In all the years I’ve been being subjected to street harassment, cat calling and, on occasion, actual physical groping, I’ve rarely called the police.
When a white van driver grabbed my bum as I was on my bike waiting to turn right onto a side street I didn’t call the police because I didn’t get his licence plate number. When I woke up from a doze on the train on my way to work to find the man next to me had worked his hand under my bottom and was having a good feel I didn’t call the police because my line manager at work told me there was “no point because they police can’t do anything about it anyway”. All the – too numerous to relate – times I’ve been intimidated or threatened in the street by men wanting me to accept ‘compliments’ I’ve not called the police because it seemed so minor, what could the police do? Why would I waste police time with something so non life-threatening when they are resource and time-poor enough as it is?
But on the flip side – if women don’t report these incidents, how is street harassment to be recognised as the widespread problem that we (‘we’ as in women that exist in public spaces) know it to be? If there’s no official statistics, nothing to back up the numbers of women feeling threatened and intimidated out of public spaces, how can those resources be allocated to the police force in the first place? It was following this logic that I called the police when I was groped by a stranger while I was walking home in the early hours of the morning after seeing the New Year in at a friend’s house. Yes, it was minor, and I was fine, albeit angry and shaken, but it was an assault and even if the police can’t find the man that did it, even if there’s little they can do, that report becomes a statistic which gives us real hard data on how often this happens.
The bike incident and the train incident both happened more than 5 years ago. I suspect if either had happened more recently I’d have had no doubt about phoning the police. In that respect, this shows some sort of progress. But equally, both are clear examples of assault, or ‘unwanted sexual touching’. We still have some way to go before the non physical advances are accepted as harassment/assault and not ‘failure to accept a compliment’, as Bye Felipe reflects perfectly, showing the exact same #notacompliment dynamic of street cat-calling/harassment, but in this case the sense of entitlement to a woman’s time/attention is recorded rather handily for posterity on the internet so we don’t have to spend so much of our time trying to get people to believe us.
While things are changing, it’s still simply not good enough. We can’t continue to function as a society which wants equality where 10 year old kids think women in their 30s really like to be shouted at. Or a society which thinks ‘kiss a ginger day‘ is a perfectly reasonable response to ‘kick a ginger day‘ without any sort of reflection that kissing someone without consent is just as much assault as kicking them is. A society where someone like me pops to the shops with my keys in my hand as clothed as possible to mitigate victim blaming. Where in a clear case of rape, people worry about how it will affect the careers of the teen rapists, not the impact on the victim. Where an openly anti-feminist political party can campaign for election. A world where where schools are, globally, the most common setting for sexual harassment or sexual coercion. A world where these sorts of statistics exist, demonstrating that not only is this the world we live in now, but that before our children have even completed their education, they’ve already been well schooled in the concepts of objectification, sexual coercion, grey areas over consent and sexual violence.
Right now, SRE (Sex and relationships education) is compulsory in the UK for children from the age of 11, but the ‘compulsory’ part still only covers reproduction and sexual health. To really embed healthier attitudes schools need to expand their SRE to really focus on the R part – relationships. Young people’s relationships to their peers, their friends, romantic partners, present and future. To embed a complete understanding of consent and respect, and that consent is the absolute bedrock of all healthy relationships, whether that be a relationship with someone you’ve known for years or the cute person you see at your bus stop.
This is one of the reasons I am excited to be involved in next weekends ‘Our Bodies, Our Future‘ conference. When I attended the planning meeting I was nervous, and didn’t know what to expect or how I could help – I was mainly attending as someone who rants about street harassment a lot on the internet. I was floored by the talent and committment I saw from the young women, mostly aged between 14 and 19, who had given up their Friday evening to help plan the event. It was genuinely inspiring to see these young women standing up and saying “we deserve better, and we demand better, and we’re damn well going to make things better.”
When I was 14 I wouldn’t have known how to define ‘feminism’, much less call myself one, let alone set up a feminist society at my school. Back in the 90s we had Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Riot Grrrl. Along came ‘girl power’ and the Spice Girls told us all that we could be powerful and have choices and still be cute if we wanted. We thought Feminism had already won ages ago and was no longer relevant to us. And then…I don’t know what happened. Did we slide backwards? Or was the idea that the battle had already been fought and won always illusory and I just never noticed the crap happening all around me? It’s certainly true that once you start seeing systemic sexism, you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere. I was deeply shaken during a recent re-watch of Buffy The Vampire Slayer to realise actually it never really was the seminal feminist text I’d always taken it to be – filled as it is with Xander’s male entitlement and a huge dollop of slut-shaming; something at the age of 14 I wouldn’t have even recognised as a concept. And yet the 14 year old girls at the meeting not only recognise it but nail it perfectly. “It’s harder for girls,” said one of them, “cos the girl gets more hate than the boy does if you have sex. Boys get supported to do it more and more and the girls just get slagged off”.
I will be at the conference gathering young people’s experiences of street harassment within our community, trying to build a picture of where it happens and how it manifests, so the data can feed in to improve safety in local harassment hot-spots.
But the conference as a whole has a much wider remit, and a much broader aim. By the end of the day the conference aims to empower all attendees to demand that their school takes the #DoingIt4TheStow ‘Our Bodies Our Future’ challenge and sign up to provide a more holistic and intersectional approach to SRE.
Our young people want better. Our young people deserve better. And as a society we have a duty to make sure that for the health and well-being of our future generations we provide better.
Changing the dynamic of society to make public spaces – both real and virtual – safer and equal for women is going to take a huge seismic level shift. And getting that big a sea-change has to start with education; with ensuring that young people have the tools to grasp concepts of equality, respect and consent at the earliest stage possible.