When I was 14 years old I was a victim of violent sexual assault. I was on holiday in Norfolk and I had gone down to the beach during the afternoon to do some sketching with my chalk pastels. A naked man, with a towel over his shoulder, approached me and stood in front of me striking poses and laughing. I tried to ignore him, but he came closer to me and gestured to me to touch his penis. I shook my head and began putting my chalk pastels back in their box. He took out a note and offered me money to touch him. I grabbed my stuff and walked away as quickly as I could, but the man followed me. He grabbed me and I pushed him away and started to run. But he was faster than me, he chased me down, threw me around like a rag doll and groped me. I had my shoes in my hand (I hadn’t had time to put them back on), and I hit him with them until he let go. I ran as fast as I could up the steps from the beach and only turned to look back once I reached the top. He was stood at the bottom, wanking himself, and screaming “Fuck me, Bitch!”.
During the period that I was campaigning full-time, an older male activist developed an obsession with me. It didn’t take much effort scrolling through the photos on his Facebook profile, half of which were of me, for anyone to realise he had an unhealthy fixation. He began following me around at events like he was a possessed dog, usually drunk with a bottle of coke, half of which was made up of vodka. You could smell the booze on him. He was known to be unreliable by other activists, as he would regularly disappear to go to the pub. Wherever we were, in a venue, on the train, at a demonstration, he would always try to stand or sit as close to me as possible. Then he started putting his hands on my bare legs and pressing himself into me. If I arrived at an event he would greet me by grabbing both my arms and kissing me on the lips. When I took my dog to events, he would take her lead and refuse to give her back to me. when I first told others what was happening and asked them to act to protect me, I was told that they couldn’t do anything because he was “alcoholic and emotionally vulnerable”. I was so terrified of him turning up, I started avoiding events where I knew he would be there.
And i’ve been harassed innumerable times online. The worst incident was an older man sending me messages that he dreamed of marrying me and having children. Who then found out my address online and started sending “gifts” and postcards to me in the post. I’ve also received all manner of lewd DMs and comments on my posts, including rape threats.
The murder of Sarah Everard and subsequent protests against gender violence and sexual harassment have left me feeling extremely anxious and distressed, probably because the traumatic memories they have triggered. I also feel extremely disempowered, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and living in Sheffield, I don’t feel able to travel to join the protests in London, yet feel a need to speak out and fight this injustice.
I have lived in Sheffield for 6 years and feel very safe here. I would frequently walk home at 10/11pm at night, sticking to well lit main roads and not feel any particular anxiety. But for the first time last week, walking a route I regularly make to my boyfriend’s house in the dark, I felt panic and anxiety take hold. I became convinced someone was following me.
Of course, this fear is statistically irrational; men are for more likely to be victims of stranger violence (1.4%) than women (0.4%), and the incidents of unknown men randomly attacking, raping and murdering a woman, although horrific, are rare. But given that I have experienced violent sexual assault by a stranger in the past, the fear is very real to me. And if that fear is powerful and widespread enough to make women across the country change their behaviour to protect themselves, then the cause needs to be addressed.
Women should be allowed to walk home at night without fearing for their lives. This should be a basic right in any decent society.
And women shouldn’t be victim blamed for male violence. “What was she wearing?”, “Why was she walking alone at night?”, “She shouldn’t have been breaking Covid-19 restrictions.” etc. Women should not be punished and restricted by the actions of men. We should be allowed to sketch on the beach if we want, we should be allowed to wear whatever clothes and make-up we like without worrying about the unwanted attention we will receive, we should be allowed to travel without a chaperone, we should have the right to walk home without being attacked.
