OUR BODIES, OUR MINDS, OUR STREETS: keeping the conversation going
July 8, 2021
When I was walking home from a friend’s house…a young man started following me and trying to chat me up. I felt quite scared…He asked if he could touch my hair and I said ‘yes’ even though I didn’t want him to because I felt a bit scared and I didn’t want to be rude. Of course, it wouldn’t have been rude to have said no, but fear stopped me from being assertive and making my boundaries clear. He kept following me and trying to chat to me all the way to my house. – Mayla
Growing up as a young girl I’ve been trained to become hyper aware of the dangers of being a woman and how I can protect myself – I tend to wear baggy clothes to avoid attention but at the same time I validate my worth on male attention – if I don’t get catcalled, does that mean I’m not attractive… – Lara
I have heard countless stories of harassment. I have experienced it plenty of times. We women and young girls all know about the myths of ‘protecting’ ourselves and being taught to fear being in our own bodies – when really, the harassment – the abuse – isn’t our responsibility. It doesn’t matter what we look like or what we wear. That’s not the problem. It is awful that after being harassed, many of us undergo a self-inflicted psychological assessment of how we dealt with it, why we may have felt afraid, asking ourselves if we did everything properly. It is awful that we put ourselves on trial and cross-examine ourselves (what does that sound like?) yet the problem and the blame lie with the harassers. Their actions. Their intention to intimidate, frighten and dominate.
Harassment plays havoc with our self-esteem and, for some, so does not being harassed. Feeling bad or awkward if no one calls out to you in public is a tough one to explain and a brave thing to talk about. But when it is unpicked, you see another toxic situation created by sexism: that still, in 2021, one of the main messages that is absorbed by many women and girls is that she is only visible and worthwhile if she is young and looks a very specific way; that her value is only skin deep. She isn’t human, she is object. It can take a lifetime of unlearning and reclaiming to feel empowered. It has taken lifetimes of saying enough is enough to harassment and objectification, but we are still in the same situation. All the while, a slow insidious femicide continues to claim lives. Women and girls are seen, that’s for sure, but we are rarely actually heard and often when we speak up, we are gaslighted.
Women and girls weren’t surprised a few months ago when a UN report found that ‘71% of women of any age said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.’ We aren’t surprised at the recent Ofsted findings on sexual harassment in schools: that it occurs so frequently, it has become ‘commonplace’ and considered ‘normal’. Women and young girls are surrounded by sexism and sexual harassment all the time, whether we are on our way to and back from work or school, to when we are online. We become all too aware of it from a young age. Sexism is like plastic – once you notice it, you see it everywhere. And it often feels too overwhelming to tackle – especially as nowadays it has been upcycled to the internet. Add to this racism, homophobia, transphobia, a pandemic, climate disaster, the pressure of school and work (or lack of it), life events, (the list is not exhaustive) …well, quite frankly, our heads are full, our hearts are heavy, and it is pretty tiring trying to convince people (ahem MEN) that we are human and actually have feelings.
The effect Public Street Harassment (PSH) has on our mental health cannot be underestimated – from worrying about how we dealt with the situation when it occurred, to feeling violated, objectified, scared, angry and disrespected. I spoke to Jess Leigh, who is a campaigner for Our Streets Now, about the effects of PSH. She said: ‘Every day, Our Streets Now receive testimonies from girls and marginalised genders who experience public street harassment and how it has such a profound impact on their mental wellbeing… from body image to their sense of safety, girls and women across the UK are being affected by PSH and yet still not enough is being done.’
Given PSH’s effects on mental wellbeing, dealing with harassment can be extra confusing and even more of a burden. I asked her what she thought about dealing with harassment: ‘you are worth so much more than what happened in that moment…you didn’t deserve it and you are more loved than you could ever imagine. There is no specific right or wrong way of dealing with harassment… so many times [it is] violent and frightening. So, whether you shout back, ignore them or confront them it is completely up to you.’ She added ‘Hollaback have some free online training for both victims and bystanders that aims to train the general public on ways to tackle PSH. From delegating, distracting and directing there are some really helpful points.’
It is so important for us to share our stories about PSH. Sexism and sexual harassment are huge toxic problems invading our lives, our bodies, our minds, our streets. There are so many people and organisations to be aware of that are pushing back against these huge issues, like Our Streets Now, the website Everyone’s Invited, and as Jess mentioned Hollaback. Hearing and validating all experiences are radical moves in a society that constantly tell women, girls and marginalised genders to sit down and shut up. We should be able to feel safe and free on our streets. Letting ourselves off the hook when we experience sexual harassment is one radical move we can make: you do not need to question yourself and put yourself on trial. You are not the problem. The problem is the perpetrator, their behaviour is repulsive. Loving yourself is a radical move. You are worthy just because you are, just because you exist. The conversation around street harassment will continue and so will the fight for change.
At Women’s Voice we are launching our Comic Relief funded This Is Not Love workshops. On Saturdays from July to October, we will be running creative sessions from storytelling, painting and film making to educational sessions about abuse and coercive control. These will be an opportunity for young women (16-26) to engage with the issues affecting them, from sexual harassment to controlling relationships and domestic abuse. More than that, it will also be an opportunity to meet others, form friendships, have fun getting creative and to find empowerment. All workshops are free, but due to Covid, places are limited. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would be interested in taking part in the workshops. We cordially invite you to come and take up space and get your voices heard. Written by Megan Cronin @ladymogsy With thanks to Mayla, Lara and Jess Leigh @jesssjleigh