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23rd November 2019

She was not asking for it: end street harassment now

Becky Mundill writes about how we need to stop being passive bystanders of street harassment, and start talking about it
She was not asking for it: end street harassment now
No harassing, MeToo Movement photo: Mark Morgan @flickr

Street harassment is defined as experiencing unwanted touching, invasions of personal space, having graphic remarks shouted at you and, in more extreme circumstances, being grabbed or flashed in a public space. It effects people from all walks of life. Whilst predominately effecting women, they are not the sole victims. The University of Manchester, alongside most universities in the UK, have a zero tolerance policy for it, so why have 75% of female students experienced an unwanted sexual experience?

It’s time that we started acknowledging what’s happening. Street harassment is a daily reality for girls, it’s victimising, humiliating, and should never be accepted. To make matters worse street harassment has no consequences for the perpetrator.

I interviewed Lorna, a 19 year old student at a university in Amsterdam. One of her many examples of her struggle with street harassment included a council construction site worker flicking his tongue while she walked out of her flat and shouting derogatory phrases in Dutch. When we discussed this experience she said that she was made to “go to class feeling utterly embarrassed, despaired and violated” while the man walked off with “no effect to his dignity.” Lorna later reported this specific incident to the police and the council. Police said there was little they could do because she had waited until after her class to make the complaint. She is still awaiting a response from the council.

It is too often that the perpetrator victimises and threatens young women with no consequences to their daily life. 66% of girls like Lorna have experienced sexual or physical contact in public in the UK and it is inexcusable that this situation has been normalised in our society.

35% of young girls are harassed just for wearing their school uniform. This is disgraceful. Girls feel unsafe in the streets, many plug in their headphones to block out harassers to make them less approachable, have fake phone calls or even create fake boyfriends to avoid a situation that it is getting out of hand. Some have even gone to greater extremes and have changed what they wear out of the house in a bid to avoid having “you alright love?”, “smile for me” or “look at that ass” shouted at them.

It’s simple. Women deserve so much better than this; we should not have to tolerate it and we should not have to change what we wear just because we have the audacity to leave the house and walk down the street.

So what can be done to rectify this? People walk past and ignore situations like these every day; in clubs, in bars, on public transport, and in the street. Quite often, girls are too flustered or shocked to call out a perpetrator, especially as it might aggravate the situation. Checking that a victim is okay or asking if they need help is better than just rushing past and ignoring it, as is often the response.

It is time to stop being a bystander. It is never a victim’s fault and it is never justified; they didn’t ask someone to follow them, to grab them or to tell them to “bend over” or shout “slut” in their face. We need to put an end to this and change our mentalities. As Lorna said: “if one person gets some sort of consequence from their actions then that’s one person who may think twice the next time they consider harassing someone”. We need to stop being silent about street harassment and start talking about it.

In 2019, nearly two decades into the new millennia and in the era of MeToo, women shouldn’t have to feel like they need to protect themselves every time they leave the house, avoid specific areas or change what they wear to avoid harassment. It is unfair, misogynistic and completely uncalled for and we must start shouting as loudly as the perpetrators.

At the very least you can sign the OurStreetsNow petition, a campaign I found on social media, to help make street harassment illegal in the UK because for some unknown reason it isn’t.

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