WARNING: This blog post contains mentions and descriptions of street violence and sexual assault.
Note: I use the terms “women” and “men” in this article as I am speaking about my own experiences, as a cisgender woman, in the face of cisgender men. People from marginalised communities of course suffer from street harassment too (and are in fact at a higher risk of sexual violence than I am), but I cannot talk on their behalf as that is not my lived reality. Instead of speaking for them, at the end of the blog post, I have linked videos from people who talk about the LGBTQ+ experience.
I first experienced sexual harassment at the age of 13, and the most common place I have experienced it since then has always been on public transport or whilst walking home in the evening (it still happens to me in bars, pubs and clubs of course – but in my experience, a train has always been more dangerous).
And unfortunately, this is something that, pre-pandemic, I was used to. Whether I was coming home from work drinks, a date or a cinema trip with friends, I have for a long time been accustomed to getting myself around by myself. I knew and had accepted that, if I was travelling alone in the evening, some man was, more often than not, going to make me uncomfortable and I, like many women, have over time set up methods to protect myself:
- I have a mental list of friends I can rely on for a phone call if I am walking from my station to my flat.
- I have developed an unfriendly facial expression that I wear in an effort to ward men off.
- I know to stay close to other women or people I perceive to be LGBTQ+ in trains, down roads and in lifts, not only to protect myself (in a safety in numbers sort of way) but also to help protect them.
- I developed a specific route home allowing me to avoid the pub I live near, the one where old men hang about outside of, spitting into a communal bucket and commenting on the outfit of any woman who walks by them.
These are not behaviours I was taught. With the exception of my mum warning me to always stay close to women if I was out in the evening, no one has ever sat me down and given me a list of tips and tricks to avoid men at night. These are all behaviours that I developed on my own, in response to events that have happened to me. Because this is how prevalent street harassment is.
A spike during lockdown
Back in summer 2020, lockdown restrictions started to ease a little in the UK. Hairdressers and bowling alleys reopened, and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was introduced. With these conditions, I along with the rest of the country was able to venture outside a little more.
It was during this summer that I first noticed a sharp rise in the amount of street harassment I was receiving. Until then that year, I had been holed up at home (as I am fortunate to have been able to work from home throughout the pandemic), safe from street harassment for once. This spike in unwanted attention came as a surprise. As soon as restrictions lifted, I was experiencing it more often than I would have pre-Covid, and in less likely places; places where I would not usually be on my guard. Now I did not only have to avoid the men lingering outside bars, but also men in line at Specsavers, men at the post office, and men walking their dog in the park at 10am.
This has been an odd and uncomfortable adjustment as, although I was no stranger to sexual harassment by the time summer 2020 rolled around, as stated previously, the most common place I have experienced harassment has always been in the evening, on public transport and whilst walking home. Not during broad daylight, in the supermarket or in a park.
It seemed that all the men who would be lecherous in pubs and on trains were now taking their unwelcome attention to Tesco.
This led to me feeling really unsafe, as it felt like I could not go anywhere alone, at any time of the day, without the threat of an incident.
And so, throughout summer 2020, due in part to the rise in harassment but also because I did not believe drunk people would be able to respect social distancing rules, I rarely left my flat in the evenings, and so most of these events took place during the day. And when I had been out in the evening, I only travelled walking distance, to one of the restaurants round the corner from me. I was not taking public transport.
But I have now, as of last week, travelled home, by tube, in the evening, alone, for the first time in a very long time. It was a very uncomfortable experience and once I was safely home, I took to social media to vent about it.
Taking my fears and anger online
After midnight on 28th June 2021, I uploaded a video to TikTok lamenting my experience that evening. First, a man catcalled me along a dark road. Then, a man stared at me sexually for the 4-5 tube stops we had together, trying to get my attention and leering at me. Finally, as I was changing platforms, a man crossed the width of a wide corridor to purposefully elbow me in the chest.
My video gained a fair amount of traction. As of today, 7th July, the video stands at 12.5k views. This is by far my most viewed video, the majority of mine receiving less than 500 views.
I am delighted that the vast majority of comments under the video have been positive, from people who have experienced the same harassment and who share my anger, and from people who have never experienced such things, venting their frustrations at those men who let the side down.
As a whole, the response has been sympathetic and respectful.
Responding to negative comments
Alongside the support however, I have also received my fair share of negativity. Some people were bewildered by the behaviour I reported and, because they couldn’t imagine themselves doing such things, did not believe that someone else would. Others made excuses for these men, such as “Maybe they were just drunk?” and “Maybe he wanted to ask for your number but didn’t know how else to approach you?” (these are not good excuses at all – there are no good excuses for this behaviour). And some people commented outright vitriol – presuming that I had somehow been in the wrong (that I shouldn’t have travelled alone at night (despite the fact men are allowed to do this without consequence) or that I was “leading them on”). One commenter even said that I clearly “wanted to get raped”.
I also received some questions probing me for more information, from people who seemed quite young and genuinely confused. I decided to make a follow-up video to address some of their confusion. I chose to answer this specific question (see below) because the user didn’t have any videos or information on their profile (and so was unlikely to receive hate comments if I replied to them), because they weren’t rude (albeit a bit blunt), and because they seemed to be trying to actively learn.
