Why do men hurt women? And what can we do about it?

17 Mar 2021 - Richard Horridge

2021-03-17 Wed 23:11

Updated 2021-03-18 Thu 21:38

I want to apologise to anyone who has taken my sentiment to mean that empathy towards those perpetrate abuse (towards us and towards others) is the solution and will make people feel safer. In addition, In addition, I want to make it clear that I will not tolerate the use of trauma to excuse the propagation of more trauma. I feel that this wasn't made clear enough in the first published version of this article and I have gone through and made additional, qualifying, comments in italics.

No one wants to hear anyone make excuses for the instigators of violence and I unreservedly apologise to those who I may have upset. Words are exceptionally powerful things and we must learn to use them with care - if this polemic has upset people, I welcome criticism and will publish a response. I have been deeply angry about the injustices in the world for a long time and a world in which women and LGBTQ+ people can feel safe to walk alone at night, not fearing abuse, is a world I want to live in and I want to do all that I can to make it happen.

The original article follows.

Women and LGBTQ+ people suffer an overwhelming amount of abuse and it is estimated that 20% of women have suffered sexual assault by the age of 24 [1]. I am proud to support victims of sexual assault and violence (who are predominantly female, but non-insignificant proportions of male and non-binary people) and am planning more events to support RSVP in the future. I do, however, want to offer my thoughts on what practical change might look like and how it might come about.

I stand by this paragraph, in particular the part about counselling. While the changes that are needed are big and will need a lot of political pressure, abuse is always personal and counselling remains the best (and in many cases only) way to learn from and move forward from trauma in our lives.

First of all, I disagree in principle with proposals to increase sentencing for perpetrators of rape and violence against people. Numerous examples (from the US and elsewhere) demonstrate that (arguably) the highest penalty, the life of the perpetrator, does not discourage violent crime [2]. Longer prison sentences and stricter sentences do not serve to benefit society and increase the demand on an already underfunded and overworked law enforcement, court system and CPS.

This paragraph comes across slightly callously, I wanted to empathise that tougher sentencing is a quick-fix for politicians that enables them to take credit for taking action. If tougher sentencing is announced we should not rest on our laurels.

I understand the anger of those who would disagree with the above statement! It would be inhuman to not wish harm upon those who have harmed friends and loved ones. Unfortunately I fear that to seek harsher sentencing (and, eventually, the death penalty) bypasses the essential factor that is sorely lacking in many psychopaths world leaders, and that which should form the basis for justice in any free society: empathy.

Empathy does appear to be the central theme of this polemic. I would like to stress that I do not expect, and it would be naïve for me to do so, that it will make people feel safer in the present day. It is easy for me to say, as someone who has rarely experienced fear brought about by the presence of another and may well have caused elevated fear in people I am around. This empathy is what leads me to e.g. cross the road to avoid walking close behind someone.

There are those who have worked with and defended death row inmates, who counsel both victims and perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, who have to speak to someone who has committed atrocious deeds. For any progress to be made we must attempt to understand the people we see in the news and the people we speak to, whether it makes us uncomfortable or not. To be truly empathic we must try to stand in someone else's shoes, whether they voted with us, for us or against us, whether they identify as the same gender as us or not, whether their family reads the same newspapers as us or not, whether they had a 'happy' childhood or not.

I intended for this paragraph to demonstrate the impossible work that solicitors, barristers, social workers, counsellors etc. have to do on a regular basis. I certainly did not mean for it to be a call-to-arms but I can see how it may appear so. I would like to make clear that there is no 'must' about anything, and draw attention to the work that these people do everyday without which society would be a much more dangerous place.

How does one bridge this divide? There may seem to be an insurmountable difference between you and people your own age - how can you possibly find anything in common with a convicted murderer, or a <insert party name here> politician, or a sex offender? Why would you even want to?

Again, the rhetorical question doesn't really need an answer. No one should be made to feel that they have to feel sorry for their abuser or attempt to justify their actions - they are unjustifiable by anyone and I would hope that they would always be punished as such. The theme of finding common ground is an important one, though, and I would hope that anyone reading this will have a chance to practice empathy - with a loved one, with a counsellor or even with someone we are arguing with in a pub (when we can!).

To dismiss the experiences of another human being, no matter what we may think of them or whatever crimes they may have committed, is to commit a serious breach of our own humanity - any more than it would be to not recognise the white-hot revulsion we may feel when we hear or see such a person. Every day, criminal barristers have to find this humanity at their job, as do the many who offer their time (often for free) to defend those facing death sentences.

