Content warnings: sexual harassment, SA, mentions of r*pe, violence
97% of women aged 18-24 in the UK experienced sexual harassment, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit. When UN Women UK published the report on March 10th, and its highlights flooded my various social media feeds, I reacted with bitter smugness, a rueful headshake, and a dark ha, what else did you think? What, you guys do know any women who don’t have a story about sexual harassment? My most recent one occurred last week: I caught accidental eye contact with a man in a group of loud drunks while walking back home from a friend’s birthday at 7pm. He shouted at me, said something to one of his pals, and a minute later they were following me down the alley, catching up to me and screaming things I don’t want to recall, and I had to merge into a crowd at a random bus stop to get rid of them. I texted my friends, received a share of “oh not again-s”, got myself a tea, and finally reached home, mostly numb except for crashing exhaustion.
As I’m writing this, I am less than ten days removed from the last time I turned my music off, clutched my keys in my coat pocket, and feverishly debated whether it would be more damning to look over my shoulder and trigger interaction, or remain unaware of the voice’s exact position, for maybe the twentieth time in my twenty years of life. (Somehow, you always expect it, but you’re never prepared for it.) So, yeah, just ask your gal pals - we’ve all been intimidated, catcalled, followed, touched. But the internet kept circling back, and the report kept gravitating my way, and it took me a minute to register, but it clicks now: it’s not a response of shock. It’s one of anger.
No one is surprised that these things happen. However, now that the scale of it is so clearly mapped out for us, right after Women's Day and by the Sarah Everard case, the awareness of its severe and frequent occurrence is reaching new highs. We’re not surprised, but we’re suddenly very conscious, and we’re furious. And I think we all know who it is that we’re furious at.
There is an Instagram post going around. The account, @/girlsagainstoppresion, asked its female followers what they would do, if there were just no men for a day. The most common answer was what I immediately thought about too: go for a walk alone, after dark. Then there was a hike. A night spent stargazing. A day trip, alone. And those stopped me in my tracks, because I thought, I sure as hell would never do any of that. But if you had asked me “why wouldn’t you go on a hike alone?” just a month ago, I don’t think I would have mentioned men. I would have just said, “I’d be afraid that someone would try to hurt me”. But this hypothetical “someone” I’m afraid of is never a woman.
It came to me annoyingly late, but when I say “I’d be afraid to be out at night alone” what I mean is: “I’d be afraid a man would hurt me if I went out at night alone”.
When I say, “I’d be afraid to travel alone”, it comes down to:“I’d be afraid that if I travelled alone, a man would find out I’m on my own, and used that knowledge to hurt me”.
When I get a “let me know once you’re home x” text, I might as well get a text that reads: “let me know if you weren’t hurt by a man on your way back”.
Every time we talk about how dangerous the world is, how much you have to look out for yourself, we don’t mean the world –we mean the extent of normalised gendered violence. And frankly, I don’t think that will ever change if we refuse to admit that we know where the issue lies, that there is a pattern, and that this pattern is real, traceable, and constant.
We need to say that it’s men. We don’t need to say it’s all men, necessarily, but we need to acknowledge that it is, in fact, men. We need to acknowledge it for the human rights crisis that it is; for the terrible, awful abomination that has over half of the population anxious, calculating, alert every time they leave their houses, and occasionally in those houses, too. We need to admit that there are some fundamental issues in how we socialise boys, that prevents our girls from ever feeling safe. We need to focus on men, because focusing on women is time and time again proven to not be enough.
The @/girlsagainstoppression account I mentioned turned out to be a South African organisation working nationally, and I am a white Eastern European who has never stepped a foot any further south than Turkey. If you look at the comments, women from literally all around the world have banded together despite their geographical location to solemnly nod. It’s always not all men, but it’s enough men for it to be all women, everywhere. It’s enough men for it to be a systemic problem, an issue that is cultural as much as it is social, as much as it is political, and one that is global, too.
Remember that joke? If you have 1300 good cops, and 12 bastard cops, but the good cops cover for the bastard cops, you have 1312 bastard cops? Now do your own math.
