Katie was just 15 when she first became a victim of sexual harassment – she was on the tube when an older man grabbed her by the waist and thrust his boner up against her. She tried moving carriages on the Bakerloo line train, showing the man that his unwanted attention was making her uncomfortable.
This tactic didn’t work and the man remained persistent until she threatened him, telling him she would report him to the police. Eventually, the man left her alone, jumping off the carriage in fear of her ultimatum.
“The case was taken extremely seriously, and my information regarding the individual’s age, appearance and location helped to track him down and fill in the missing pieces to thirteen other counts of assault he had done,” recalls Katie, as once she was off the tube, she spotted some policemen outside the station and told them what had happened.
In retrospect, Katie doesn’t think she would have reported the crime if the police hadn’t been so accessible at that moment in time. Neglecting the seriousness of such cases happens all the time but it was because of her that the police tied up the loose ends of a much bigger case.Katie’s is not an isolated case. Recently, Plan International UK released a set of figures showing that two out of three girls in the UK have been sexually harassed in public, 35% of girls in the UK wearing school uniforms have been sexually harassed and 15% of girls in the UK are touched, groped and grabbed every month.
“That’s why we have launched our #ISayItsNotOk campaign, to call this behaviour out because every girl has a right to move freely on the street and in public, without the fear of being intimidated and harassed,” Plan International UK’s Senior Media Officer, Hannah Gurney explained.
Gurney told Artefact that girls believe street harassment happens because there is an imbalance of power between boys and girls. They also believe, she says, this is a reason why street harassment isn’t taken more seriously and is often trivialised.
“These are not one-off incidents, this is a relentless attack on girls’ sense of safety,” she explains. Girls are feeling so unsafe that they have resorted to changing their daily routines to avoid certain public places and forms of transport. “We can no longer excuse the so-called harmless behaviour such as catcalling and wolf-whistling.”
An additional issue Gurney raises is that when girls do speak up, they are getting the message that it is their fault and that they should accept it or change their own behaviour to avoid it.
“Young people need comprehensive relationships and sex education and boys need education on gender roles and masculinity that addresses respect, consent, and the nature of gender-based violence in both intimate relationships and interactions with strangers.” Gurney explains that time should be spent helping young people understand the impact of sexual harassment in public spaces and that education is key in changing such behaviours.
Women being harassed in the street is a worldwide problem which has been brought to the media’s attention recently following recent social media campaigns such as #MeToo and #NoWomanEver.
This summer a young French activist named Marine Laguerre was attacked outside a Parisian cafe following her rebuttal when a by-passer commented on her appearance. The CCTV footage caused an outrage which started a large online campaign, #BalanceTonPorc, meaning “Expose your pig”; fighting against street harassment. As a result of this, France passed a new law in August 2018 criminalising street harassers with on-the-spot fines of up to 750 euros (£650).
“The case was taken extremely seriously, and my information regarding the individual’s age, appearance and location helped to track him down and fill in the missing pieces to thirteen other counts of assault he had done”
In September the first fine was imposed on a man on a bus just outside of Paris who slapped a woman’s derrière and commented on her appearance. He received a 300 euro (£260) fine. This is not to say this preventative method will always be effective, as Marine Laguerre’s attacker has still not been identified despite being seen on video all around the world.
But why do men behave like this? Joe is a 23 year-old man who has worked as a labourer and has been exposed to this type of behaviour, yet he says he personally hasn’t seen a lot of street harassing going on. “People will feel under pressure to get along with their colleagues. This may result in them agreeing to or ignoring things their colleagues say or do that they might not otherwise.” Joe says that from his experience there are fewer men actively doing anything when they witness other men victimising woman this way than actually doing it themselves.
Joe also says that he doesn’t believe it always comes from a malicious place. He affirms that it does not excuse this type of behaviour but some men are simply unaware, saying they might “see it as a harmless laugh and that women don’t really mind.” He adds that it could be said men act in such a way to impress each other and to make each other laugh, “however I wouldn’t say it completely explains it because just as many men, if not more, judge guys negatively for behaving this way than positively.”
Catcalls of London is a campaign mainly run through social media set up by Farah Benis. She was going through a difficult time and discovered @catcallsofnyc which had a profound impact on her and she decided to join forces, creating London’s own campaign.
“Many of the submissions I receive are from young girls between the ages of 12-16 and more often than not the aggressors are grown men.” Farah tells of her similar personal experience, how she began getting catcalled from a very young age and went through different phases of how it made her feel, but recalls one particular moment that really scared her.
“These are not one-off incidents, this is a relentless attack on girls’ sense of safety”
She was 11, in her school uniform, when two grown men in a van slowed down alongside her and shouted “obscenities” at her until she ran into a shop. These are the types of stories that young girls approach her with every day since starting the campaign.
“If a man can get away with groping a girl, or rubbing himself against her on the tube, what is to say he won’t see how much further he can go the next time?” Farah speaks about ‘gateway behaviour’ and explains how humans naturally push to see how far they can go, seeing what it is possible to get away with.
As a possible solution, Farah believes one way of helping the situation is to end aggressive behaviour at the very starting point which is forcing unwanted conversations and comments onto someone.
Featured image by Masashi Wakui via Pixabay