Why We Have to Make a Fuss About Women’s Safety and Sexual Harassment
Back at the height of the #metoo movement, when millions of women around the world were tweeting their accounts of sexual harassment and abuse, I scrolled with horror through the various messages that appeared under the hashtag, but I didn’t post one of my own: not because I didn’t support the movement, or believe the women involved in it, but because, quite simply, I didn’t think I had a story to share.
That was 2017, and I genuinely didn’t think I had experienced sexual harassment: or not really, anyway. Not in the kind of way that the women who were now filling my timeline with one horrific account after another had, so I stayed silent, and did not add my voice to the many others out there: I just didn’t feel I had a right to.
Then, this week, the disappearance of Sarah Everard hit the headlines, and, like many of you, I found myself filled with both profound sadness and blistering rage that this kind of thing can happen. It’s far from the first case of its kind, of course – and we know it won’t be the last – but I think the reason Sarah’s story has hit so close to home for many of us comes from the simple fact that Sarah Everard IS us. What happened to her could have happened to any one of the many women who have walked home terrified alone – and that’s pretty much ALL of us – and, the more I thought about that, the more I started to wonder why I hadn’t felt that my own experiences of that were important enough to count.
I thought about the time when I was 17 years old, walking home from school. I had just turned into my own street, and was only a few minutes from home, when a car pulled up alongside me, and started to follow me: the male driver pulling as close as possible to the pavement I was walking on, and rolling down his window to leer at me as he drove. He didn’t speak, but when I sped up, he did too, and he followed me all the way to my driveway (Still leaning out of the car window to stare at me…), where I broke into a run, fumbling to get my key in the door, then sitting trembling behind it, horribly aware of all of the things I could’ve/should’ve done differently, instead of effectively leading him straight to my house in my panic.
When my mum got home from work, I told her what had happened, and she immediately called the police, who dispatched an officer to speak to me. Although I hadn’t seen the man before, my mum thought she recognised my description of him/his car: the police officer did visit the man in question to speak to him, but nothing ever came of it – how could it, after all? Even if what he did does constitute an actual crime in the eyes of the law (And I have no idea if it does…), it would be his word against mine, so what could possibly happen?
When I read about Sarah Everard, I thought again about that incident, then I thought about how, not long after it, a man exposed himself to my little cousin – who was 12 years old at the time, and staying with us – as she walked home from school one afternoon. A few weeks later, he did the same thing to me: again, while I was walking home from school. (The end of the school day was not a safe time for women and girls in my town, apparently…)
I thought about the time my friend and I were walking home from a bar in my hometown one night: walking close together, on busy streets, but as soon as we reached a darker stretch of the path, a group of men ran up behind us, some of them surrounding me while one of them pushed my friend roughly against a wall and thrust his hand up her skirt.
We went to the police the next morning, but, while the police were sympathetic, they were also a little bemused. What did we expect them to do, they wanted to know, given that there were no witnesses to what happened, and we couldn’t even give them a description of the men involved? What indeed.
I thought about the night later that year when the same friend and I were walking back to our flat in Edinburgh when a man exposed himself to us in the street: just walked right up to us and opened his coat, then stood there grinning inanely as we ran away. Or the time she called me in a panic from a neighbour’s flat, saying a man had followed her home, and she’d knocked on the first door she got to, too scared to risk him following her all the way up the long flight of stairs to our top floor flat.
I thought about the time I was walking through Downtown Disney, on a sunny afternoon. I wasn’t even on my own: I was actually with my parents AND my husband at the time, but I’d somehow managed to fall a bit behind the rest of my group, so I guess I must’ve looked like fair game to the two men who suddenly appeared on either side of me, one of them grabbing at my arm as soon as he got close enough. I screamed at the top of my lungs for him to get off, and, as 20 or more tourists all stopped in their tracks to stare in my direction, the men rushed off.
What were they intending to do to me, in broad daylight, in the middle of Disney, I wonder? I have no idea: but I remember that, as they disappeared, and everyone continued to stare at me, wondering what on earth just happened, I felt embarrassed and wondered if I’d over-reacted, or made too much of a fuss?
Then, of course, there are all of the times when I didn’t make any kind of fuss at all: all of the little microaggressions that made me feel scared, but also made me doubt myself, and wonder if was just imagining things.
I thought about the way I always take my car keys with me on a night out, even when I’m not driving: because my car key is sharper than my house key, and it feels more reassuring to me when I walk home with it sticking out between my fingers, telling myself it will make a difference if someone attacks me. The times I’ve pulled out my phone and either called someone or pretended to, so the man walking behind me thinks that someone knows where I am. The very worst times, when I’ve gone so far as typing 999 into the display, and kept my finger hovering over the call button as I walked, just in case.
I’m thinking also about all of the times I’ve been walking on my own, and become aware of a man behind me: speeding up when I do, crossing the street at the same time. Coincidence? Possibly. But then I remember the time my husband told me how he always slows down or stops altogether when he finds himself walking behind a woman on her own – just to give her time to put some distance between them, and not feel afraid – and I think, why don’t they ALL do that?
How can they not know how scary it feels when they keep pace with you on a street at night? Or when they get onto an empty bus or train carriage, and choose the seat right next to the only other – female – passenger, even though there are literally dozens of others they could sit in? Then sit too close, pressing up against you, taking up too much space, completely oblivious to the discomfort and fear they’re causing? How can they not know? And what will it take for them to understand?
Because, the thing is, when I think about it now, it’s astonishing to me that I didn’t think I had a right to say “me too” back in 2017: that I honestly thought the things that had happened to me didn’t really count, or were just the product of my over-active imagination. Even now, though, I worry that, by talking about them, I’ll just be inviting people to roll their eyes and call me a drama queen: or to question why my 17-year-old self didn’t knock on a random door (Even though I’d have had no idea who’d answer, and whether they’d help me or hurt me…), and why my friend and I didn’t just get a taxi home from the bar that night (Even though taxis sometimes feel like an equally dangerous option, placing you entirely at the mercy of the – often male – driver).
I worry about the “It could have been worse,” response, where people want to say that, well, yeah, but he didn’t ACTUALLY drag you into the car, did he? He JUST flashed you, he didn’t touch you. And so on, and so forth.
Like most of the women I know, I worry that, by talking about these things, I’ll be judged, questioned, disbelieved. But, even more than that, I worry that, if we’ve reached a stage where these events seem “normal” and not at all out of the ordinary – when we question whether they even count as “harassment”, and wonder if they’re worth mentioning – then that’s possibly the scariest thing of all, isn’t it?
I would never try to conflate the experiences I’ve had with the far more serious assaults I hear about all the time, but I also know that if we as a society normalise and tolerate these things: if we don’t “make a fuss” purely because, as women we’re taught not to, then it will never, ever end.
I know that there are tons of people on Twitter right now, all lining up to say that it’s NOT ALL MEN, and I also know that’s true. Not all men harass women, but pretty much ALL women have felt harassed and frightened by men at some point in their lives, and the answer to that is NOT to tell women to hide themselves away and don’t go out after dark (Which is victim blaming at its finest: the idea that if a woman is attacked, our first question should be, ‘What did she do wrong?” rather than “Why did someone think it was OK to attack her?”), but to focus instead on the people who make us feel afraid: not ALL men, certainty, but enough men to make me 100% sure that almost every woman who reads this post will have experienced some form of harassment, or been made to feel afraid.
In short, we need to make a fuss. Because the bottom line is that we should be able to walk home without fear: and right now, I don’t think I know a single woman who can do that.
[Photo by Rikonavt]