woman holding pink roses

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?

woman carrying a bunch of pink roses

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 on Unsplash ]
COMMENTS
  • Charis

    REPLY

    Thank you for this Amber. You are a very powerful writer.

    I think all women felt that visceral rage, sadness and sheer impotent despair when we heard what happened to Sarah. As you said, it could have been any of us. I hope things can change but i don’t even know where we start.

    March 12, 2021
  • Amy

    REPLY

    Well said. Weirdly, it took #MeToo to realise that my experiences were valid and that I had to be counted too. Before that I, like you, decided that for some reason they weren’t serious enough.

    As long as we have misogyny baked into our culture I doubt we’ll see any substantial shift from that. I am hopeful that as we dismantle toxic masculinity, as we teach boys and men to be aware of their surroundings (i.e. that they could be Schrödinger’s Rapist for any surrounding women) and as we have these conversations and normalise having them and believing the stories when we hear them, some changes could come.

    March 12, 2021
  • Emerald

    REPLY

    The #notallmen crew do my head in! As the friend, partner and ex-partner of men who’ve stood up to bad male behaviour and the daughter of a man who got a flasher on the London Underground in a headlock (at 11am! – my dad went to get his phone and asked the male staff at the station to watch the flasher while he called the police – and they let him go!), I am WELL aware it’s not all men. But each one I’ve mentioned realises that if he’s heading down a road, for example, and there’s a girl or woman ahead, she doesn’t KNOW if he’s a bad guy or not, hence slows his step. He’s an unknown quantity, hence none of the men in my life take it personally.

    I wouldn’t know where to start with how many times I’ve felt unsafe. And I asked my mum about her experiences and she replied, well which time did I want to hear about first. Hers run the gauntlet from being flashed at bus stop on her way to school, around 1962, in Edinburgh, to being chased with a female friend, both in their late fifties, through a London subway by a man who was slapping his appendage in his hand as he ran after then (they made it to Park Lane safely!).

    I have been flashed at three times in my life; as a teenager; at Vauxhall tube station in the early 90s; and in Spain. In the last occasion I was 35, and an older guy on a moped stopped and asked me directions, in Spanish (which in retrospect is odd since I don’t look remotely Spanish). I went over to talk to him and noticed he was doing something unpleasant with his hand. It was broad daylight and there were lots of British tourists around, so I felt confident enough to square up to him. But had it been after dark I don’t think I would have felt the same.

    I am gutted about Sarah Everard since I lived very close to where she disappeared. I frequently walked from my flat to a bus stop along a long road that connects to where she was. And yes, I always made sure it was daylight, but the route she took is busy and well-lit. She did absolutely nothing wrong and it boils my blood when I read idiots say otherwise. Your experiences here absolutely live up to serious harassment and more. It must have been really upsetting for you and your friend. Sympathy from the police is all very well, but not enough.

    March 12, 2021
  • Myra Boyle

    REPLY

    Your stories might not be extreme but they are relevant because they explain the climate of fear all women live in. I won’t add my own stories even though the don’t make a mountain out of a molehill attitude some people have worries me . I have been saying for a very long time that we need the good guys, the men like Terry, who are sensitive to women’s experiences, to speak out against misogyny and violence towards women and girls.

    The most shocking thing I have ever heard was from a schoolgirl with an older boyfriend who beat her. When her friend tried to warn her, she replied that her friend had never been loved. I had to intervene and simply said if he loved her he wouldn’t hurt her, that she had rights to her own body and the right not to be hurt.

    March 12, 2021
  • Nina

    REPLY

    Thank you for this reminder! It made me share my vast experiences in the kind of sexual harrassment that happens with clothes on on my Facebook wall. It makes me angry too that I kind of think of those as “harmless”, but only in comparison. I am disgusted by the men who thought they could/should do these things.

