Even Social Distancing Hasn't Saved Women From Sexual Harassment

Not only is it scary to think the men who catcalled me could assault me – what if they have coronavirus and pass it on? Kate Plummer writes.
Young woman outside train station wearing a virus protective face mask
Young woman outside train station wearing a virus protective face mask
Thomas Tolstrup via Getty Images

When I started walking from the North London suburbs into central London last week for my first lockdown friend-date, I had many mundane thoughts in my head. Will my phone battery last long enough to maps my route? Have I remembered how to carry a conversation? It was a hot day and I was content in my plod across the UK’s new Black Mirror set, watching people shout conversations from two metres apart. The last thing on my mind was my safety. Maybe it should have been.

“Alright love?” came a shout from a bench on a curb where three men sat (and not two metres apart). Out of practice, my brain dusted off its muscle-memory powered guide to street harassment as I quickened my pace and mentally scanned for crowds of people or shops I could hide in. Oops. “Wow look at that!” another said as I tugged at my shorts willing them to cover my whole body and make me invisible; nervous that this barely perceptible reaction could be mistaken for engagement in their calls. Later, I was rattled again as a man on a bike slowed down to wink at me.

The culmination of these experiences made me think only one thing – seriously? We are living in a global pandemic in which it is even dangerous to stand too close to my mum. Why am I still being harassed on the street?

“While I automatically looked for crowds and shops I could hide in, there were, of course, none – with only essential shops open and pairs of people walking down the street.”

Catcalling has always felt threatening because it breaks social convention. When a man shouts at a woman on the street they show that they disregard their boundaries and are willing to make them feel uncomfortable. And every time a man does this, it raises the question: what other boundaries are they comfortable shunning? With the best will and gym-routine in the world, if a man decided to physically assault me – I would not be able to stop him. Overreaction? Last November, a man raped and killed a 19-year-old American student after she ignored his catcalls. Street harassment is dangerous. It’s invasive. It’s embarrassing. And its utterly intractable from power dynamics. If anyone still thinks catcalling is funny, or a compliment – please think again. It’s objectification.

In the five second period in which I walked past those men who stared, enjoyed, and then commented on my body, I became non-consensually complicit in their sexual gratification. Wanting desperately for this not to be the case, I wished I was wearing something else. It was 25C. Why should I have been?

Now, amid a global pandemic where any social contact is unacceptable for other reasons, this crossing of clear lines feels more shocking. While I always wonder if men who cat-call believe they are being charming and will successfully initiate a sexual encounter, or are merely vocalising a deep-seated entitlement, those potentially wanting the former in a global lockdown seem more bizarre than ever. Not only is it scary to think they could assault me – what if they have coronavirus and pass it on?

I’m not alone in my worries. Last month a study by charity Plan International UK found that 20% of women aged 14 to 21 had suffered street harassment since the government implemented social distancing measures. A quarter feel in danger when exercising alone and a third fear going to the shops.

20% of women have even said street harassment has got worse. And while women like me felt that fewer people on the streets would equate to fewer people sexually harassing women, in practice this has meant there are fewer places of safety to turn to when it happens. While I automatically looked for crowds and shops I could hide in, there were, of course, none – with only essential shops open and pairs of people walking down the street. And if something physical had happened, would I have been able to rely on people to break social distancing measures and help, risking spreading coronavirus? The Plan International Study corroborates these fears with 40% of people reporting fewer shops to go to and a third believing the police would be too occupied with other issues to help.

How then can women cling onto some sense of safety in our already increasingly baffling world. While a 2018 law in France made street harassment illegal, the UK benefits from no such protection and catcalling is not an offense. Through their campaign OurStreetsNow, sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton hope to change this – and their petition calling to make it illegal has been signed over 200,000 times.

As night fell and I walked back from central London to the suburbs I was more cautious and less naïve. Even though we’ve seen growing community cohesion and unity against the virus, it hasn’t melted away all other risks faced in day to day life. But if lockdown hasn’t given women respite from sexual harassment – what will?

Kate Plummer is a freelance journalist.

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