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Public Sexual Harassment Series Part 1: De-normalising the Societal ‘Normal’

Illustration: Ana Pau B. Leon @theworldinposters

Trigger warning: sexual harassment, assault and violence.

For womxn, experiencing public sexual harassment is both relentless and commonplace. The explosiveness of the #MeToo movement opened a new dialogue about sexual harassment and assault within both elite and localised circles. However, public sexual harassment remains normalised, and the reflection of these everyday experiences in the mainstream media has lost momentum.

Cultural shifts begin with people coming forward to boldly share their stories, which will inform and educate others who are not already exposed to these experiences. Thus, the dialogue needs to go further to sustain momentum in the campaign to encourage education, action and change against sexual harassment.

After writing two articles about public sexual harassment, I came to two central conclusions about the societal plight of public sexual harassment. First, to overcome the societal norms which oppress womxn, men need to empower womxn by showing solidarity in challenging other men when they witness this behaviour. Second, the government authorities have failed to secure the rights of womxn facing these experiences, despite select committee research and parliament reports.

To be clear, the use of the word ‘womxn’ here, aims to avoid the spelling ‘woman’ which derives from men and reflects patriarchy. Although widely debated, the word is used by some feminists to include transgender womxn and some non-binary indviduals, who have been excluded from mainstream feminism for too long.

Initially, starting this series came from a place of complete anger, which would increase every time a horn was honked at me, or a hand was swiped over my backside. After publishing these articles, the feedback from womxn was both empowering and supportive whilst many of the responses from men readers were ones characterised by shock and sometimes disbelief.

Womxn are still having to expend a significant amount of emotional labour to explain and justify their personal experiences to the men around them. Therefore, I created an anonymous online questionnaire to open up a safe space for womxn to share their experiences of public sexual harassment. I was left inspired by the openness and transparency of the womxn who shared their stories.

Due to the volume of responses from the questionnaire, this will be a three-part series of articles which will address the different levels of sexual harassment of different severities. All questionnaire responses will be included throughout the series. The aim of this series is to raise awareness of these experiences, educate others and contribute the dialogue behind de-normalising public sexual harassment.

Street harassment is a human rights issue that reflects societal discrimination, which can be committed on multiple grounds, from race to disability to sexuality. These forms of intrusion are about control and power. It’s important to remember that non-binary, LGBTQIA+ people face higher rates of stigmatisation and marginalisation, which put them at greater risk for sexual harassment and assault in comparison to a cisgender, heterosexual person. Stonewall has reported that two in five transgender people have experienced hate crimes or harassment incidents, due to the stigmatisation of their gender identity.

Moreover, the experiences of BIPOC womxn face an intersection of both racism and sexism, and Black womxn particularly experience misogynoir - this must always be at the forefront of our feminism and discussions about public sexual harassment in order for real progress to happen.

The accounts below are the unedited experiences of womxn respondents, every experience and voice is valid, your role as a reader is to accept and listen.

Whilst sexual harassment is widely debated under the category of a ‘womxn’s issue’, the problem does not lie with womxn. It exists as a symptom of a society which permits and normalises this behaviour, allowing men to think that womxn’s bodies are up for the taking. It has become womxns burden to dismantle.

One frequently recurring response in the questionnaire, along the lines of “I’ve experienced so many unwanted sexual advances upon me that it’s difficult to pinpoint one,” demonstrates the unremitting nature of these experiences.

In 2018, a UK parliament committee report revealed 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public spaces. The normalisation of this frequent behaviour which includes; leering, catcalling, gestures, honking, exposure, following, touching and violence, along with many more, has become something which womxn endure on a daily basis, in places where it is difficult to seek refuge.

When womxn speak out about sexual harassment, the outcome of these debates frequently become predictable and exhausting, particularly when men decide to play devil’s advocate in these discussions. Common rebuttals such ‘not all men do it’ or ‘women sometimes lie,’ derail any possibility of solidarity or productive interaction. The questionnaire responses below, exemplify victim blaming in its most common light: placing blame on the womxn’s clothing choices as responsible for ‘encouraging’ unwanted sexual attention.

“The first of many notable instances was when I was 14 and I was at a small festival with my friends. A very drunk middle-aged man dressed up as a pirate came towards me and suddenly started trying to pull my shirt off me without warning. His friends pointed and laughed and then after about fifteen minutes of him grabbing at me pulled him away, still laughing. When I told my friends dad what had happened, he told me it was because I had been wearing shorts and a crop top.”

