Violence does not happen in a vacuum

Comment & Opinion

COUNTRY IN SHOCK Vigils like this one on Kildare Street outside Dáil Éireann have taken place all over the country since the callous murder of Ashling Murphy in Tullamore last week. Pic: Paul Reardon

Anne-Marie Flynn

Men, we need to talk. It has been a hard, sad week in Ireland. For all of us, but especially for women. And we are tired.
Let’s get this out of the way first – again. We know that ‘not all men’ are violent. We should not at this stage need to explain why this response is problematic. We have male partners, families, friends that we are adore. We know it is ‘not all men’. Unfortunately, because we have no way of ever knowing which men, all women are affected.
We know men are victims of male violence too. That is also a very important – but separate – conversation.
Two things are striking in the reactions of men to this murder.
The first is the myriad of violent punishments men seem particularly keen to see meted out to the perpetrator. It’s understandable, but since when has adding violence to violence solved anything? Men have had many opportunities in recent years to highlight obscenely lenient sentences bestowed upon violent men, yet there has been a notable silence.
Secondly, I have seen countless men suggest ‘We need to do something’ or ask, ‘What can we do?’.
Gentlemen, we have been telling you – shouting it from the rooftops – for years. You just haven’t been listening. But in the hope that the questions are genuine, let me spell it out again.

Self-reflection comes first. Murders like this are outliers; they are usually perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Most men would never lay a hand on a woman, but many do, including, statistically, readers of this column: one in four women in Ireland in relationships have been abused by a current or former partner.
This violence does not happen in a vacuum; it is enabled by a particular type of culture. Can you, hand on heart, say you have never contributed?
Have you ever told a disparaging or sexist joke about a woman or her body? Ever judged a woman, silently or otherwise, on her clothing? On her sexual behaviour? Do you regard certain women as ‘good wife material’ versus other women as sexual partners? Ever shared an explicit image shared without consent in a WhatsApp group? Ever used the S- or W- words to refer to a woman?
If someone in your company has groped or harassed a woman in a public place, have you stayed silent, laughed along, or made excuses for him?
Ever pressured or tried to persuade a woman to do anything, in or out of bed, after she has said ‘no’? Ever catcalled a woman? Have you supported Conor McGregor, Ronaldo or Mike Tyson recently?
So, if your immediate reaction is to ‘not all men’ the problem, then – there is no nice way to say this – you are part of the problem. It is not nice to hear, but your hurt feelings are less important than the collective hurt, grief and fear of women. And I promise you, no matter how decent, kind or respectful you are, you can still help change things.

Act and educate
No more helpless hand-wringing. Women have made it explicitly clear what behaviour makes us feel unsafe; it is now up to men to change their behaviour accordingly. To practice empathy. To try to understand the undeniable power dynamic that exists and understand why things that seem harmless to you might feel threatening to a woman.
To recognise bad behaviour and call out your peers. To act as mentors to your sons and the young boys and men you train or teach; to set an example in your language, your attitudes and your behaviour.
Educate your sons; teach them to respect women and their boundaries. Ensure that they understand the meaning of consent, and how to respect it.
This is how to be a real man in 2022.

Men must lead
At our vigil for Ashling in Ballina on Saturday, we read the names of 250 women who died violently in Ireland at the hands of a man since 1996. Very few of them ever received any acknowledgement, yet alone a vigil. But none of them deserved to be murdered, any more than Ashling did.
I can only hope, however, that Ashling’s devastated family finds solace in our collective grief and anger, and that her death may be a catalyst for change.
But it is men who will need to lead that change.
Anne-Marie Flynn is a fortnightly columnist with The Mayo News.