I am uncomfortably aware that it has appeared throughout this polemic that I am asking an impossible amount of the readers. None of this is intended to dismiss the experiences I have heard recounted to me by far too many friends, or to attempt to explain away the 'irrational' fear experienced by so many.

There is one thing we can always find in common with the worst possible human beings imaginable. We have all suffered a (varyingly) traumatic childhood.

Again, I stand by this statement and this polemic would stand very well in isolation. I am aware that it appears that I am jumping on the bandwagon at the moment and this is a hard accusation to throw off. It is important for us to remember: we are human. We cannot and should not expect ourselves to immediately understand and be sympathetic to serial killers and child rapists. If this is the conclusion you have drawn, I am deeply sorry.

We are not perfect, nor were our parents, nor will be our own children. In childhood, before the age of five, we have impressed on us a vision of how life is to be lived. Unlike many creatures, we are helpless upon birth and abandonment by our parents will lead to our certain demise. We absorb the information that will likely decide the course of our lives from the emotions of those who are closest to us during this time.

Out of the historical context in which this article is likely being read, I would not correct a word of this paragraph. The uniqueness of the human condition among creatures on this earth is singularly responsible for all of our suffering and all of our glory. I fear that it may be too late for our species and the planet.

In an ideal childhood, you will learn what a healthy adult relationship looks like. You will see how human beings interact, how they disagree, argue, fight, but eventually put aside their differences. You will learn to understand how to set healthy boundaries, how to treat others with respect and how to respect yourself and your needs.

This will probably have come across as accusatory and demeaning, as if I am apportioning blame to victims, putting responsibility on their flawed life experience. I have described what would be an ideal environment for a child to be raised - unfortunately few of us have had that experience and we spend all of our lives dealing with the consequences. This is not our parents' fault, nor is it our own.

How many of us have had that experience? Imagine now a child whose father was absent and mother distant. Imagine a child caught between violent arguments every night. Imagine a child who had to raise their own siblings due to a parent's neglect. Imagine a child whose only lessons came from the television (or, increasingly, the internet). Imagine a child who was never taught how to look after themself, how to look after others, how to love..

Again, this may be a traumatising paragraph to read. We bury the memories of abuse from our childhood but they have a profound effect on the progression of our lives. We may not have to imagine very hard to understand what some of the children from the above paragraph have had to go through as they may reflect our own experiences. Unfortunately there is so much human misery in the world, we cannot possibly cope with it all and we develop mechanisms to cope with it.

A common factor among perpetrators of violent crime (regardless of gender) is childhood trauma [4]. We may never know the full extent of it. How many of us have struggled to open up about our own traumatic past with a trusted friend, a loved one, a parent or a counsellor?

I want to emphasise here that I fundamentally believe that all of us, no matter how healthy we believe we are, would benefit from counselling. The pain may be too much for us to bear - imagine the pain that abusers would feel if they were forced to empathise with their victims? None of this will, sadly, help make people feel safe in the short term.

Why, though, do these abhorrent individuals commit these crimes? Surely they must know that it is wrong? I am no criminal psychologist but I have firsthand experience of the lengths which we can go to convince ourselves of anything. We are all guilty of it to an extent.

This may begin to sound as if I am making excuses for abusive behaviour. It also comes across quite arrogant, acting as though I somehow know better and that we need to, somehow, be able to understand. This is very much the realm of criminal psychologists and by the time they become involved, it is usually sadly too late for their victims, and I can understand why this 'empathy' schtick might feel insulting.

Someone who has witnessed their mother being abused by their father may grow to believe that this is how humans behave. They may be shocked to visit a friend's house and not witness their friend's father raising their voice over a minor transgression. They may cling on to this model as the model for a healthy relationship - a flawed model, but what choice do they have?

This paragraph tries to explain how we internalise behaviours we experience as children. There is a wealth of literature on the subject (most good self-help books, for example). I fear it seems as if I am trying to explain that all atrocities can be traced back to the perpetrator's childhood - perhaps not, I concede, but ensuring that future generations have access to all that they need to grow as humans will not go amiss regardless.

As adults, we can choose to reject information that we know to be faulty, incomplete, or unhelpful - but we all still have the child inside of us, its heart filled to the brim with our suffering. We have all lashed out in anger over a minor wrong we have been dealt. We have all been defensive when we've made a mistake and tried to hide our wrongdoing. This is that same child, adapting to the at-times unbearable situation it finds itself in.

This will be uncomfortable to read for many as it is so familiar. As adults, it would be tempting to think that we are rational and always treat other people like adults too. It may go some way to explain abusive behaviour but it should not be considered as an attempt to excuse it.