“I’ve had quite a few experiences of men harassing me on a night out - things like touching my lower back, grabbing me to dance on them etc - but I used to discard these experiences as ‘normal’ in the context. Since then I’ve learned that it was never okay and I never should have treated it as such. A big thing that happened to me was when I used to live at Moonraker (King’s accom) over summer and one night I was walking back from Waterloo station by myself, around 10pm. I went down a road and all of a sudden I was grabbed by a man sat in his car in the dark. He kept pulling me and I felt like he was trying to get me in the car. In my shock, I wasn’t able to scream and I felt so paralysed and at his mercy. He was grabbing my throat and punched the side of my jaw. Luckily after what seemed like a lifetime but was maybe around a minute, I saw some car lights down the end of the road and while we were both looking at the car I was able to free myself of his grasp and run away. I was left with scraped knees, a bruised jaw and marks around my neck. It scares me to think of how much worse this could have been if I wasn’t able to run away. A male friend told me later that same night that I probably shouldn’t have been wearing a skirt. Suffice to say I don’t talk to him anymore lol.”

When a womxn speaks up about being sexually harassed or assaulted, there will always be people who argue that the womxn incited or invited it. Although these experiences above are shocking and vastly different, the key similarity across both stories is the role of the male person, who the womxn seeks to confide in after the incident, who instead attributes blame to the womxn for their clothing choice, instead of blaming the actions of the perpetrator. This represents the ways in which men hypersexualise womxn’s bodies and weaponise them against womxn, even if they're considered a close friend or responsible adult, like in the accounts above.

Contrary to this commonly perceived idea that clothing choices solicit sexual attention, for all of the experiences that happen when a womxn is wearing something considered ‘provocative’ - there will be countless experiences where the womxn is wearing clothing that is seemingly ‘unprovocative.’ This shows that it’s never about a womxn’s clothing choice, but all about men exerting their dominance over womxn and seeing an opportunity to exploit this power dynamic.

“Although I’ve experienced many occasions of sexual harassment in public, many of which when I was in my school uniform, there’s one that stands out for me. I was walking back from the gym, I was 17 at the time, in some gym leggings and a jumper. There was a van stopped at the traffic light and three men all shouted through their open window for me to get in the van with them. I said no. They was telling me I was sexy and that I should get in the van with them. In fear I told them I was only 15 (which was a lie) in hopes they would leave me alone. Instead they continued asking me to get in the van. I was still walking away at this point. I told them to fuck off and walked even faster home. They then turned the van around to follow me in the direction I was walking. I was so scared and called my boyfriend and told him what was going on. They kept shouting things out the window about my body and what they would like to do to me. I then screamed help in hopes they would leave. Thankfully they drove off.”

Society has conditioned us to believe that our outfit choices may incite unwanted sexual attention. Growing up, parents may have told us that certain clothing items were ‘inappropriate’ which might ‘attract the wrong attention’. Although this came from a place of love in order to protect us, we can’t continue raising young girls teaching them to change their behaviour, clothing choices and sometimes daily routines, in order to avoid unwanted sexual attention from men. Instead, boys need to be educated on de-sexualising womxn’s bodies from a young age.

“I was walking to a busstop in town in the afternoon and a car with two men in it honked their horn at me. I ignored it and went to cross the road, but then they drove up in front of me, blocking my path across. One of the men rolled down his window, leant out and wolfwhistled at me. I didn't really know what to do but I was angry so I just flipped them off and they laughed and drove away. When I told my parents about it, my mum said I shouldn't have got angry because it might escalate things. My dad said I should take it as a compliment.”

Another societal myth, that accompanies public sexual harassment is its association with courtship. Womxn are encouraged, usually by men, to see unwanted sexual advances as ‘flattery’ or a ‘compliment.’ This is yet another form of gaslighting which obscures male accountability from the narrative, and seeks to make the womxn look ‘dramatic’ for even considering the experience to be anything more than a ‘romantic gesture.’

The man may not think a cat call or a prolonged gaze is dangerous but the womxn on the receiving end doesn’t know whether that unwanted attention is the end of the encounter, or if it is going to become something more threatening. This is where the flight or fight mode sets in, which is a psychological reaction someone can experience when an event seems stressful or frightening. The mental trauma which stems from these experiences is exhausting, where each independent outing can become analysed and questioned down to; travel routes, timings or whether venturing outside is even worth the anxiety or trauma from experiencing harassment again.

A Cornell University and Hollaback! study has revealed that public sexual harassment has far reaching consequences; women and girls may change their clothing, take different routes home, can avoid socialising at night entirely, and may even consider changing their jobs or homes because of it.

“I am a confident person but have become very anxious that people are looking at me when I'm walking or cycling places. Always scared that someone is following me if I think a car is taking too long to overtake me when I'm on my bike. Men will never know how much this effects our daily lives.”

“I was walking home from the train station after school about 4pm, very obviously in my school uniform. As I was passing down a main road two men in a white van drove up behind me catcalling me and making comments about my body despite the fact I was clearly underage. It scared me so much having never experienced anything like that. for months after when I walked home I could never relax, keeping my blazer on no matter how hot it was and hyper aware of my body and my surroundings.”