And if you want to be technical, sure, there are men who don’t scare me. There are men that I trust, men that I would let walk me home, men that I could spend time one on one with in a secluded corner without feeling the fight-or-flight shimmering under my skin. But when I try to count them, I can’t get to ten, and out of those less than ten, every single one has been building this credit for years. And when I tell them I’m terrified of men, they know there’s nothing personal behind it. It’s actually quite simple: you say you’re scared of dogs, and I don’t claim that you hate my eight-year-old German shepherd who gets anxious when the rain gets too loud. You’ve learnt a pattern: this entity has a potential to inflict a major harm on you; a harm that you don’t know how you would cope with, so your first instinct is to stay away. And four years ago, when I found out that this charming guy, I was so annoyed to be dragged away from, raped a girl in a club bathroom less than an hour after my friends made me leave the party, I started to learn my patterns, too.
As a woman, I’m told that men are not my enemy but when I walk down the street a tick after dark—be it my hometown of ten thousand people or London, be it 2am or 4pm—it surely feels like they are. As a feminist, I’m told that men are not my enemy, but I’m never told who exactly I am fighting, then. If you say “patriarchy”, you need to think of how it still prevails. If you say, “the capital”, you need to think about who wields it. If you say, “the system”, you entirely ignore the forces that created it. There is no answer to the question of who is responsible for femicide that doesn’t come down to that: men are. Power dynamics are all unique in their complexities, but just like you can’t get around the fact that white people created and uphold white supremacy, and that straight people created and uphold heteronormativity, you cannot address the issue of women’s rights without tracing back to who made the fight for them necessary in the first place. Talk about your class traitors and Serenas Waterfords all you want, but you cannot blame a victim for being manipulated.
If that narrative makes men personally uncomfortable, I’m glad it does. We need you to feel uncomfortable, and we need this discomfort to push you into action, and reposting these “protect your daughter/educate your son” graphics on Instagram is sweet, sure, but it doesn’t cut it. If your support now comes down to the promise that you’re a nice guy, and if you ever have a son, you’ll tell him that I’m human, too, it’s tokenish at best, because until this hypothetical kid grows up feminist and respectful, we still need to walk these streets. Meanwhile, I’m terrified of your uni flatmate, who’s an engaged paediatrician now, and must be aware that he can do whatever he wants to me. When a push comes to shove, it goes down to his word against mine, and he's a handsome, promising young man with an established, respectful career. So please, do educate your sons, but before that, educate your fathers. Educate your cousins, your co-workers, and first of all, educate your mates, because those men that make me second guess every outing that would have me alone after dark must be somebody’s mates. We can’t afford to wait for a generational change.
We have a line where I come from, one that we write on our banners and scream on the streets: ani jednej więcej. When you say it out loud, it always sounds as if it is said through gritted teeth. It translates literally to “not a single one more”, but numerals can be gendered in Polish, so a more accurate translation is “not a single woman more”. It’s desperate, and worn off, and kind of raw in its simplicity, and never true. It won’t be true for a while now, I’m certain, but we’ll keep saying it anyway. Oddly enough, there’s also a sort of tentative hope to it.
I take a sort of grim satisfaction from the fact that this report came out during Women’s History Month, as a loud reminder that women’s history is one of struggle, fear, and so much persistence. Let this remind us that we celebrate accomplishments, but most of all, we celebrate survival. Let us remember that while we’ve never been more “equal” by past standards, we’re still deprived of so much. This year, we think of Alyssa Carsons and Michelle Obamas, but we think of Sarah Everards, too. We think of all the nameless, the voiceless, the lost –those we haven’t seen in so long, and who won’t be seen again. For every #girlboss out there, there’s countless sacrifice that allowed them to get where they are, and maybe this is the time this sacrifice takes centre stage again.
This year, there’s flowers, but we demand bread, too. As I watch millions of people who walk out into March’s chill under the slogan “reclaim these streets”, I let myself believe that eventually, we will.
[Sources compiled by Strand Magazine | Infographic design by Sarah Mukaty]
Edited by Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar, Editor in Chief