All women have almost certainly experienced or seen street harassment in their time. From wolf-whistling and vulgar remarks, to groping and more serious sexual assaults.
It’s a running joke amongst my friends that I get groped on the London tube more than your regular female commuter (only this week a man took a sly picture of me on his mobile), but I never exaggerate the episodes and I speak up because I feel strongly that empowerment is half the way to countering such behaviour.
Last year, Vicky Simister was followed down a dark street by a car full of men and then physically assaulted after retaliating. The police, after taking her statement, implied she’d brought on her own attack. “They were only saying nice things.”
Vicky then set about started London Anti-Street Harassment (LASH), now UK Anti-Street Harassment (ASH), a campaign to highlight the issue and give a voice to women who have experienced harassment by men in a public place.
“Having lived in London for a year and experiencing sexual harassment on an almost daily basis, I’d had enough. I set up a blog and began contacting newspapers – I wanted everyone to know about this problem. I knew other women out there felt the same way but were so often told ‘just ignore it’ or ‘take it as a compliment’,” she explains.
Since launching the campaign she has been contacted by hundreds of women – and men – with messages of support. She’s also had a good response from parliament; MP Oona King wrote the prevention of street harassment into her policy because of LASH. She’s also had backing from Diane Abbott MP and former London mayor Ken Livingstone.
Lambeth council recently launched a poster campaign in their tube stations. The posters read “Flirting/Harassment: Real Men Know The Difference”. Vicky says she would like to see more of this from all local councils, “They need to show that they don’t tolerate the harassment of their female constituents and that they take it seriously. Also, we definitely need to find a way to include men in the campaign if we want to get the message out there that street harassment is simply not acceptable.”
I told Vicky that I have often been harassed in the street and groped on the tube and failed to speak up. “Do you think there’s a culture of ‘not making a fuss’ among women?”
“Definitely. Often, women are made to feel like a bit of a ‘priss’ for feeling offended. Also, there’s a personal safety issue – what else is this person capable of doing? And when it comes to things like sexual assault, there is certainly a culture of victim-blame in our society, with only a 6% conviction rate for all reported rapes, if they get reported at all. I don’t think women are sure about their rights when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. Sexually aggressive behaviour towards women by strangers has become normalized and almost socially acceptable.”
So what are the benefits of externalising an experience on an anti-harassment website (Hollaback has websites in several worldwide cities)?
“The victim can take ownership of how she feels about her experience of harassment. It serves as an education for anyone who hasn’t experienced harassment and doesn’t know about the extent to which it is prevalent. It also provides case studies for journalists who may not otherwise cover a story about street harassment.”
Vicky doesn’t think it’s the law that needs to be changed, but the application of the current one. Local councils and police will only take the matter seriously if we all make a noise about it. “Sexual harassment should be categorized under gender-based hate speech, instead of looked upon as a bit of fun,” she says.
Even harder than changing the law, is changing perspectives. Even some women see harassment as harmless flirting. In countries like India it’s called “eve teasing”. “If we just start with policing harassment, then I doubt the perpetrators will change their views about women overnight,” Vicky says. “But perhaps we can make it ‘uncool’ to harass women. That would be some sort of progress at least. We need to get gender equality taught in schools, to change perspectives of women’s bodies as ‘fair game’ or male property.”
Vicky’s looking for women to run campaigns in their own area, contact local newspapers and generally raising awareness. You can start by adding your name to the campaign website to show that it affects you. Write to your MP. Authorities are only going to react when they feel that a sizeable portion of their constituency is affected. You can pin-point your experience on the harassment map, which shows problem areas so that local councils can address them. No matter what response I get from men and women when I talk about street harassment, I will continue to speak up.