Cologne: stop telling women how to feel about it.

The mass, orchestrated nature of the Cologne sexual assaults is appalling and shocking. Does that even need to be said?! According to some, it does. According to some, women aren’t allowed to complain about other forms of sexism or sexual assault unless we’ve vocally condemned these particular attacks. Ok guys, whatever.

We need to look at what’s behind this particular set of assaults — where did the collective sense of entitlement to violate women’s bodies come from? What made those particular men group together and treat so many women so inhumanely? Culture, religion, poverty, lack of education? All of the above? I’m not sure. None of us can possibly “know” this soon after the event.

But we need to not see this as some sort of highly unusual aberration — an outlier event. Instead, we need to see it as part of a constellation of sexual violence and ask other questions too. What makes men use rape as a weapon in war? What makes smaller groups of men in communities in all countries gang rape women? What the hell makes any man think he has the right to violate any woman’s body? I don’t know. I wish the answers to these questions were simple — because then the solutions would be. But they’re not.

I do know that the stubbornly persistent patriarchal attitudes that exist all around the world, in all cultures and countries, has something to do with it. Attitudes that say women are objects to be bought and used for sex, bodies to be stripped naked and drooled over in a newspaper, “holes” to be filled. Attitudes that reduce women to dangerous objects of temptation — bodies to be covered up and kept hidden. Attitudes that make women mere child-bearing vessels who can be forced to give birth to children they don’t want, or made to feel like freaks and weirdos if they never give birth at all. Attitudes that make women prizes to be fought over and won, treasures to be protected, one-dimensional princesses to be saved. All of these attitudes, even where they might seem harmless or positive, make women objects. And objects aren’t human so it becomes more acceptable to do inhumane things to them.

I also know that brown and black-skinned men are no more or less inherently likely to perpetrate violence against women than white-skinned men. And that Muslim men are no more or less inherently likely to do so than Christian or Catholic or Jewish or agnostic or atheist men.

I also know that male sexual violence against women is taking place every single minute of every single day in some part of our horribly sexist world, from small Scottish villages to major Nigerian cities to Egyptian deserts to Australian outback towns — and that it’s still too often ignored, denied, brushed under the carpet, treated as a minor policy concern, under-researched and not tackled.

And I know that it does all victims of sexual violence a huge disservice to demand outrage from feminists about Cologne, while simultaneously being lazily apathetic about the relentlessly routine levels of violence against other women everywhere.

I’ve seen comments along the lines of ‘it’s terrible that women can no longer feel safe walking through a city like Cologne because of these foreign men from alien cultures’. My reaction to that is — huh?

What happened in Cologne doesn’t remove or diminish my sense of security as a woman living in Western Europe — because I never had it in the first place. I don’t feel safe from men. I never have.

Some people seem to be in denial about the fact that privileged, white, educated, independent, affluent, able-bodied women like me still don’t feel safe in the Western countries we grew up and live in, not because of ‘foreign men from alien cultures’, but because of the men we grew up with, the men we’ve been sharing trains and buses and pavements and bars and parks and workplaces and relationships with all of our lives.

I literally cannot remember a time in my life when I haven’t been regularly cat-called, followed, leered at, shouted and sworn at, and subject to “compliments” which are basically rape threats (“you’d get it tight”, “I’d make you squeal, darling” etc).

When I was a teenager, growing up in Fife, sexual violence hung in the air, an ever-present threat, always keeping me and other girls in our ‘place’. I vividly remember watching The Accused when I was 15 with a group of male friends — they cheered during the rape scene.

When I was 25 and living in Glasgow, a male colleague slapped and groped me on the backside at a work event. Thankfully I had a great boss who dealt with it impeccably (a man, as it happens — I do know not all men are violent, nobody needs to point that out). But I’ll never forget how traumatic that experience was. The assaulter was a middle-aged professional. And a white Scottish Catholic. He denied it. I didn’t pursue it. I wish I had now.

When I was 29 and living in London, two teenage boys came up behind me on their bikes when I was running one day. They also slapped me on the backside, laughing and jeering as they cycled off into the distance. They were white working class south London kids. Where did they get their sense of entitlement from?

A few weeks ago, a woman was sexually assaulted on the train I often catch home late on a Friday night, by a white Scottish man. That could easily have been me, or any other woman.

Those are just a handful of examples from three decades or so of living in the ‘civilised’ culture of the UK. I don’t let any of that stop me living my life and asserting my rights to be who I want to be, drink as much as I want to drink, wear what I want and go where I want to go. But I never stop being angry that I have to live my life with fear coiled in the pit of my stomach, ready to defend myself at a moment’s notice, always alert, simply because I’m a woman and that makes me ‘fair game’ in so many men’s eyes.

So yes, let’s all be angry about what happened in Cologne. I will always welcome genuine concern for violence against women — as a feminist human rights campaigner, it’s an issue very close to my heart that I expend a lot of energy trying to do something about. And let’s ask questions about what went on, and how best to respond. And yes, let’s be hyper-vigilant about any cultural and religious influences that threaten to erode the very limited inroads we’ve made in tackling violence against women in Western culture.

But don’t tell me that I should be angrier about what happened in Cologne than other assaults — I’m equally furious about them all and so should we all be. And don’t let your hitherto quiet concern for women’s rights begin and end with women who are victims of one particular group of men who decided they had the right to violate women’s bodies. Plenty of other men, of all religions, races, cultures, countries and ages, think they have that right too.