Every so often, I find myself comparing notes with other women about sexual abuse. I often wonder how many have experienced it.

Among those I’ve spoken to, the tally is 100 per cent.

The abuse they describe ranges from unpleasant comments, up to and including rape; usually, people relate multiple incidents. Crude comments, groping, men exposing themselves, men threatening them, being followed in the street: these things are, or have been, part of the tableau of their lives.

The implicit threat of abuse or violence creates cordons round women’s lives. It’s second nature to women to be vigilant. Out for a walk up a hill with my husband at night recently, we were struck by the number of men we passed, the dark evenings no impediment to them getting some exercise.

We passed no women. No evening run for them. Perhaps it seems obvious to point this out, but it’s the very ordinariness of women’s fear that is so shocking.


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Attitudes were more openly sexist in the 1990s and before, as women who came of age then will remember.

But we’d be kidding ourselves to imagine that younger women are strangers to sexual assault and harassment. The internet provides a new manifestation of an old problem by giving boys and young men access to misogynist influencers and pornography, some of it violent.

A UK poll by the children’s charity Plan International found that more than half of girls had experienced sexual harassment at their school, college or university. Separately, it found that more than a third of girls had received unwanted sexual attention, like being groped, stared at or wolf-whistled, while wearing their school uniform in public.

According to Public Health Scotland, 10 per cent of women and two per cent of men in Scotland have been raped since the age of 13.

For all the fanfare around zero tolerance of sexual violence, you can’t help but ask yourself: are we actually getting anywhere? Because sexual violence is horrendously prevalent.

Now we find out that the Metropolitan Police has had a serial rapist in its ranks for years.

David Carrick admitted this week to 24 charges of rape and 25 other mostly sexual offences against 12 women going back two decades. Many of the rapes involved violence.

HeraldScotland: Sarah Everard vigilSarah Everard vigil (Image: free)

"As time went on, the severity of his offending intensified as he became emboldened, thinking he would get away with it,” said Jaswant Narwal, chief crown prosecutor.

Nine separate allegations, including of rape, had been made against him to the police, but they had failed to join the dots.

As if that weren’t crushing enough, 800 further London officers are being investigated over 1000 complaints of sexual and domestic abuse.

I’d call it unbelievable except it isn’t. The horrific murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met officer in 2021 had already peeled back the lid on misogyny in the London force. Two officers were sacked in 2021 for sharing pictures on WhatsApp of the bodies of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman who were found dead in a north London park. Bibaa and Nicole were targeted by their killer simply for being women.

The officers referred to them as “dead birds”.

Last year, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found “disgraceful” misogyny, discrimination and sexual harassment at the Met, centred on constables at Charing Cross police station.


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Now this. The Home Secretary warned yesterday that there are likely to be more shocking cases of corrupt officers to come.

We could call this a crisis for policing, which it is. But if we only see it in those narrow terms, we’re missing the point. Improving vetting and misconduct procedures won’t solve this alone, because the root of the problem is societal misogyny. It originates with the way men and boys are brought up to think about females.

The good news is that a lot is being done to change attitudes. In 2023, children’s TV drama, books and schooling are heavily focused on respect. Primary school children as young as eight can talk the language of anti-discrimination and gender equality, and describe what that looks like.

But out of school, some children see a different set of values. As boys grow up, they can easily come across men on the internet who will tell them males are “naturally” dominant, that they should embrace misogyny and that sex is their right to claim.

At the same time, in the last seven years we’ve seen a willingness for high profile public figures to break faith with the equality agenda, especially in the US. The election of US president in Donald Trump has been followed by the US Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights.

Feminists have never taken progress for granted, but in recent years have been asking themselves: are we at crunch point? Extreme manifestations of the incel (involuntary celibate) ideology, and the popularity of internet saddos like Andrew Tate, point to a reactionary backlash with reach. The abysmal conviction rate for rape and sexual assault meanwhile make some men feel they can abuse with impunity, as the David Carrick case underlines.

We’re fighting millennia of ingrained discrimination; we’re wrestling with the fact that in some people, civilisation is a thin veneer.


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But we can also remind ourselves of this: ultimately, David Carrick was wrong to think he could get away with it. Ultimately, he was brought to justice and stands disgraced before the world, thanks to those brave women who turned their trauma into triumph.

We’ve come a long way. Yes, there are vocal misogynists in the world, but they are outnumbered by vocal male supporters of women’s rights. Men in 2023 now call out toxic attitudes in other men, to an extent probably never seen before. Girls grow up believing they do not have to put up with discrimination. The tide of history is flowing in their direction. The rage of the misogynists is the rage of the losing side.

But the prevalence of abuse and the lack of justice for most women who are raped or sexually abused shows starkly that the fight has only just begun.