Every time an act of violence captures media attention, the demands and the answers are always the same:
Put more police on the streets!
Expand the definition of crimes!
Make the sentences longer and harsher!
These demands come from a place of anger and fear. Anger at the way acts against women and marginalised people (and especially marginalised women) are dismissed without due diligence. Fear that these acts could happen to them. These emotions are valid, and people are more than right to feel rage against a ‘justice’ system that isn’t fit for purpose.
That doesn’t mean that this knee-jerk reflex towards criminalisation is the right direction if what we’re aiming to do is make a difference.
In Britain the taught-cultural belief is that bad people get thrown in prison by the good people, that the good people are always right, and even if there are difficulties along the way, justice will come out in the end. It’s hard to unlearn societal constructs as rooted as state policing and prisons. These things seem as immovable as mountains and seem to forever shadow the landscape of our culture.
If we can’t get rid of them, then we just need to change them; give the police officers more training, build more prisons to fit in more criminals, place women in positions of power. Yet none of that has worked before; private prisons are slowly sweeping through the United Kingdom, and the current female Home Secretary supports the death penalty. But, you know, presiding over a state increasing its authoritarian grip over opposition is just what a #girlboss does.
The truth is, that at a fundamental level, our justice system is not built to deal with crimes that involve interpersonal violence. Many sexual assaults go unwitnessed and, unless they happen to be caught on video or leave a physical mark, are difficult to prove in a court of law. To report a crime of harassment or assault is to go through a process of re-traumatising yourself over and over again for months at a time for a conviction that, statistically, will not happen.
Survivors are forced to choose between criminalisation or silence; if you don’t report then it either can’t have been that bad, or you’re a liar whose case would have fallen apart in a court of law. When a guilty verdict is deemed the gold standard, everything else is lost.
A focus on punishment means that survivors, their pain and their trauma, aren’t centred in the ways they deserve. Instead of funnelling more money into increasing police power, we need to think of better solutions for tackling the impact of gender-based violence.
Put more money into mental health services for people who have suffered from gender-based violence.
Provide a better support system (both financial and social) for women in abusive relationships who may not have the resources to leave.
Train and empower local organisations in mediation and conflict resolution.
We need to stop treating gender-based violence like it is an inevitability. To say that cis-gender men are ‘naturally violent’ is to dismiss them straight out of the gate, and to accept sexual assault as a fact of life. This is dangerous. In a society where aggression and violence are the baselines of masculinity, everybody suffers. We shouldn’t have to live in a world where the only thing stopping men from committing violence is the threat of a prison sentence.
'The Virtual Vigil' is a series of perspectives, emotions and poems written in response to the current political climate. As a feminist art collective we want to use our space to empower the voices of those affected by gender based violence. In doing so, we hope to challenge existing narratives and teach men that they have a collective responsibility to speak up and call out inappropriate and violent behaviours. If you would like to take part in our virtual vigil, please feel welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images by Emily Mort.