murder at the hands of men, but, after considering the social media outbursts of the past ten days, I am confident it is many hundreds of thousands per million more than six per million. Where does all that fear come from?

Well, I don't know. Perhaps it's the dead women on the movie screens. The dead women in the Nordic noir novels. The dead women in the prestige TV series. The dead women in the trailer-trash TV series. The dead women whose unsolved murders fill tour buses around Los Angeles. And, once again, the dead women whose murders linger in news feeds.

All of these representations of dead women, proliferating across our understanding of the world, despite this fact:

Men are three times more likely than women to be killed by men in the United Kingdom.

Those male victims have not had vigils held for them. There have been no hashtags, slogans or placards demanding an end to the untimely loss of them. Their deaths were probably a small item on the inner pages of the newspaper, and you probably didn't turn to it beyond the dead (white) girl on the front page.

For each of those men there is a mother staring at an empty chair, the clock crudely ticking off the minutes without him.

Consider the grotesque message it sends to men and their families when their murders register in the public consciousness so little. When there is no talk of the "epidemic of violence against men" equivalent to that of the "epidemic of violence against women", even though the toll of male violence on men is three times the size. Why is it we seem to accept that men will kill men, shrug it off, one of those things... even as we dedicate so much media attention to men killing women?

I'm more concerned with bringing the phenomenon to an end than explaining it. Until it is behind us, the best thing that women can do for themselves is reject the narratives and look at the numbers.

Numbers, not narratives

Like anyone with a functioning soul, let alone as someone who cares deeply about women and violence, I am appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of Sarah Everard. But I am also disheartened that, in the collective agitation over her death, false narratives about the safety of women in the UK are proliferating, and that quite a bit of that proliferation is being done by women themselves, because they truly believe it is so.

Of those women in the UK taking to the streets to mourn and to demand meaningful action against femicide this weekend, for example, I wonder how many of them know that their chances of being murdered are six in a million, and that three times as many men are murdered by men overall? Even if they know in an intellectual sense, should they glance over their shoulder and register the broad shoulders of a man looming behind them in the subway underpass, do they know it then? The world has taught us to be afraid, and we've been very good students. Far too good, in fact, for our own good.

Because the lived consequence of the media's infinite scroll of dead women is that women see themselves slaughtered nearly everywhere they look. We are victimized, day in, day out, just not by male murderers. We're victimized instead by society's ideas about female vulnerability, ideas society holds onto tenaciously because, if we're honest, society prefers them. The result of this victimization by ideas not murderers is the same as if we were actually murdered: we don't live our lives.

The harm of fear itself

Am I suggesting that the murder of a woman should be reduced to a small news item, in proportion to the numbers? That anything less than absolutely everything should be done to make murder as close to impossible as the realities of intersecting lives allow? Fiercely not.

But context, context, context is so important. It is also typically missing in our conversations on this topic. For example, in this article criticizing Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick for depicting abduction of women on the streets of London as "incredibly rare", the authors Clarrie O’Callaghan and Karen Ingala Smith put forward very emotive numbers to refute Dick's characterization. They say that, au contraire, 1 in every 12 of killings of women by men in the UK are committed by strangers.

Okay. But O’Callaghan and Smith do not at any point acknowledge that 1 in 12 of killings of women by men in the UK is 1 in 12 of a very small number. To circle back to the Office for National Statistics figures, which state that 6 per million of the female population are murdered, 1 in every 12 of killings of women by men means we would have to contemplate at least 2 million women in the UK to find 1 murdered by a male stranger. (I say 'at least' because this is assuming that every one of the murders counted in the ONS figures, which are not broken out by gender of the killer, was committed by a man, which is unlikely.)

Let me repeat that: to see one instance of a woman murdered by a male stranger, we would need at least 2 million women. That's equivalent to half the population of Los Angeles and the entire population of Paris. When you read "1 in 12 of killings of women by men", my guess is you are not picturing one killing per the number of women it would take to populate the City of Love. Expressing something as a ratio without context is not responsible communication. It seems that even women, like O’Callaghan and Smith, have bought into the culture of fear for women.

Choosing truth

We must work with reality, and not with mass media, because I'm not sure the latter has our best interests at heart.

Women are absolutely right to demand that no woman live in disproportionate risk of dying. But, equally, no woman should live in disproportionate fear of dying.

Accordingly, women in the United Kingdom are wrong when they view and characterize themselves as the exclusive or even primary victims of male homicide. I believe they are also wrong to attribute the fear in which they live to the everyday behaviors of men, or to attribute it exclusively to that, at least. Without doubt, more men could be more mindful of the potential threat that women read in certain of their actions, with many of those actions overlapping, in my view, with the over-sexualization of women in our culture. But the numbers versus the narrative for murdered women in the UK suggest we should attribute at least some -- and possibly the greater part -- of women's fear to the disproportionate media attention given to our deaths.

Stepping out of the shadow

Here is the truth I know.

Violence casts a shadow, corrodes communities. So does fear of violence.

When it comes to the toll of each of the shadows cast -- by the thing itself and by the fear of the thing -- that toll is more alike than different. In both scenarios, we are oppressed. Dying takes our lives, but fear takes our lives too, in another sense -- we unlive, because all fear is a kind of unliving.

In the United Kingdom, men are overwhelmingly not murderers and women are overwhelmingly not murdered. Abandoning those realities -- in the anger and pain provoked by the latest female murder to be brought to our consciousness at the attention expense of all the others -- helps no one.

Women: it is wise to be afraid, yes, but only up to the point where it stops being proportionate. To fear wisely, we must know the numbers and challenge the narratives.

We must live our lives.