I could go on but the key takeaway is this: the human being is a fundamentally tarnished endeavour. Bad people will no sooner cease their wicked acts after a jail sentence than a child will stop loving its mother after being starved and beaten. As for the death sentence - do we tell this child that their life is worthless? Most people on death row may have believed this for some time - after all, why else would both of their parents have abandoned them?

Again, this seems to be an attempt to explain away the actions of bad people. It is not intended to diminish the suffering of their victims - but unfortunately at that point it is too late, the suffering has happened. We can only truly stop suffering by preventing it from happening in the first place. Prevention over cure is commonplace in e.g. Eastern medicine, in comparison with the West when we often treat the symptoms. We can and should stop bad people from doing bad things, but we must do all that we can to prevent them from becoming bad people in the first place.

In the UK, we have a (mostly) excellent health service, education system and criminal justice system. We also have a politics that rewards narcissism, a press which rewards corruption and a culture that worships the self. To make women and non-binary people feel safe demands a fundamental shift in society towards empathy. Why is funding for education and mental health not being prioritised? Children can find healthy male and female role-models in schools - a pity that many children will have been stuck indoors in dysfunctional households for a year now. A pity also that primary school is heavily female-dominated - many young boys (including me) would benefit greatly from a positive male role model at this age, given that they may not yet have seen one. Children should be taught to be able to recognise their limitations and weaknesses - one of the biggest things to learn before you are truly an adult. Sex and relationships should be considered as subjects on par with mathematics and English. Adults can work through childhood trauma and learn to parent themselves, but this takes time and counselling.

I consider this the start of vaguely 'practical' solutions. I stand by my comments on the public culture in the United Kingdom. Children will continue to be born and raised in abusive households and undergo an extraordinary amount of suffering. Some of these children will go on to hurt women. Some of these children will go on to lead countries. For real change to happen we have to create a society that people want to protect and that is worth living in and raising our own families in.

All of these things cost money and political will. I call on all politicians, from all political parties, to finally acknowledge the deficit in Western culture - that we may not, actually, be the greatest nation on earth, but that we do a lot of things well and a lot of things badly; that depression and anxiety are not illnesses or sicknesses any more so than anger and fear are; that all people are worth listening to, even those you despise; that the nuclear family so lauded by many is, as a matter of course, a model of dysfunction and trauma, and that the human condition, while fundamentally flawed, is, ultimately, worth preserving.

I think this paragraph is a good summary of my sentiment and my frustration with how the country is managed. We are governed by deeply flawed human beings (from all political stripes, this is not exclusive to the ruling party). We can also start ourselves, by calling out our own behaviour - issuing public corrections to statements that may have caused distress, for example. I believe that all of the things I outline above are things that should be front and centre in political debate, but again, this would cause politicians to admit that they, too, are flawed, and we seem to be rapidly leaving behind a time when politicians were considered to have 'integrity' (i.e. a willigness to admit that they may not have all of the answers).

Where does all of this leave Sarah Everard? Unfortunately, it is too late for her and for so many other men, women and non-binary people who have tragically lost their lives due to the actions of another person. We must empathise and grieve with her family and loved ones, who lost someone so dear to them in horrifying circumstances. We must empathise and offer our voice in support to those who would take to the streets to demand that women, non-binary people (and, indeed, all genders) are able to live without fear. We must, however difficult it may be, attempt to empathise with the one(s) accused (and even convicted) of the unspeakable crime. And we must take profound action as a society to ensure that everyone learns to be a good parent to themself, to correct destructive thought patterns learned in childhood, and to ensure that we can all work, decide and contribute to the workings of a healthy system to live in - a society.

Many of you may be curious as to why I do not mention women and non-binary people specifically enough in this polemic and, in particular, Sarah Everard herself. I believe the bulk of the discussion here is a human discussion and feel that there is enough polarisation between genders already - we are stronger united than divided. We must all act to set an example to our friends and families of the person we want to be - someone who does not tolerate abuse of women and non-binary people. We must develop our own capacity for empathy and do our best to understand the very real fear experienced by women and non-binary people today. Anything we can do to help prevent these atrocious crimes being committed - being a role model to children and young adults, raising money for charities like RSVP, calling out shitty behaviour from our friends, recognising our own limitations as human beings and being there for our friends - will help to make this world a better, safer place to live in for everybody.

R.I.P. Sarah Everard 1987 - 2021

[1] source: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/about-sexual-violence/statistics-sexual-violence/ [2] source: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/48000/act500062008en.pdf [3] source: https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/general-psychiatry/psychiatry-on-death-row-interviews-from-the-inside/

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