    March 12, 2021
  • Marie

    REPLY

    Another spot-on post Amber!
    I have a few observations about the incidents at what we might call the more ‘minor’ end of the scale:
    – firstly, people who commit awful crimes like rape all start somewhere – so women should never feel like they shouldn’t report something because it was ‘just’ a flasher, or whatever – it might be someone who is working up to something even more serious
    – that said, flashing IS serious in my view: everyone should be able to go about their business day or night without being forced to look at someone else’s genitals
    – I remember speaking to an older colleague a few years ago who said she thought that too much of a fuss was made about these things nowadays and that she and her friend had been flashed at when they were about 12, and that they’d just got on their bikes, cycled away and not said anything to anyone. It’s so sad to me how accepting some women have been taught to be of disgusting and illegal behaviour.
    – you absolutely did the right thing by reporting the man who followed you to the police. Just because you heard no more about it doesn’t mean that nothing happened or that there was no point. The police visiting him may have frightened him into not doing it again, for one thing.
    – for everyone who experiences something and thinks there’s no point in reporting because “it’ll be their word against mine”, remember that there may be other victims, so there may be enough evidence. I get that some women have their own reasons for not wanting to report things, and those reasons must be respected, but for anyone who just feels that reporting it will be pointless, I’d urge them to talk to the police. There may be other evidence, and reporting it may make a difference, even years down the line.
    – for what it’s worth, I HATE the ‘it could have been worse’ argument – it harks back to what you’ve said before about toxic positivity. Most things, even utterly horrific things, ‘could have been worse’ in some way, and saying ‘it could have been worse’ is just another way to silence women and minimise their feelings to belittle their experiences. Just because ‘it could have been worse’ doesn’t mean that you’re not entitled to feel the way you feel. Or that someone was entitled to behave towards you in the way they did.
    X

    March 12, 2021
  • Alice T-S

    REPLY

    Such a powerful post and evocative to. I remember so many nights coming home on my own with my keys in my hand or 999 typed into my phone. I’ve always thought it was me being melodramatic and it is unsettling but reassuring it wasn’t just me.
    Accepting and normalising these feelings is not ok. Life has moved on and progressed since the 1950s where we meek and mild women just had to accept whatever was dealt us.
    As you say, not all men but enough of them whether now or in their youth. I want to raise my child to be strong and empowered without having to feel that sense of fear when there is a man walking behind you but honestly I think it’s safer to be street smart first!

    March 12, 2021
  • Erin

    REPLY

    Thank you for posting this. I have a list of “minor” offenses as well (that I feel guilty for even complaining about after some things other women have been through), but the one that sticks out is a close match to your 12 year old cousin. When I was around twelvish (not sure if I was even twelve yet, but sometime between 10-12), I was picking blackberries with a friend and walking up the road ahead of her, and a man stopped and flashed me. My friend’s much older sister (whose house we were at) had to call the police and I had to sit in the back of a cop car telling them what happened. That, in and of itself, was almost scarier than the incident because I didn’t really want to be in a car with a strange adult man, after what had happened.. Police officer or not, and as someone in the US, police officers are much more complicated than the assumption that they are all “good people.” I’m sorry that you guys are having the same troubles now and I am heartbroken for Sarah Everard and all women that have been through anything awful at the hands of men.

    March 18, 2021
  • Holly T Hiatt

    REPLY

    Have you been able to post this so more people can read. I agree that every woman has a story. This shouldn’t be normal.

    March 20, 2021
  • Anneke Caramin

    REPLY

    Not all men, of course not all men but some of them, and how do we know which ones?

    Guys, instead of reverting to this, listen to women for a change. Try and understand why we are afraid. No one’s intentions are written on their forehead. The cookie analogy is a pretty good way to explain it: here’s a bag with 20 cookies. 5 will make you sick and 1 is deadly. Want one?

    My ex boyfriend once said he loves walking alone in the city at night, especially in alleys, right? Me and my two female friends had to explain to him that no, that was not something we wanted to do. It wasn’t even something we could do. So many men have no idea what women have to put up with once they’re out there on their own, so it’s very important that we keep telling these stories. Even if it feels unimportant or trivial or not serious enough. If it scared you or made you uncomfortable, it is bad.

    March 21, 2021
  • Danielle

    REPLY

    I too have shared my experiences on my blog of sexual harassment that I have faced. It is so important that we talk about these things and grow from them.

    Danielle | thereluctantblogger.co.uk

    April 3, 2021
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