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Word on the Empty Street: Public Sexual Harassment in Lockdown

Illustration by Sravya Attaluri | @sravya_attaluri on Instagram

On the pre-lockdown streets, experiencing casual sexual harassment in public was uncomfortable. From days wearing my school uniform to a university student, being catcalled or sexually harassed has for me, been commonplace. However, there was a high possibility that someone nearby could help, which would give me a small sense of security.

Now, amidst lockdown: one of the most obvious changes to daily life is the emptiness of the streets. With public spaces deserted, the sense of the discomfort these, albeit more infrequent experiences can bring, has dramatically increased. For any individual experiencing street harassment who feels unsafe, it is now more frightening due to the lack of places to escape to.

Now is time of heightened anxiety where women are already coping with the universal anxiety of going into public space in fear of catching Covid-19, let alone the fear of facing public sexual harassment.

Following on from my casual harassment diary published in February, I intended to record my experiences over the course of the year - in the busyness of pre-lockdown life in London. I shared experiences of being touched in public without consent, being catcalled and shouted at - to name a few. Inevitably, the pause on normality has altered this.

Now, I am obviously not going clubbing, or venturing very far from home. Of course, there is some sort of ‘silver lining’ accompanying the two-metres social distancing rule, some perpetrators won’t come close and only leaving the house for one hour a day significantly decreases the frequency of encountering public sexual harassment.

However, despite the distinct changes to daily life, no matter how infrequently women may leave the house, public sexual harassment still happens. Plan International UK has reported that 1 in 5 girls (aged 14-21) have experienced street harassment during lockdown. Women are tired of harassment being a ‘normal’ part of being a girl and this hasn’t gone away despite the lockdown.

In the UK, social distancing measures allow leaving the house only for our daily exercise or essential errands; alone or with a household member. The feeling of loneliness, seeing no others around, when being harassed is something even more distressing than before. It seems that the lack of people around, and therefore the lack of societal accountability, allows those who do publicly harass women, to do so more easily.

We are in the middle of a pandemic, and some men are continuing to catcall and harass women in public. With gyms and exercise spaces closed, we are forced to exercise outside more. I have found going for a run can especially bring some intense leering. Admittedly, even seeing someone leer at me from their car window, whilst I’m trying to complete my 5k running challenge, is enough to discourage me from doing it again.

A recurring thought process which is widely synonymous with experiences public sexual harassment is questioning whether to change your daily activities or routines, to avoid these experiences happening again. In pre-lockdown, I stopped getting Uber pools alone because of a specific incident. Now, I am refraining from outdoor exercise at the thought of someone catcalling me on the empty streets. In a pre-lockdown space, most times I would have publicly 'called them out', but I wouldn’t take that risk when there’s nobody else around.

Whilst sexual harassment is an unlawful discrimination under the 2010 Equality Act, this doesn’t apply to public sexual harassment. In 2018, a UK parliament committee report presented a survey which revealed 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public spaces. Despite these committee reports, there is still no official outlawing of sexual harassment of girls and women in public spaces.

The inability of the government to recognise street harassment as illegal exposes more broadly; the lack seriousness given to the issue, and the long-term systemic ignorance of policy makers towards not only women’s experiences, but the experiences of LGBTQ+ people who also face public sexual harassment.

If the government placed the same fines on public harassment as they do on littering or dropping a cigarette, this would by no means eradicate the problem but would serve to deter some and attempt to track the individuals who are continually reported.

Campaign group Our Streets Now are demanding the rights of women and girls to feel and be safe in public space, by calling the government to legislate public sexual harassment as a crime.

The campaign focuses on vocalising women’s experiences to raise broader public awareness. In my previous article, responses I received from men readers were characterised my shock and sometimes disbelief; ‘I can’t believe this has happened to you’, ‘I had no idea’ or - ‘I thought it happened, but not this much’. Educating others on women’s and LGBTQ+ peoples experiences, who may not be exposed to them is paramount.

The Everyday Sexism Project aims to catalogue instances of sexism experienced on a daily basis through anonymous forum submissions. Indeed, it is still only a small proportion of women who have the access or privilege to share their stories. Research and data collection remains critical in getting the attention of policy makers. If we started recording and sharing our experiences with campaign and pressure groups - when feeling safe and comfortable enough to do so – it be progress in a positive direction.

I acknowledge that there is no magic button that will stop this issue, these experiences have been universal to women throughout history. But now is the time to form a clear message to the government and men in general to support us– we will not tolerate this anymore, no matter the circumstances.

You can sign Our Streets Now petition to make public sexual harassment illegal here.

You can submit an anonymous story of a personal experiences to the Everyday Sexism Project here.

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