“The first time I experience sexual harassment was when I was 11 and I was walking through a theme park and a group of boys probably about 16 or 17 started shouting rude things at me, I didn’t totally understand what they meant at the time but I was really uncomfortable so just tried walking away but they started walking behind me. Although I didn’t really understand everything they meant I felt horrible I never wore the outfit again just incase someone said anything even though I was just an 11 year old wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Sadly this wasn’t the only time and I’ve had many other experiences with men shouting at me or coming up to me and touching me when I don’t want if I’m out. Or pulling over in their cars and cat calling me. I’m always just as uncomfortable as the first time and it makes me so anxious I don’t really go out in public on my own anymore.”

The societal level of sexual harassment represents the origins of gender power dynamics in its rawest form which perpetuate the normalisation of public sexual harassment. Educating men about unlearning misogyny is paramount to moving forward in making public spaces safer for womxn and non-binary people, where they no longer have to be blamed for something that happens by simply walking down the street.

Read more experiences shared via the questionnaire:

“There are so many stories it’s hard to even pick one - I think the ones that stand out to me are the ones that occurred when I was younger, like when I was 12 and I first grew boobs that I was totally uncomfortable with and this random boy (age 15/16) shouted something quite vulgar about them to me, or ones were I thought it was most unnecessary & odd, like when I stood outside the pub I work at yesterday in dungarees cleaning a speaker filter and got shouted at by men in vans or approached on 3 separate occasions. Overall I think the more it happens the more I realise it has nothing to do with how objectively “pretty” you may or may not be, or how much skin is exposed, which position you’re in, how much makeup you’re wearing, or the “air” you’re giving off. All off it is about exerting power over me when I have no choice but to hear it.”

“My first memorable experience of sexual harassment was at a festival when I was 14. I was there with 3 of my friends and two parents. A man who was significantly older put his hands up my playsuit and attempted to perform a sexual act on me. I was left feeling confused and unsafe. I never brought the story up to people because I knew that I’d be told ‘well you were 14 at a festival, you had to know that it was never a good idea or safe? Of course older men are going to take advantage of you’. Now I look back on that and just think WTF. Seriously WTF. How at the age of 14 had society already coerced me into believing men’s violent and degrading actions towards women was somehow the women’s fault?”

“Majority of the times I have been harassed is when I’ve been in my school uniform. I find it crazy how some of my male friends have only just been aware of how catcalling is actually real.”

“I was enjoying my time standing amongst the audience, when I felt someone grab my backside so aggressively that it left a bruise. I turned around immediately to try and see who it was, because I felt strong enough to confront them about it. When I turned around, I saw a wall of around ten men just standing there, staring back at my face. For a second, I just thought how could no one have seen what just happened, and how could no one have at least tried to stop it. To this day, I still have no idea who did it and I had to live with that bruise for days following. The perpetrator probably never even saw my face. He saw my backside and still thought it was OK to do what he did. It was unexpected and unwanted. I was pretty angry afterwards, but since no action had been taken following similar cases in the past, I guess I had to move on.”

“At 19, I was in a cab in Lebanon and chose to sit in the front seat (not a wise decision on my end). The taxi driver pinched my butt. A couple of my friends were also with me, so I didn’t want to speak up and “make a scene.” In the moment I didn’t think much of it, but once I got back to my hostel, I sobbed for 2 hours straight. I felt extremely violated. My most recent encounter, at age 20, happened in a club. A guy had offered to buy me a drink, which I agreed to. As the bartender was pouring our drinks, he slapped my butt-quite hard. In public. The act itself wasn’t that painful. But I was furious from both the humiliation and entitlement of the guy, who genuinely believed that buying me a drink would warrant such action. After my above experiences, I had enough courage to call him out for it. To make HIM uncomfortable in the same way that he made me uncomfortable. A guy buying a girl a drink does NOT mean that the girl is interested in getting intimate with him, yet boys continue to act like it does.”

“Any time I walk alone on a busy street I’ll have at least one car beep at me.”

“Hi, I’ve had quite a few experiences which is really sad to share. I remember the first time being when I would walk home from school - whilst in my uniform. Men in vans would whistle out the window and stare/shout when they drove past. I was 14/15 around then. As I started college, similar things would happen when walking to get the bus home or walking through town to meet friends. Men would stare at my chest or my bum as I walked past - I was 17/18 then. Then when I started going out as an 18 year year old, men would follow me and my friends around on nights out. Especially when me and my friends would be dancing, they would come up behind us and grab us waists and try and whisper in our ear. On several occasions in the local bar we went to, we had to ask the owners to move certain men away from us or ask them to leave. This was a common occurrence. I hate getting any public transport by myself, even if I’m with a group of people. One time a boy was sat opposite me and was taking snapchat pictures of my cleavage as I could see in the reflection in the window - I was with my Dad at this point. On two separate occasions when I got the train by myself, men approached me on the train. I would say I’m going to visit my boyfriend or my friends. They would continue to ask invasive questions like asking where I was going to specifically and what I was going to do. On at least three occasions whilst being out at social events with friends, I have had random men slap my bum and then walk off. On around 5/6 occasions (maybe more) with some with previous partners and a boyfriend - I forced into sex without my consent as well as other sexual acts.”