In addition to sexual assault and gender violence, the issue of street harassment is also major concern, with 97% of 18-24 year old women having experienced sexual harassment. It is not just a minor annoyance, it is an endemic, aggressive male behaviour which serves to control women in public places. During my tour of the EU27 in 2019, I experienced street harassment in all but one country (Sweden, where I was visited for less than 24 hours). From groups of men shouting hello across the road to wolf whistling and swearing at me, the constant nature of the macho behaviour wore me down: It made me feel singled-out, isolated, intimidated, self-concious, anxious and fearful. (I wrote a blog post about my experiences, republished below, which received wide spread response – with 193 comments on the original post – mostly from women sharing similar stories or men expressing their despair that this behaviour still occurs in the 21st century)
This is not just an issue which affects European countries, I have experiences incidents of street harassment across the UK. In my home city of Sheffield, walking to an open mic night during daylight hours, a drunk man made a lewd comment about my guitar and grabbed my arm. In Oxford, I sat sketching on a bench on a sunny afternoon, in a busy public space. A man sat next to me, slowly edging closer to me, he then began rolling a spliff on the bench and touched my bare thigh. Whilst out jogging, i’ve had all manner of things yelled at me from men in cars. One man pulled up next to me, told me he had seen me out running locally with my dog (who I didn’t have with me at the time) and asked me for my number, like I was a drive-by pick up, taking advantage of an opportunity when I didn’t have a large alsation to protect me. I am eternally grateful to my dog, who can smell alcohol/drugs, for barking aggressively at men who have approached me, but I shouldn’t need a large dog with me to feel safe on the streets.
I thought this behaviour was only directed at me because I was a lone female. But on a holiday in the UK with my boyfriend, I still experienced a number of incidents of men shouting at me as they drove or walked past, and a man looking me up and down then telling my boyfriend that he’s “a very lucky guy”. Which could have been interpreted as a compliment, except that being objectified isn’t really a compliment.
In the fight against street harassment and sexual violence, we need men to take women’s side. And men need to listen and understand the situation from the woman’s perspective, and act to remediate the inequality. It’s not good enough to sit back and say “well I’ve never behaved like this myself” – we need your help and support. The men who respond with the comment “NOT ALL MEN” are contributing to the problem in the same way that the “ALL LIVES MATTER” brigade contribute to racial inequality.
Women face this constant abuse and harassment, living their lives in fear and anxiety, suffering the consequences of systemic gender inequality from birth, and are then accused by a mysoginistic culture of being “weak”, “fragile”, “lesser beings” than men. Men need to gain more awareness of their privilege and take action to address gender inequality which still proliferates throughout our patriachal society.
There is also incidents of people unfollowing female activists for speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment, with a Victorian-era “women should been seen and not heard” mentality resulting in the silencing of those “outspoken women”. I have been called misogynistic insults, including “Prima Donna”, “Little Madam”, “Attention seeker” and “self-publicist” by fellow campaigners, for the crime of making my voice heard above the crowd. Whereas male activists are frequently applauded for making virtue signalling tweets and posts about gender equality, when in reality, they have neglected opportunities to platform or support their female counterparts in any meaningful way and engaged in sexually predatory behaviour themselves.
On one occassion I was told by a university academic that I shouldn’t tweet about my experiences of street harassment because it was just a natural way for men to behave towards attractive women. I have had both men and women who have commented on my posts telling me that I should take harassment as “a compliment” and be “grateful” for the attention, or that my actions in calling it out was “stopping their sons from getting a girlfriend”. I frequently get accused of lying and “attention seeking” for calling out incidents when they occur.
When women speak out and campaign against sexual harassment, online or in public spaces, we are demanding one thing: that we are treated with the respect we deserve.
In light of recent events, I honestly wonder if we are slipping backwards on equality; with rising race, gender and class divisions as the government takes a more authoritarian grip on society and the media (which is realigning to the right). The police now seem more concerned with protecting statues and the government’s agenda than the public. I wonder what kind of country the UK is becoming? If home is somewhere you feel safe and secure, my country certainly doesn’t feel like a place that I can call home. But then I wonder where in the world does feel safe for women and girls?
Putting more lighting and CCTV in public places and plain-clothed police officers in venues isn’t going to cut it in terms of addressing the endemic issue of sexual violence and street harassment, there needs to be education and cultural change, not just increased sureveillance to catch offenders. For starts, most incidents of harassment/assault I have experienced have been in broad daylight, but more importantly, we need to stop attackers before they become criminals, women don’t appreciate being used as bait. Women needed to be provided with a safe space to talk about their experiences without shame or fear of being dismissed or accused of lying, and they need to be given a platform if they choose to speak publicly, so that others realise the truth of what is happening in British society. And men need to listen to them, but more importantly, policy makers need to listen through consultation meetings with women and survivors of sexual violence, in order to understand their lived experience and take meaningful action to protect women and girls, and educate men to change this toxic culture of misogyny.