You're walking down the street and a complete stranger grabs your bum and whispers "alright darling?" You ignore them. They call you a slag.
You're dancing in a club with a friend and someone you don't know moves into your space, forcing their erect penis into your thigh. You push him away and he moves closer, you push harder and he gets angry, calls you "frigid" and stays close, watching you angrily.
You're rushing to collect your son from nursery, running down the street when someone hangs out of a car and shouts "hey sexy, you want some? Come on, run to me baby." You ignore him, avoiding eye contact. He makes monkey noises at you.
A new YouGov survey for the End Violence Against Women Coalition published today finds that 85% of young women (aged 18-24) in UK have been sexually harassed in public places, with 45% of them subjected to 'unwanted sexual touching', much of which can amount to sexual assault.
Each individual jeer or catcall might appear trivial, depending on your viewpoint. But they accumulate. They make a bigger statement about a woman's place, about who is permitted to comment on her body and its desirability, about what she's in the world for, and what's waiting for her if she puts a foot wrong.
A film also released today, by national black women's network Imkaan and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, features young black and minority ethnic women talking about the impact sexual harassment has on their lives: "from quite an early age you start to control your own behaviour." "It has changed the way that I am. I am quite guarded, I am suspicious." Another woman reports, "My experiences are different as a Black woman than they are for my white friends. I should be 'up for it' or I am 'fair game', or I shouldn't care if my body is touched in a specific way." And another woman says, "After me ignoring them, that's when it turns racial, so that's when it might be 'you black this' or 'you black that...how dare you ignore me'."
The everyday-ness of sexual harassment, the frequency of the insults and the predictability of the outrage when advances are rebuffed changes the way women move about in public. Our survey found that that significantly more women than men say they feel unsafe in public places (63% versus 45%), and almost half are doing conscious "safety planning" if they go out in the evenings, such as avoiding public transport and paying for taxis (42%), leaving early (47%) and taking a different route (42%). As another woman in the film says, she feels, "...almost suffocated, I'm sure it has an effect on my mental health, the fact that I have to think about it every day, as soon as I leave the house."
So what should be done? We need to know more about who the men are who are repeatedly harassing women - why are they doing it? What might deter them? And there's important work local authorities and transport planners can do to design out opportunities for assault and to reassure women and girls that public spaces are safe. Women in our survey said they would like to see better lighting and more transport staff. Those standing for election as Mayor and to local councils and as Police and Crime Commissioners on 5 May would do well to examine the survey results and film closely and ensure tackling violence against women and girls in all its forms is a priority.
But what about the role of others? The third party or bystander. In our survey we also found that only 11% of women who had been subjected to 'unwanted sexual touching' reported that someone else intervened while 81% said they would have liked someone to do so. Victims of serious sexual assault have said that the presence of onlookers during an assault who did not intervene made the assault more traumatising. Those who harass and assault often seek to do so where there is no witness of course, but sometimes there are others present. We need to think about the role we could all play in challenging abusive behaviour and the attitudes and views that excuse or trivialise it.
Women shouldn't have to work hard to be safe. It is not a small thing, it's an enormous burden we place on girls and young women and it can hold them back. The harassment, intimidation and abuse which women describe in our film is affecting how they live and what they do. It makes women less free than men.
We should ask our political leaders to make this a priority. We should teach our children about respect and the impact of harassment. We should be call for safer streets and transport. Most of all we all have to call it out when we see harassment, because when we all start intervening maybe those who do it will be less likely to believe it doesn't matter and they can get away with it.Suggest a correction