Some things remain. Some experiences, despite their brevity, have the ability to inform indefinitely that which follows.
Several years ago I walked a short distance to the house of a friend. The route, so numbingly familiar and so comfortably usual, lent itself to the illusion of safety. Yet I was followed, definitely followed; his speed oscillating perfectly with mine. I will never forget that great cavernous, yawning gap in possibility as I turned into an alley-ridden side street. The lack of options. That feeling of having nowhere to go; ‘this is it, this is it’ click-clacking with my feet in the rain. So when I saw a couple, each in rain macs, walking a soggy dog and looking wonderfully out-of-the-situation normal I practically knocked them sideways with the force of my relief. I asked them to talk to me for a minute until the stranger had passed, who at that point turned and ran back the other way. This was an act so stark in it’s display of intent that I was simultaneously relieved at having trusted my instincts and wretched at the thought of what might have happened if there weren’t dogs to walk. I never reported this, and my telling of the experience has been until now limited to a handful of close friends who greeted me at the other end that evening, and who muted my panic with warmth and guitars and tipsiness. Part of me winces as I recount this, sharp in the knowledge that silence allows continuity and that perhaps for the next woman that slightly baffled couple were absent. In reality, though, I would know little of the man’s appearance other than in blurred flashes as my head twanged and snapped from periphery to backward glance, desperately trying to determine proximity. So I could only deal in uncertainties, in vagueness. I would have been able to tell the police that a man I could not even loosely describe was probably following me a while ago. It felt insignificant when articulated and would more than likely have been ignored. But then, had women in this area been assaulted before, or reported suspicious behaviour? Had I suddenly become the broken link, my silence the perpetuator?
It’s amazing when you think on it: I was subjected that evening to a pretty frightening ordeal. For the time it lasted there was so much fear, so much desperation that I can feel my breath catching as I pull forward the memory to write this. Yet I did, and do, tie myself up with the knotty thoughts of what I should have done, of what I did wrong. Yep, what I did wrong. This is of course a familiar and somewhat conditioned response. Women feel stupid for ‘letting’ it happen, for moving away from street lights, for going out alone, for taking up public space. Of course we all know that violence, harassment and rape are out there; out there lurking, scuffing their feet and sharing cigarettes until we forget the ‘rules’ and career blindly into their path. It is somehow perceived as a woman’s responsibility to deftly avoid sexual harassment or assault in public space. But there is also for many women a much deeper, less erroneous, sense of ambivalence towards the responsibility of speaking out: what will happen if you do or if you don’t, what it means to keep silent or to speak.
I know that I have probably until now given limited thought to how my willingness to move freely, to take up public space, has been hindered and hijacked by what has gone before. I do know that since that otherwise unremarkable autumn evening I avoid at all costs walking anywhere alone after dark: no distance is too short for my hanging-on-by-a-thread Fiesta to traverse. Yet unless I am, as now, giving credence to the potential limitations harassment places on women’s mobility, I rarely connect the two events. It wasn’t until I completed a survey on women’s safety in public spaces that I began to analyse where I go, how I act and how harassment can, in some senses, shape liberty. Coventry Women’s Voices are currently conducting this survey to gauge “the degree of concern women who live and work in Coventry have about their safety in public spaces”. The questions centre largely on harassment in public spaces, and if you live or work in Coventry I highly recommend that you take the time to fill this out. It really makes you step back and analyse those incidents which you possibly – probably – brushed off or sealed away as ‘one of those things’. Even if it made you angry. Even if it left you humiliated or questioning your validity. And you are not alone in this. The End Violence Against Women Coalition carried out a survey earlier this year, which revealed that 4 in 10 women in London have been sexually harassed in public spaces. International estimates put the figure at 80%. I would say anecdotally and logically this is closer to 100%.
As a society we do not tend to view as important the ubiquitous things, the acts that enmesh themselves with everyday life. Movements such as Hollaback! should be applauded for allowing women the space to share their experiences of street harassment and share in the collective thought that this is very much not OK. I do not think it is OK for a group of males to comment on my mother’s breasts whilst she waits for a bus. I do not think it is OK for a man to put his face so close to mine that I can feel the wetness of his spittle and then shout ‘you’re fucking gorgeous’ so aggressively that it completely nullifies any notion of a compliment. I’m also not a huge fan of being asked constantly, by men who clearly have a want of meaningful pursuits, what my name is. Like it matters. Audrey, Karen, Lisa. I’m Everywoman. There is a problem with how we view harassment in public spaces, in no small part due to the fact that many people struggle to see it as ‘harassment’ at all. It now seems to click so easily into the catch-all term ‘banter’ and so the challenging of it carries assumptions about the woman, rather than the perpetrator. You’re an uptight, histrionic, ‘women’s libber’ if you can’t absorb a few wolf whistles or kissing noises as you carry out the highly eroticised act of getting a pint of milk in your tracksuit bottoms. And this is entirely the point. The catcalling and wolf whistling, the jerky, spasmodic grabbing of sexual organs, the following, the sexual degradation, it all feels so indiscriminate, so done by rote. Such harassment is so pervasive, so entrenched, so normalised and routine that it seems completely devoid of the element it is ostensibly about: sex. Harassment of this kind does not correlate with what a woman is wearing, her age, her level of perceived attractiveness or the size of her breasts. It is not about sex, or sexiness, but it is about entitlement; about casually delivered discrimination and about how our culture carries the weight of the issue with impunity. You’re a ‘lad’, it’s a bit of harmless fun, it’s all so innocuous and trivial that we really should be turning our attention to something with infinitely more gravity.
