Last month, UN Women UK released a survey that revealed 97% of UK women aged 18–24 had experienced sexual harassment in a public space. I say “revealed,” but many of us are wondering if maybe the other 3% just didn’t realise.
The findings came out during a horrific time internationally for violence against women.
Australian politics has been shaken by rape allegations and growing evidence of a toxic, misogynistic culture inside Parliament. Nearly 4000 Australian students shared their experiences of sexual assault during or soon after school, as part of the Teach Us Consent campaign led by former Sydney private school student Chanel Contos.
In the UK, Sarah Everard was found to have been murdered, allegedly by a police officer, after being abducted as she walked home at night. A US man gunned down six Asian women in Atlanta-area spas, citing sexual frustration as his motivation.
And #notallmen has been trending the whole time.
“There are some sick people out there”
“Mental health issues”
“He was having a bad day”
We agree it’s not all men. And then we tell all women to change their behaviour. Be more careful, don’t walk alone at night, don’t get drunk, definitely don’t be a sex worker.
It may seem strange to connect getting catcalled in the street to being murdered on the way home, but actually…
“We know, and evidence around the world consistently tells us, that where gender inequality and disrespectful relationships exist, there is the possibility of violence against women and children.”
Being sexually harassed in a public space is a pretty strong example of inequality and disrespect. But it is so widely experienced, and men are so rarely held to account for it. There’s just this acceptance that it’s part of life; the complete normalisation of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies.
More than one Australian woman a week is killed by violence but it rarely even makes the news. And then every time a woman is murdered, we treat it like an isolated, unrelated incident. Just bad luck.
Make The Link by Gippsland Women’s Health
Out of anger and frustration, I did a 15 minute brainstorm of all the times I could remember being publicly harassed in my lifetime. Here it is:
- From approximately aged 12 (maybe younger) — getting yelled at out of car windows by men, using sexually explicit language and offering a ride. This happened too many times to count, and I can confirm it lessens with age which tells me that this behaviour is about intimidation, not appreciation.
- The time in the high school library, aged 15, when one of my classmates started rubbing my thigh under the desk.
- Getting my arse grabbed at parties, the footy club, at night clubs… throughout my teens and beyond; again, too many times to count. Again, it’s lessened with my increasing age and confidence. This is a power thing.
- The time I got a taxi home from my friends 21st birthday party and the driver slowed down and stopped a couple of blocks from my house, stroking my arm. I was too scared to get out and run lest I make him angry; I managed to politely convince him to keep driving to my home where I paid and got out un-raped and un-murdered but fucking terrified.
- The time at work when a man I was coaching started sitting really close to me, telling me I had nice legs and sending me creepy emails.
- The time I was watering my own back garden with my kids, and from next door a man walked up to the fence, openly staring and commenting on my body and domestic prowess. This went on for about half an hour, continuing after I retreated out of sight (not technically a public place but all the worse for the intrusion).
This list does not include any creepy online advances because holy shit. I don’t have time.
And these are just the things I can remember. When I read the list to my husband he goes “oh yeah what about that time when you were walking with your cousin in Freo and someone yelled out of a passing car show us ya pussy?” I seemed to have blocked that one and who knows what else from my memory.
I don’t want sympathy. I know most of my female friends have a similar list. This is just a normal part of life for a woman, even an educated white one with more privilege than most.
They’re not the kinds of things you report. You just modify your behaviour accordingly (as per the instructions). I shouldn’t have been so friendly to that guy at work. I shouldn’t have sat in the front seat of the taxi. I shouldn’t have been walking around the street or the club or my backyard looking so good.
And that’s the other thing that shits me. The general belief that this kind of behaviour from men affirms our attractiveness; our worth as women. As a young teenager it certainly makes you feel grown up when an older man expresses his attraction to you. We are taught it’s a compliment, but as I’ve already said, it’s actually about intimidation and entitlement. When relaying my backyard story to people (which had me quite distressed), a number of women said to me “well at least you know you’re attractive!” I know they were well-meaning, but no. That type of thinking has women all over the world attaching their self worth to the opinion of gross old men. And that is how we uphold patriarchy and capitalism.
When we laugh or brush off bad behaviour, when we tell women to stop being so dramatic, to stop taking themselves so seriously, to change their behaviour, to consider the mental health and the career prospects of men who were “just being men,” we keep strengthening the system that entitles men to women’s bodies. A system that would rather protect a man’s reputation than a women’s right to be left alone.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Derick Daily on Unsplash