Sarah Vine’s desire to be wolf-whistled really does show how women have learned to cope with street harassment

First published by The Independent

Another day, another poorly-articulated column designed to appeal to the kind of people who love carping on about how sensitive the younger generation are, but get upset when they realise that you’re referring to them when you talk about suffering the “racist uncle” at Christmas dinner.

In this particularly delightful epistle, Sarah Vine tells us in her column how foolish she was as a young person, choosing the evils of socialism, feminism and cider over what I’m only assuming are now her current preferences for widening inequality, reinforcing the glass ceiling, and quaffing down champagne mixed with the tears of refugee children.

Sarah Vine wishes she’d taken the time to appreciate street harassment when she was younger because now she’s old and ignored, she misses men leaning out of vans and shouting “big titted bitch” at her.

Honestly, who can blame her? I think all women will agree that one of the greatest joys in life is waiting for a complimentary catcall, like “nice arse” or “sit on my d**k”. And if you fail to respond appropriately, the shouting switches seamlessly to “f**king whore” or “stuck-up slag”, because it was never really about giving you a compliment in the first place. I can see why she pines for those halcyon days.

As the founder of Everyday Sexism Laura Bates writes so accurately, “street harassment is no more about compliments than rape is about sex”. Street harassment is about power. It’s about how men who engage in jeering, cat calling and groping are taking ownership of the public space. They’re saying: this is ours and if you enter it, you and your body are fair game.

Everyone should be able to go about their daily business free from the fear and shame that often comes with being harassed. It’s hard to feel sufficiently “complimented” when you’ve gone back home to change after a charming stranger calls you a slut for wearing shorts in summer. Or you’re walking home at night with your keys between your fingers or pretending to make a phone call so the group of men walking behind you will leave you alone.

Women of all ages and from all walks of life have contributed to the Everyday Sexism project in their hundreds of thousands, to recount disturbingly quotidian instances of street harassment. Sadly, LGBT women and women of colour face more systematic abuse than their straight-presenting white counterparts due to the ugly mingling of sexism, racism and homophobia.

Nevertheless, Sarah Vine’s point that she doesn’t receive the same attention now as she did when she was younger is perhaps one worth addressing. Women are too often written off as they get older, seen as asexual and matronly. A very basic example of this is the sexism in Hollywood towards older female actors, receiving fewer choices of roles and fewer lines of dialogue in those roles. At 37, Maggie Gyllenhaal was already deemed “too old” to play the love interest of a man 18 years her senior. It’s also true that in film and TV, the stories of older women are not often seen as worth telling.

Vine is right to be dismayed that she has to practically “light a flare” in order to get served in a bar (although that might be because the bar staff are not long out of the education system that her husband Michael Gove systematically gutted). However, the invisibility of older women is precisely due to the sexism Vine feels she was silly enough to believe in as a university student. It’s only when we judge women solely on their physical attractiveness and their fertility that young women become more valuable and more worthy of notice.

The answer is not for young women to somehow appreciate being harassed during the bloom of their youth, it’s to challenge sexism and dismantle the culture in which your choice is between being groped and shouted at, and being ignored.

Street harassment is part of a culture of sexism where men believe they are entitled to the bodies of women, starting with intrusive personal comments and jeering, and ending with abuse, rape and, tragically, deadly violence enacted by intimate partners at the other end of the scale.

In Britain, 87 per cent of women have been forced to take a different route when travelling to avoid harassment, and 67 per cent have felt they needed to change their clothes as a result. Street harassment creates a hostile, unwelcome environment for women, where we feel scrutinised and uncomfortable just for stepping outside. It’s not a compliment, and it needs to stop.

Forget segregated trains – we’ve ignored Jeremy Corbyn’s other admirable proposals for women

First published by The Independent, 26th August 2015

My Twitter feed today has been largely concerned with one subject: apparently Jeremy Corbyn is going to shut women away in separate train carriages because men are animals incapable of controlling themselves when faced with a female reading her book and eating a bag of crisps.

This is, of course, not true. Yesterday, Corbyn released a series of proposals detailing how he would tackle the problem of street harassment if elected Labour leader. One idea in particular caught the attention of media outlets, and discussion has centred solely around that.

I guess ‘Jeremy talked to some women who said women-only carriages were a good solution to sexual assault but he’s going to consult on the idea more widely before doing anything’ wouldn’t be so click-friendly. But in the rush to condemn or support the gender-segregated carriage idea, Corbyn’s other proposals seem to have been forgotten. This was one idea amongst a whole plethora of brave and well-reasoned proposals to tackle the everyday harassment of women.

