Yesterday, the results of a survey commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Committee (EVAW) were published. The results, while wholly unacceptable, wouldn’t surprise many women. 21% of women had experienced unwanted sexual attention, and 43% of young women had experienced sexual harassment in public. In fact, I’d argue that these figures are puzzlingly low.
Ask any female about this kind of thing, and you’ll get an extensive list of anecdotes. Being beeped at my white van men, being groped in clubs. It’s all part of being a woman, apparently. Just something to put up with, not something anything can be done about. Chin up ladies, it’s supposed to be a compliment, after all.
What’s probably most frightening about this kind of attention is how women seemingly marginalise it, despite it being uncomfortable and unwanted. I know this from experience, and my experiences aren’t particularly exceptional.
I’ve bought tops and never worn them again once some drunken stranger has attempted to see what would happen if he unzipped me. I’ve phoned male friends at three in the morning while walking home, just so that the group of men lingering outside the kebab shop don’t think that I’m unaccounted for. I’ve had grown men jeer at me in bars. I’ve been called a slag for confronting some drunken ugly bugger for grabbing my arse in the pub I meet my friends in regularly. It was me who left the pub, not him.
Yet worryingly, I’ve never considered my experiences “that bad”. In comparison with some shocking tales you hear, these things are trivial and barely worth complaining about. They’re just small instances that have happened and don’t ultimately matter. Some would argue that I’m pretty lucky to not have gone through worse. This attitude is just wrong. What would happen if a man was being inappropriately touched while queuing at a bar? Or if he overheard a group of people making smart comments about what he was wearing? It’s not too difficult to imagine a brawl ensuing. But when it happens to a woman, we all just put our head down and try to see the funny side. I can get a bit shouty and angry about women’s issues (as my friends will happily attest to), but even I still downplay street harassment.
When I was in secondary school, I had a guy follow me home a handful of times. He was a friend of a friend, way older than me, and was judged to be an all-round NICE GUY by everyone who knew him. He’d linger around on the road from my school to my home, waiting for me. He tried to engage in conversation that I clearly didn’t want to participate in, and insisted on walking a few paces behind me if I managed to overtake him. I’d wait at the end of my road for up to half an hour until he got bored and wandered off before going into my house, because I didn’t want him to know where I lived. After a while, I stopped seeing him around and figured he’d gotten the hint. About three months later I saw him while I was nipping to the shops trying to take a picture of me on his phone. I was terrified- heightened by the fact I was with my younger sister and I was deathly scared that he’d transfer his interest onto her. I was 15, she was 13.
This encounter- while I agree is a slightly more extreme type of street harassment- is still something I make light of. I joked with my friends that I had “a little stalker”, implied that I was followed due to my -ahem- irresistible charms. Even while discussing the matter now, in light of these survey results, it took me a while to realise that this even counted as street harassment. What’s more disturbing, with hindsight, is that I was only 15. Before I’d even surpassed the legal matter of being considered a minor, I’d already had this pretty scary experience, and I was already brushing it off as nothing.
So what can be done about this kind of thing? Cuff everyone who wolf-whistles women? Dole out ASBOs to the men who shout out “nice arse” in the middle of the street? It’s obviously difficult to prevent or police this kind of thing, but it seems as though the main issue with street harassment is the perceived acceptability, both from perpetrators and victims. If these harassments were purely verbal or physical, if 40% of young women were being physically harassed in public, we’d all be kicking off. Yet add a sexual nature, and rather than duly becoming more sinister, it (unfathomably) becomes less of a big deal. This isn’t a case of slapping the wrists of gropers, followers and catcallers everywhere; it’s a case of re-educating a society.
EVAW are currently campaigning for training of police and transport staff so these situations are understood and dealt with properly. There are campaigns (such as this one) encouraging women to report harassment. As Vicky Simister was quoted in The Independent yesterday as saying; “It’s not just about slapping cuffs on people, it’s about changing the way we think”. We need to be not okay with being harassed.