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Opinion A year on from the loss of Ashling Murphy, has anything changed?

On the anniversary of the death of Ashling Murphy, writer Clare Egan says if we really want to end male violence, we must listen to survivors.

LAST UPDATE | 12 Jan 2023

THE DAY I watched Ashling Murphy’s funeral, a man spat on me. I was at the bus stop, on my way to therapy when he passed by, cleared his throat and spat theatrically, not caring where it landed.

It landed on me. A blob of his saliva – bubbly and clear – sat on the leather of my brown winter boots. When he realised what he’d done, he lifted his hand in a half-hearted apology. I did what I always do when a man does something horrible to me: I tried not to engage. I kept my head down. I twisted my foot and tried to shake his saliva off my body.

I was threadbare and exhausted. I’d spent a week wrapped in horror and recognition, thinking of this young woman and her final moments. It happened a few kilometres from where my mother was killed in a car accident.

Watching Ashling’s funeral, I felt comforted by her neighbours’ broad midlands accents, their familiar head nods and the ease with which they lived, in spite of the media’s sudden invasion.

Tragic loss of life

The week my mother died, the media called us too. It was nothing like what happened to Ashling’s loved ones. The press calls were very few and not at all harassing, but they felt like a horrible invasion of privacy at such a tender, frightening moment.

When a woman loses her life to male violence, there is a double loss. First, her life ends in a literal sense. Second, the life she lived can become flattened and distorted by clichéd media reports, by the criminal justice process and by the sheer cacophony of voices saying her name.

Her identity is co-opted. It’s a credit to Ashling’s loved ones that they have managed to keep shining a light on who she was, as they no doubt had to make sure that her identity was not eroded by the noise of her death.

While the media and public attention are difficult following a death like this, it is a change from what used to happen in the past. Until recent years, when the media reported on individual incidents of violence, the narrative often failed to interrogate violence against women as a systemic issue. The lives of women simply didn’t have as much value in Irish society.

You only have to look at the lack of coverage of the mass incarceration institutions euphemistically called ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ until recently. While those institutions were in operation, they received very little public attention.

So many lives

In 2023, a year after Ashing’s death, we need to ask ourselves what’s changed, when women continue to lose their lives cruelly and tragically.

Women like Bruna Fonseca, who was killed in Cork on New Year’s Day and Natalie McNally, killed in Antrim on 18 December. Women who have been stolen from their loved ones like Urantsetseg Tserendorj, Jastine Valdez and Nadine Lott. Are we getting any closer to understanding and preventing these crimes as a society? Perhaps we are not listening enough to survivors?

As a survivor, I can tell you that for me and others who’ve experienced and survived male violence, muddling through that particular week of blanket media coverage after Ashling’s death was not easy.

There were lots of lofty pronouncements. Several politicians said that we must teach boys to respect women. Ashling Murphy wasn’t disrespected – she was killed. In broad daylight. While out for a run. The suggestion that teaching respect is going to prevent male violence is so ludicrous as to be almost insulting.

But no one challenged these narratives. At that time, I focused on making sure I was eating, sleeping and crying when I needed to. I had nightmares. I was scared. Among friends, we swapped stories of the horrific things men have done to us. We came together to grieve and support each other in person and online.

One man interrupted a virtual memorial held for people who were unable to join in-person vigils due to the risk of catching Covid. He found our collective grief arousing, masturbating in a Zoom room of distraught mourners.

Survivors of male violence (including me) spent the days and weeks after Ashling’s death trying to regain our strength while much of the media coverage was circling in a facile loop: Women talking about their fear. Men proclaiming #NotAllMen. Women confirming that it’s #NotAllMen but pointing out that it is some men. And on it went. These clichéd narrative beats repeated ad nauseum, until we were all actually nauseous.

Collective reaction

There were calls for a national conversation about violence against women, though really it ought to be a conversation about male violence. The problem is with men, not women. We should also remember that not all survivors of male violence are women. This is especially true when it comes to sexual violence. Not to mention the nuances of lived experiences that exist in broad categories like ‘women’.

I am a white, queer, middle-class, able-bodied educated woman who experienced sexual violence and had the resources to invest in her recovery. Other survivors (of whatever gender identity, race, economic background or countless other factors) face additional challenges in accessing the kind of resources that make recovery possible.

Campaigners have done a lot of work to tease out the biases that inform the media’s framing of male violence. Examples of media describing what women were wearing or how they were behaving when they were attacked have become rare. What the media has not yet achieved is to acknowledge the trauma and suffering of those of us who’ve survived male violence, and how their coverage exacerbates that harm.

Publications should take care when they interview survivors, as they are sharing their most profound personal traumas. Survivors aren’t responsible for educating the public, and we shouldn’t expect them to share the most violent moments of their lives for our voyeuristic interests.

Perhaps there’s an argument for whether they should sometimes be paid for their contribution. Reporters should undergo specialised training on how to interview survivors too – and their employers should understand the potential impact on them.

When it comes to how violence against women is reported on, the focus should move from the individuals to the systemic reasons why this violence takes place and why it is, by some people, accepted as normal.

Impact on survivors

In the decades I’ve been working to recover from the sexual violence I experienced as a child, I’ve come to identify both the omnipresence of male violence and the secondary harm of other people’s ignorance. That ignorance is often perpetuated by ill-informed media. For the most part, survivors of male violence (including myself) sit in the media’s blind spot.

In the aftermath of Ashling’s death, the media (and particularly social media) adopted a binary framing of ‘men vs women’. It’s the latest iteration of the ‘battle of sexes’ conversation that has been circulating in various forms for decades. This binary view, which was framed by (mostly) heterosexual, able-bodied middle-class white people, creates one-dimensional coverage. It fails to convey the complexity of this issue, nor can it encapsulate the full humanity of those personally impacted by male violence.

What I craved in the aftermath of Ashling Murphy’s death was a space to voice the pain and trauma triggered by male violence and how the media reports it.

I wanted to grieve. I wanted to be understood. I wanted people to acknowledge the harm patriarchal violence inflicts on my body and how it curtails my life and makes my world smaller. James Baldwin wrote that “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

If we really want to tackle the scourge of male violence in Irish society, we must listen to the voices of those who’ve experienced it.

Clare Egan is a queer writer and columnist.

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