Maybe like what you’re doing tonight, darlin’.
Acts should be judged by their effect on the recipient. If constant harassment, or fear of harassment, is limiting women’s freedom of movement, limiting their willingness and ability to direct the course of their lives as they wish, then this is a problem. I could cut vast swathes through the stomach-churningly obnoxious concept of a ‘lad culture’ but for now, suffice to say, if such virulent, hateful and vengeful language towards women is humourous and this is the kind of culture we are endorsing, or a least condoning, for young men then I don’t know what the heck is going on. Apparently these epithets, these demeaning comments, would never traverse the boundary from words to deeds. These are nice, healthy young men who are engaging in a bit of rape banter, a bit of collective gender discrimination, but it doesn’t actually mean anything because they’d never really knock their girlfriend out and then fuck her until she bled. They don’t really view women as only having as much validity as the time it takes to squeeze a breast. And they don’t actually think Chris Brown is a hero. (Please, God).
But it does mean something. It makes this kind of discourse acceptable and it perpetuates the normalisation of gender discrimination. It stretches further the myth that women are put on this planet only to have things done to them. They can be laughed at, they can be looked at, they can be shouted at, whistled at or grabbed. Women can be poked and pulled and twisted and their presence is required only to gratify. Of course I would never suggest that most men think this way; in fact I’d balk at the suggestion that all men are street harassers and devaluers of women. To suggest this is also to devalue men. Yet because a level of tolerance exists, because street harassment is rinsed in banter and laddishness and stripped of all importance it is granted continuation. People don’t consider what it actually feels like to be spoken to or touched in such an intimate way by a complete stranger; to be followed and to have your personal space and sense of safety encroached upon. People don’t consider the force and impact of these acts, made more forceful by being culturally intrinsic. For, you see, this is what men do, and this is what women receive. Few at all seem to consider how such acts, or fear of such acts, can impinge on a woman’s wellbeing. And this is why people in the street look away, or down, or at each other. Anywhere but at the problem.
I will not deny that the incident I recounted as I opened this piece arguably lies at the more sinister end of the harassment spectrum and if I had ‘merely’ been subjected to the odd unsolicited fondle or crude comment I may not so tightly adhere to the creed of never walking the streets alone after dark unless it is absolutely unavoidable. But I do still run on them. Running is my sanctuary, my little reclamation. I feel cocooned in the knowledge I am doing something positive and powerful and am breezing past so quickly that the comments barely have time to zing off my back. Of course I have had harassment: I have had people follow me on bikes and in cars, blocking my path or commenting on my arse. I have chosen to ignore them, because I am busy doing something I love. In a strange way my inclination to challenge street harassment is probably inversely proportionate to my awareness of gender inequality and women’s issues. In my teens and early twenties I would fire back. I was defiant and vociferous. As I have aged I have come to realise, and indeed witnessed, the harm that can come from answering back. I cannot predict the vagaries of street harassers and, if I am being candid, would never challenge harassment if I were walking along in the company of men. They probably don’t hit ladies, you see. And I’ve had enough of violence.
The survey asked what I thought could be done to make women safer. I blathered on a bit about some things that might make women feel safer, and give them a bit more light and company. But maybe these things are illusory. So afterwards, and over the next few days, as I thought more and spoke about this to the people I love and admire and respect, I realised that this feeds into other debates around awareness (re)education and responsibility. We need more awareness of the level of harassment women face on a daily basis; we need education in schools about respect, and gender equality and how what you say to a woman or girl can – out there in the world – mean a hell of a lot more than you meant it to. Teenagers and ‘lads’ need reminding that the world is not divided into two types of women: the nasty ones it is OK to denigrate and the nice ones you protect. Shifting attitudes can take time, but campaigns highlighting the issue and more people talking about what street harassment implies for our society can only be for the good. People should be encouraged to challenge the open and public discrimination of women. I have set out the reasons why many would not challenge directly the behaviour of a stranger, or group of strangers, and I do not think fear of violence should be shrugged off as an ‘excuse’ for remaining silent. But if we are talking about the issue more and challenging it through debate and discussion and just plain old visibility it will trickle in among the gaps within tight friendship and peer groups. Friends can remind each other that ‘bitch’ is not an acceptable epithet for a woman and ask each other if they’d be happy if a stranger grabbed their sister’s breasts whilst she was getting off the number 21 because that top she was wearing made her look like she was in the nasty half.
It will take time and many people will still suggest I have just created a linguistic mountain out of nothing. I would say to them that street harassment is one branch, one connection, of a sprawling problem. I am not being alarmist when I say you can connect the dots between objectification of women in our popular media, pornography, ‘lad’ culture, domestic violence, sexual violence and street harassment. I am not saying one leads to another or you can’t be involved in one without being involved in them all. I am saying that perhaps that gap between words and deeds is not immutable and we should not assume it is so. If we assume then we cease to notice. Cease to pay attention. And in the case of street harassment we need everybody looking.
*** I encourage any Coventry women to now fill out the Coventry Women’s Voices survey and help them with this important piece of research.***