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Why do men harass women?

A black and white photo of a woman
Photo by Thiago Matos | Unsplash Images

The men who hate women

Sarah Everard will never sing bad karaoke again.

Adored by her friends, family and boyfriend, she is remembered as talented (at everything but karaoke!), 'clever' and 'caring'.

A dedicated primary school teacher who loved the children in her care, Sabina Nessa 'never had a bad word to say about anyone'.

Both of these young women were picked out at random by strangers who wanted to kill women.

Around a quarter of England and Wales’s police forces currently, record misogyny as a hate crime.

Some campaigners have argued this should happen nationwide, as it does in crimes motivated by race, religion or sexuality.

Why do men abuse women?

There are many shades of harassment and abuse men can inflict upon women, but at heart, psychologists say, abuse is about control.

Many male abusers have a sense of entitlement, which encourages them to try to dominate their victims.

Women are often dehumanised – viewed as objects, or even possessions.

Some extreme offenders may have a narcissistic personality disorder – with characteristics including not only a sense of entitlement but also a lack of empathy and a need for attention and admiration.

They may relabel their behaviour to justify it or try to blame their victims – convincing themselves the women welcomed or encouraged their advances.

In their own homes

The horrific murders of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard are exceptions, not the rule.

Statistically, a woman is far more likely to be murdered in her own home by someone she knows than attacked on the streets by a stranger.

On average, two women, every week, are killed in England and Wales by a partner or ex-partner.

Many of these women were murdered when they tried to leave violent relationships – A period when domestic violence sufferers are most at risk.

In his Disappearing Women collection, London artist Henry Beaumont commemorated each of the 118 women killed by men in Britain, during 2020.

Varying in age and circumstances, they included Jackie Hoadley, a 58-year-old social worker and disability rights campaigner with three adopted children, stabbed to death by her husband.

Kelly Fitzgibbons, a legal secretary and her daughters Ava (5) and Lexi (3) were shot in their homes in what was believed to be a murder-suicide by her husband and their father.

'Fun and excitement'

A 2017 study found male harassers were sometimes bored, stressed, and even dogged by shame due to factors like unemployment.

Harassing women not only helped them feel powerful but was also a source of 'fun and excitement'.

A staggering two-thirds of UK women have reported being sexually harassed in public.

From catcalling to stalking and even serious assault, experiences can be humiliating, traumatic and downright terrifying for survivors, who include very young girls.

Women across the UK report regulating where they go, how they get there, how they dress and how much they drink to avoid harassment.

In fact, they are often encouraged to do so by public guidelines, which frequently focus on the behaviour of women, rather than the men who target them.

Campaigners like Schools Consent Project (SCP) are working to turn the focus back onto changing perpetrators’ behaviour by teaching consent from an early age.

The age of disinhibition

Indecent exposure is often treated as a joke (women are often told to just laugh at the flasher) but it can be a deeply traumatic experience for its victims.

It is also potentially a red flag for other, more serious crimes the perpetrator may commit now or in the future.

(Though it was never proven, Wayne Couzens the police officer who kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard, was accused of indecent exposure at least twice – including one incident in 2015.)

Though most experts believe perpetrators aim to scare, distress and anger their victims, others argue something very different – that flashers are actually afraid themselves.

If flashers IRL are scared, this may be doubly true of so-called ‘cyber flashers’.

A growing 21st-century phenomenon, cyber-flashing is exactly what it sounds like – sending obscene unsolicited pictures and videos online – often through dating apps.

Almost half of all women aged 18 to 24 have fallen victim to this, according to recent research.

Although currently not a crime, there are already campaigns for the law to change.

As in other kinds of online sexual harassment, many of these men would probably never dream of exposing themselves in a train station or town square.

Just as men yelling at a woman from cars, do so safe in the knowledge they will not have to face them at work the next day, online flashers are similarly insulated from repercussions.

Dubbed a 'disinhibition' effect, the anonymity people have online, gives them a sense of freedom, which sometimes takes them into dark places.

The MP and the Twitter troll

To all appearances, Peter Nunn was far from a lonely internet troll holed up in his mum’s basement. Or a criminal.

He had a long-time girlfriend and a young daughter. A self-described 'feminist', and blogger, he had ambitions to study law – he had never been in trouble with the police.

To the outside world he seemed pretty, well – normal.

But when MP Stella Creasy and feminist writer Caroline Criado Perez successfully campaigned for a woman to appear on a bank note, something seemed to snap inside his brain.

He launched an online hate campaign through Twitter, blogposts and bizarre homemade videos, which included Tweeting that he had a gun and wondered 'how much death' he could cause.

It was the level of effort, which Criado-Perez said she found most alarming.

Amongst a number of internet trolls who targeted both women, she felt he was obsessive enough to actually act out his threats.

Dubbed 'egocentric' by the judge, Nunn argued his online abuse was meant as a parody of internet trolling and an expression of his freedom of speech.

His true motivations will probably never be known.

Perhaps it made him feel powerful. Perhaps it was 'fun and exciting'.

It certainly must have felt safer terrorising these women from the safety of his own home.