The majority of Corbyn’s ideas are simply common sense strategies that every party should be behind right now, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. Work together with local authorities, universities, transport authorities, police, and women’s campaigns to tackle harassment in public places? Yes. Why aren’t we already doing this? Create a ministerial role for women’s safety? Probably a sensible idea when approximately 3 million women experience violence at the hands of a man every year in the UK. Oh, and by the way, 50 per cent representation of women in his cabinet? I’ll take that with bells on.

Corbyn’s call for a police hotline staffed 24/7 by women that would be dedicated to reporting harassment and assault deserves praise, as it could embolden victims of harassment to report intimidation and violence without worrying that they won’t be taken seriously. Tougher rules for license holders could force bars and clubs to respond appropriately when sexual assault occurs on their premises. A wide-reaching public awareness campaign would help dispel harmful myths about street harassment and encourage those who haven’t experienced it personally to see it as a legitimate issue.

Reading Corbyn’s ideas for tackling street harassment makes me more sure than ever that I voted for the right leadership candidate, as I’m proud to support someone who is actively taking a stand against sexism in public places. The amazing Everyday Sexism project, mentioned at the beginning of Corbyn’s manifesto, is filled with experiences of street harassment, from women (and some men) of all ages and walks of life. They range from the depressingly banal to the incredibly disturbing. Anyone unsure of the impact harassment and intimidation in public spaces can have need only spend a couple of minutes browsing the Everyday Sexism Twitter feed or website. Meanwhile, the other leadership candidates have completely failed to address street harassment and abuse. Shockingly, Liz Kendall’s manifesto never even mentions women, only vaguely addressing ‘inequality’ in her early years pledge for children.

The segregated spaces on public transport proposal definitely won’t find support from me, as I feel it would fail to tackle the root causes of harassment and place the onus for keeping safe on women, rather than the men who harass – but I’m glad we’re debating the idea. Corbyn has pledged to “consult with women and open up [discussion] to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome”, and this display of engagement and willing to interact is exactly what we need from our public figures. It’s dishonest of Corbyn’s detractors to monster him for simply opening up debate on an issue that affects the lives of millions of women and is too often swept under the carpet by his peers.

Sam Pepper and Why Street Harassment Isn’t Funny

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It seems painfully obvious to state that sexually assaulting women is not ‘funny’ or a ‘prank’. It should also go without saying that you can’t smooth things over when you’ve done something unpleasant to women, by doing the same unpleasant thing to men.

Sam Pepper, a popular YouTuber and former Big Brother contestant, uploaded a video over the weekend that shows him approaching various women in the street, and groping their bums without their consent. The ‘Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank’ gathered more than a million views before it was removed from YouTube for violating their Terms of Service.

Viewers were angry, partially because what Pepper did was vile, but also because the majority of women have at some point experienced sexual harassment in a public place and the video’s content was all too familiar. The widespread nature of street harassment means that it forms an ugly canvas, against which our interactions on public transport and in public spaces are painted. It includes catcalls, whistling, sexual comments, groping, flashing and masturbation. It is so prolific that the Everyday Sexism campaign, founded by Laura Bates, receives thousands of tweets every week from men and women sharing their experiences of harassment, and currently has 172,000 followers.

We recognise street harassment because we’re so used to it, and this is why Pepper’s video was not welcomed by the online community. It doesn’t matter who is grabbing your boobs or bum without your permission, whether it’s a ‘creepy old man’ or a young, famous YouTuber. The effect is the same. It compromises bodily autonomy – meaning that your body is no longer yours when in public. It becomes common property, of men who feel able to touch you without resistance or consequence. The same anger and fear and shame is present, along with the weary sense that as a woman in public, you’re forced to put up with this shit.

Sam Pepper has more than 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube, and the majority are young girls. They should not be shown that sexual harassment is a funny or profitable prank that garners viewers while leaving the person being groped without consent as the butt of the joke.

YouTuber Laci Green, who broadcasts a popular sex education series, has released an articulate open letter, addressed to Pepper and signed by several internet stars, including Hank and John Green, Meghan Tonjes, Tyler Oakley and Wil Wheaton. Sam Pepper has released two new videos, explaining his intentions. One shows a female actor pinching the behinds of unsuspecting men, as though by reversing the roles Pepper has made a point with his sad little stunt. Someone should let him know that harassing men doesn’t make up for harassing women.

If the women in the first video are, as Pepper now claims, were actors who were fully aware of the situation, the question of why he turned assault or staged-assault into a prank remains pertinent. Would he have revealed that the women were in on the ‘joke’ had the backlash not been so strong? I suspect not, and kindly request that Pepper keeps his ill-conceived ‘social experiments’ and hands to himself in future. Where’s the unsubscribe button?

What Are MPs Doing About Street Harassment?

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.

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