First published by The Backbencher, 22nd May 2014
If you’re female and reading this article, you’ve probably experienced some form of street harassment. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you’re wearing, what you’re doing or how much of a hurry you seem to be in. Street harassment is thoroughly ingrained in the existence of millions of women and girls across the UK. Both myself and my younger sister experience street harassment at least once a week.
If you’re not convinced about the widespread nature of the problem, log on to Twitter and peruse Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project. It currently has 144,000 followers and receives thousands of tweets every week, from men and women who want to share their daily experiences of sexual harassment and abuse.
One woman describes returning to her building after grocery shopping and being told by two men that they would help her carry her bags if she ‘showed them her tits’. Another woman was shouted at from a van: ‘I’d fuck you!’. When walking home with her young son, a woman was confronted by a man who told her that he was ‘going to get inside her’. From girls in their school uniforms, to lesbians, disabled women and cancer suffers, the stories of harassment and assault abound. Women do not ‘invite’ these comments with their attire, as there are as many stories of women being harassed in running gear, business suits and baggy jeans as there are of women experiencing the same behaviour in party dresses or clubwear.
Street harassment doesn’t just include catcalls, whistles and sexual comments. It also encompasses being grabbed, groped and otherwise touched inappropriately in the street. An official report in 2013 showed than one in five women over the age of 16 has been the victim of a sexual offence. The hashtag #grabbed is currently providing a space for women to recount their experiences of being physically molested in public spaces.
The idea that street harassment should be ‘taken as a compliment’ or experienced as ‘flattering’ has gone on too long. This concept has been encouraged by men who have never experienced sexual harassment, men who wish to normalize their actions, and the misguided comments of Vice columnist Paris Lees. Any woman who has refused to respond or spoken back when faced with a comment or catcall knows that the intention of the harasser is not to flatter. All too often, the whistles turn quickly into abusive and aggressive remarks. Laura Bates describes an incident where two men stared at her breasts and one turned to the other to remark ‘I’d take a knife to that’.
One of the most disturbing things about the prevalence of catcalls and sexualized comments is that it helps to create a culture where women’s bodies are ‘fair game’, objects in a public arena that can be judged and remarked upon in an aggressive sexual manner. If men feel as if they have the right to make sexualized judgements ‘I’d do her’ in public, the bodily autonomy of the woman in question is compromised. Sexual offences including grabbing, groping and serious assault are more likely to occur, and women are in turn less likely to report them, as they simply become part of an ugly tapestry of harassment that unfolds on a daily basis. Laura Bates describes the ‘background noise of harassment and disrespect’ as inextricably linked to ‘the assertion of power that is violence and rape’.
What are our current MPs doing about the prevalence of street harassment? The answer to this question appears to be ‘very little’. Maria Miller, the former minister for Women and Equalities hardly made a ripple when it came to women’s issues and voted to reduce the upper limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks. The current Minister for Women is Nicky Morgan, who voted against the legalization of gay marriage and is described as being ‘moderately against’ gay legislation by the website TheyWorkForYou which records the voting records of politicians. I don’t believe that we can expect any meaningful discussion on the issue of street harassment from Morgan, who only appears to represent heterosexual women. It’s worth remembering that members of the LGBTQ+ community report higher levels of harassment in public spaces, according to research from stopstreetharassment.com
Let’s hope that Stella Creasy, the outspoken and highly articulate Labour MP for Warmslow will be encouraged to spearhead the discussion about street harassment. Creasy has received her share of death and rape threats via Twitter for raising her voice on issues like the inclusion of a famous woman on Britain’s banknotes. Until then, we must keep #ShoutingBack about our experiences of harassment without shame, and educate the men in our lives about the importance of respect. A catcall is not a compliment.