“I was 15 and on my own on a train in the day time, three men a few years older than me stared at me for the whole journey. I could hear them talking about and when I got up they all stood closely behind me and whispered in my ear that I didn’t just have a pretty face. Then proceed to follow me down the road until I finally reached my friends house.”

“A particular time I can think of (one of many as sadly it’s seems to be something that happens often) was walking through Chichester on a Saturday evening, still light outside as it was summer. My sister and I were on the way to meet some friends at a bar and we walked through a group of men who were probably around 10+ years older than I was. One of them groped my chest and all of his friends laughed. I turned around to retaliate but by then a crowd had come by and I no longer saw who did it. I had spent the rest of my night out feeling so miserable and violated, yet unfortunately not shocked.”

“I was working in a pub/restaurant when a well-off group of about 10 men walked in and wished to have a meal. My boss told me to look after them as they spent a lot of money when they came in and usually tipped very well. They got fairly drunk as the evening went on and began to call me over to the table unnecessarily so they could “look at me”, telling me “I’d definitely have a bit, if only I was a bit younger”. This type of heckling went on the whole night before taking the final bill over to the table. The main guy (who I’m guessing paid the full bill) told me “in order for me to tip you well, you need to apologise to me and give me a kiss”, he was pointing at his cheek. When I refused he then said “well I’m not tipping you then”. I replied saying that was absolutely fine if he felt he didn’t wish to tip. He then said “right now you need to apologise to me and then I’ll give you this”, he pulled out a £50 note. By this point I didn’t want his dirty money, I just wanted them to leave. When I politely declined the tip, he paid up the bill and just as I was walking away, he slammed a £5 noted down on the table and shouted to me “take that, that’s all your worth”, as his group of dirty mates all laughed. I have never felt as humiliated and belittled like that in all my life. I told my boss that if they ever came in to eat again, I would refuse to serve them. This group of men are fairly high up in the *company name redacted*.”

“Security guard at work would follow me around and make inappropriate comments- which quickly escalated to him filming me on cctv and zooming in on me.”

“my first night out for freshers i was catcalled in the street while walking to the club. i was so uncomfortable and it made me feel really unwelcome in the place that i had just moved to. i havent worn the outfit i was wearing out since cos i dont want a similar experience.”

“Catcalling in school uniform when obviously underage on the way to and from school; followed home in the dark with a friend and hearing the guy on the phone behind us telling his friends that there were two girls he was following and the friend should meet him to presumably harass us!”

“When I was 14 I went to a music event. Men over the age of 40 thought it was acceptable to grab my bum and one man even put his hand up my dress to touch me. I felt too scared, shocked and uncomfortable to do anything. This is only one experience out of MANY. The crazy thing is, is that I used to get more harassment in public when I was 13-17 than I do now in my 20’s. Maybe it’s because they think that the younger you are, the less likely you will say something, which is a scary thought. (Only this morning I was walking to work and at half 7 in the morning and a man started shouting at me saying he wants me etc) .”

“Numerous cat calls, whistles, Ive had my boob grabbed in the street before randomly as well as my butt. Boys in clubs taking things way too far and touching you all over. Even just being stared at by men in cars when walking by on the pavement still feels horrible and creepy, although they aren’t touching you their presence is still threatening and always incredibly uncomfortable, often used to feel like this walking in my school uniform facing the traffic jam behind my bus after getting off at my stop. Literally gross.”

“At 13/14 before I was about to go on my very first date with the first boy I’d ever liked I had a man grope me on the bus on the way there sliding his hand up my leg and to my crotch. About a year later I had a man pleasure himself while standing watching me at another bus stop. More recently on the street outside my house I have had a man try to kiss me. I am also regularly catcalled when trying to go for a run or bike ride.”

“I’ve been touched inappropriately on a bus. It was midday and the downstairs area was crowded when I first arrived so the only seat available was next to this older man. Suddenly I felt something under my butt and I realised he was sliding his hand underneath. I moved chairs but didn’t say anything, I was so angry and disgusted and scared. I wish I said something. I’ve also been groped in numerous clubs around London and harassed on the street with inappropriate and unwanted comments.”

*more responses will be shared in the following articles*


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Edited by Halim Kim, Editor-In-Chief

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