Women’s Safety and Public Harassment

Women’s safety and public harassment

For Christmas my nan gifted me a pair of earrings, and a rape alarm. She said she was worried about me going back to uni and walking around alone, I assured her that I don’t walk around alone at night. She replied: ‘It’s not just at night time that you have to worry sweetheart’, and I realised, at that moment that our generational attitudes towards safety were vastly different. Because, despite my bravade, she’s right. It isn’t just the 2am walks back from a nightclub that I need to be worrying about. It’s the walk through a park at 3pm because my shopping bags are heavy and I want to go the quickest route. It’s when I go up the dingy back stairs of a multi-storey car park at 9am to collect my car. It’s stopping at traffic lights with my car unlocked. It’s forgetting my glasses and not being able to see ahead properly. It’s wearing headphones on a dog walk and not being fully aware of my surroundings. It’s taking the same route to uni everyday at the same time. It’s in everything I do everyday – without thinking. And as this week, as we mourn the loss of a carefree, independent woman who probably approached life the same way I do, that we are all taking stock and reflecting on how our everyday behaviours are putting us at risk – and ultimately how sad this loss of ‘freedom’ seems.

This realisation was three months ago, but for my entire teenage years I have been warned by older generations that I should be more aware. But for me, and many women of my age, this subconscious rebellion to living in fear is ingrained. It’s not that I’m not aware of the dangers, in fact my first memory of strange behaviour from a man was at 13 years old on a train with my family, it’s more that as a generation we are determined that liberty and freedom are basic human rights we should fight for and defend. Why should a man have that power over how we live?

Back when I was 13, on that train I felt how unbalanced the world was for the different sexes. On that busy train I could feel someone staring at me, so I looked up and a man roughly in his 30s was stood blatantly staring at me, looking me up and down. I looked away and did my cardigan up, while feeling very uncomfortable. Feeling my outfit was drawing his unwanted attention. I looked up again at him straight in his eyes so he knew I was aware he was staring, hoping it would make him stop. He continued to stare. I tried to make eye contact with my mum so she could see what was happening. He stared at me for the entire train ride until our stop. I got off and thought thank goodness I could leave. I turned around to make sure he wasn’t getting off too. He wasn’t, but as I was walking away he continued to stare at me up until the doors closed. For the rest of the day I was on edge constantly looking around to see if he was following, I made sure to tell my mum incase something did happen she would know who it was. Luckily nothing did happen, but at the age of 13 I was already aware of unnatural behaviour from a man, and what that could lead to. And now I hate trains, and I think I always will.

This was only the beginning. As me and my friends have grown older (I am now 18) it has only gotten worse. It has grown from the staring and catcalling to confidence and pushiness. It is now touching our waists when we are dancing or pulling us in to try and kiss us when it is obvious we don’t want to. It is not a compliment, and it should be a crime. Telling a man I don’t want to give him my number isn’t enough of a no. Telling him I am too young isn’t enough of a no. It appears that saying I have a boyfriend, even if I don’t, is the only way they show some respect for my answer to be no. Often, even that is questioned; ‘show me a photo of you two then’, ‘oh why isn’t he out with you tonight’, ‘I could treat you much better than him’. As if I should be flattered by his persistence. The normalisation of this behaviour from men is creating a society where women are constantly at risk of sexual harassment.

A new YouGov survey found that for women aged between 18-24, 97% said that they had been sexually harassed. It also found that 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. In a 2018 survey, it found that 35% of girls wearing school uniforms had been sexually harassed in public. In the same survey it found 33% of uk girls who have been sexually harassed felt too embarrassed to tell anyone. Plan International and Our Streets Now polled 1000 parents of women aged between 14-21, a third of those parents had been told by their daughters that they had experienced public harassment. Four in ten parents had asked their daughters not to go out after dark. 37% of parents would not know where to report street harassment for their daughters, and 50% of the young women believed a clear law making public sexual harassment a crime would help prevent it. I ran a poll on my personal Instagram and found 52 out of 76 women also think it would help prevent the harassment.

Women are not safe. We have done the ‘right things’ for years and years and yet we are sexually harassed and abused in public on a regular basis. There are things men can do to make use feel safer such as keeping potentially inappropriate comments to yourself, not staring, keeping your hands to yourself when passing us and be an active bystander if you notice we are in an uncomfortable situation. But making us feel safer does not solve the issue. Men that take action in making us feel safer, weren’t the ones who aimed to hurt us in the first place. In order to see a change in our society that allows women to freely walk down the street without being harrassed, behaviour needs to change and the law needs to change. Public sexual harassment is not an offence in its own right under UK law. It needs to be made a specific criminal offence to acknowledge it is ‘a crime, not a compliment’.

For Sarah Everard – who was just walking home.

By Ellie Bicknell