GFPs, like most women in the UK I have spent the last week feeling alternately shattered and furious. Remembering all the times I’ve been menaced, hassled, followed. The times I doubled back, the times I ran away, the times I hid in corner shops. The times that I ignored them and was rewarded with the “compliments” turning to verbal abuse. The times also that I tried to fight back, to defend my right to exist in the street and not be loudly and sexually assessed – and again paid for it with verbal abuse and on one occasion being chased into a pharmacy. There is no right way to be a woman in public.
This week, seeing how upset and shaken I was about the disappearance of Sarah Everard, who we now know has been killed, a police officer charged with her murder, my partner asked me what he could do to make me feel better. And the honest answer came bubbling up out of me. Take away the last twenty-seven years (because I was a lucky girl who was allowed to get through her early childhood without learning to fear men) and let me relive them without the fear. Let me experience my adolescence without being grabbed and followed. Let me as an adult woman, living on her own in London, walk home at night without that ever-present gnawing fear, those furtive checks over the shoulder, the quickening heart rate at the moving shadows. I suddenly felt so furious that this was how I had to live my life. My one life. And we spend it in fear.
When women speak about their fear of men there are a few standard responses. Many men will express shock and sadness. Others will tell you that your fear is itself the problem. After all, they say, as if this is reassuring, you are more likely to be murdered by someone you know in your own home (57% of female murder victims are killed by someone they know
). They don’t say that that “someone” is almost guaranteed to be a man. In these instances it is the man who becomes invisible. We talk about “violence against women and girls” as if it is just a natural phenomenon like a tidal wave, rather than an act committed by a human being, who nine times out of ten is male.
And sure, the statistics do tell us that men are more likely to be murdered. So why are the hysterical ladies so scared? Because the statistics aren’t telling the full story.
First of all, we are not generally comparing like with like. The reasons and ways men experience violence are not the same as the female experience. Men are more likely to be involved in gang violence, for example. But more importantly, and as I wrote in Invisible Women, the data is suffering from a major data gap. A gendered one.
Like men, women are not in general fearing murder as we walk down the street. We are fearing sexual assault. And there is plenty of reason for us to fear that. In Invisible Women I wrote about the “slew of threatening sexual behaviours” women must navigate on a daily basis.
Before we even get to the more serious offences like being assaulted, women are dealing on a daily basis with behaviours from men that make – and are often calculated to make – them feel uncomfortable. Ranging from catcalling, to being leered at, to the use of ‘sexualised slurs [and] requests for someone’s name’, none of these behaviours is criminal exactly, but they all add up to a feeling of sexual menace. A feeling of being watched. Of being in danger – and in fact these behaviours can easily escalate. Enough women have experienced the sharp shift from ‘Smile, love, it might never happen,’ to ‘Fuck you bitch why are you ignoring me?’ to being followed home and assaulted, to know that an ‘innocent’ comment from a male stranger can be anything but.
And then there are the more “serious” crimes – and I put serious in inverted commas because as I say, these behaviours easily, and often, escalate. There is no such thing as a harmless creep.
A 2016 study found that 90% of French women had been victims of sexual harassment on public transport; in May that year two men were jailed for an attempted gang rape on a Paris train. A 2016 Washington metro survey found that women were three times more likely than men to face harassment on public trans- port. In April that year a suspect was identified in an indecent exposure incident on the Washington metro; a month later he had escalated to raping a woman at knifepoint on a train. In October 2017 another repeat offender was arrested on the Washington metro: he had targeted the same victim twice
The same day that human remains were discovered in Kent woodland (formally identified as Sarah Everard on Friday), UN Women published the results of a survey
which found that 97% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Younger women reported “constantly modifying their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being objectified or attacked,” while older women reported “serious concerns about personal safety if they ever leave the house in the dark – even during the daytime in winter.”
Can confirm. Can also confirm the other finding of the report which is that women don’t report because they don’t see the point. I never reported anything that happened to me up to and including sexual assault. My only regret now in not doing so is fear that my failure to report may have prevented any dangerous men from escalating. Then again, the Met is currently under investigation for how they handled (or failed to handle) an allegation of flashing at a London restaurant two weeks ago. The man they have now charged with this crime is the same man they have charged with the murder of Sarah Everard.
There is also the too little discussed issue that there are men who know that we are scared and exploit that fear. One of the incidents that has most stuck with me was a man who, when I was walking home in a quiet residential area (in daylight), pulled up right beside me on his bike and kerb crawled me as I walked. Stopped when I stopped. Sped up when I sped up. Changed direction when I did. Waited outside the shop I had run to on back on the main street. I still feel so angry with myself for giving him the satisfaction. He probably never intended to do anything, although should I have taken that gamble? Certainly, though, he intended to scare me. To tell me that he controlled my right to walk on my own through my own residential neighbourhood. Just his choice, whether to attack me or not. I think one thing that gets lost often in this discussion is how much bigger the average man is than the average woman.
Where do we go from here? It will probably surprise no one to hear that my answer starts with collecting the data. The sexual menace that women face as they navigate public spaces is too easily ignored, because we don’t have systematic data on exactly how prevalent it is.
We don’t have the data, because women don’t report. And women don’t report because they don’t think they will be taken seriously. The onus, therefore, is on authorities around the world to change that. All transport workers and police officers must be given training in how to handle allegations of sexual assault. Every. Single. One. I don’t want to see another story of a woman, rather than the man harassing her, being told to get off the bus.
There must be mass social media and poster campaigns telling men sexual harassment will not be tolerated and telling women how to report it if it happens. Women – and the men who harass them – must know that their reports will be taken seriously. Authorities managed to get the message out that suspicious packages are to be reported and will be dealt with. They can do the same for men who harass women.
In the meantime, women, use other methods to report. I mentioned Visible Platform
in a previous newsletter – the website collecting data on sexual harassment on the London underground. Again in London there is also the Safe and the City app
– a crowdsourced map of sexual harassment in London. They also create anonymised reports for the police. Women shouldn’t have had to set these solutions up for ourselves. We shouldn’t have to develop our own data resources. But let’s use them. Make them listen. Change women’s lives.
If you live in the UK you could also respond to the government consultation
on Violence Against women and girls (that passive construction again), which they have reopened in the wake of Sarah Everard’s disappearance.
She could have been any of us. Let’s get the data. Let’s make women visible.