I also made the decision to delete the really negative comments. The ones that didn’t believe me. The ones that made excuses for the men’s behaviour. The ones that used harmful slurs. I decided this for several reasons:
- To create a safe space. I wanted people in the comment section to be able to talk amongst themselves without the threat of someone lashing out at them. I want the conversation surrounding this topic to continue, not falter. Also:
- I received many racist comments about young Black men. It surprised me that, despite the fact I never mentioned the skin colour of the men in my video, many presumed that it was Black men who had harassed me. This isn’t true, it is a terribly harmful stereotype and also wildly incorrect. I am hardly ever approached by young Black men. If I am harassed, it is almost always by a white man in his 20s-50s (more on this in the next section).
- And there could be victims of far worse acts in my comment section, and I figured that seeing comments calling me delusional could in turn invalidate their experiences and really upset them. I wanted, instead, that they only see comments of support.
- I also wanted to distance myself from the people who left those comments. Not only did I delete the harmful comments, I also blocked the people who left them. This is so that my videos do not appear on their For You pages again in future (the TikTok algorithm cannot distinguish between a positive and negative comment that someone has left, and just thinks that because you are engaging with a user, this means you want to see their content again in future).
A prevalent comment I received – “It’s just the media”
Other than the racist ones, the comments that surprised me the most were the ones that insisted it was the “media” that was responsible for me feeling unsafe. These people argued that I had consumed too much media, too many hysterical lies and delusions by other women, and this is what had made me feel unsafe. I was brainwashing myself into believing that the men who interacted with me that night were harassing me.
These are… ridiculous statements to make. Up until recently, I had never heard anyone with a platform talk about street harassment. It’s not in films. It’s not in TV shows. It’s not in stand-up. It’s not in plays. It’s not even in novels. None that I’ve seen, anyway (no wonder Steven Moffat didn’t realise women are nervous around taxi drivers). And yet, street harassment is something I have been scared of since I was a child. And to these men I say:
- At 14, it wasn’t the media who followed me off a train and demanded I give him my number.
- At 15, it wasn’t the media who, when I was on my way home from school, blocked me on an escalator and tried to kiss me.
- At 16, it wasn’t the media who smelt my hair, groped me and chased me off a bus when I was going to school in uniform.
- From 18 and above, it has never been the media who has groped me at parties, in clubs, in bars and in pubs.
- At 22, it wasn’t the media who suddenly grabbed me outside a nightclub when I was separated from my friends, said “I’ll warm you up, girl!”, and then swore at me when I pushed him away.
- At 23, it wasn’t the media who followed me and a friend around Soho and threatened to stab us when we insisted that we were not playing hard to get and were in fact not interested.
- And now, at 25, it wasn’t the media when one man catcalled me, another leered at me and a third pushed me all in one night.
And just to be clear – these are far from the only times I have been harassed. It would be impossible for me to count my experiences. This is just to show how prevalent this is, and from what an early age it starts. And before anyone comments “These are boys, not men”, I understand your intention but this is not helpful. I have only once been harassed by a teenager. Once, in 25 years. Even when I was 14, the people who have harassed me have always been in their mid 20s to late 50s.
And if it truly was the media warping my vision, I would be afraid of young Black men, like so many of those comments thought I should be. It is Black men who are demonised and depicted as hypersexual and violent in the media. And yet I am not scared of Black men. If I am walking alone at night, it is the white men who I am nervous around. These are the people who follow me, who swear at me, who make lewd comments. And in fact, according to a study by RAINN (the USA Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), white men are twice as likely to engage in sexual violence as Black men.
It is not “the media” skewing things and making women fearful. It is men, and predominantly white men, and their own actions that make us afraid.
But why did I speak up in the first place?
I believe it’s important to talk about these things because they are so common and yet unspoken. And the reason men don’t hear about these experiences? Because we’re seldom believed. On the few occasions I have, in the past, tried to talk to the men in my life face-to-face about this, they have usually responded in one of three ways:
- Outright not believed me.
- Thought I was exaggerating.
- Told me that I should be flattered, especially as I am single.
Hearing your experiences be invalidated by people in your life who you love is incredibly damaging. So naturally, I stopped talking to men about it.
I have to remember throughout all of this that I come from enormous privilege. I am white, able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgender, straight and not “fat/plus-sized” in the political way. This means that, in spite of the lack of male compassion in my life, I am far more likely to be believed and get help if I need it in relation to someone from any other group. Stereotypes pertaining to members of any other group get in the way of them being believed, and of them gaining the treatment they are owed (see Dr Baker-Braxton’s TEDTalk on this, linked below and here).
But I have to believe there is hope for us all.
And in fact, alongside the spike in sexual harassment, I have also noticed another change – this one positive. People are starting to share their experiences online, on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, where most creators are not bound by contracts and therefore have free reign over their content.
Perhaps this started with the #MeToo movement and subsequent movements such as Our Streets Now, a “movement to end Public Sexual Harassment in the UK by making it a criminal offence and changing the culture that allows it”. I believe it is movements like this that have encouraged ordinary people to speak out. Nowadays, people upload videos of street harassment on TikTok, in order to warn people, to expose aggressors, and to show just how prominent and engrained this issue is.
I myself have found such solidarity in this. As stated before, I have rarely if ever seen “casual/daily” sexual harassment depicted in the media, and although I have spoken to friends about it in the past, it is also comforting to hear strangers discuss these issues.
You may be asking yourself, “Yeah, but is TikTok the best place to discuss these issues?” Maybe not! But until there’s representation in other forms of mainstream media, and until we are taken seriously, then maybe, for the moment, it’s the best chance we have to make our voices heard.
Because not only are women and girls (and other more marginalised communities) starting to speak up on social media platforms, men are starting to listen. In the wake of this openness, three male friends have reached out to me and apologised, unprompted, for their past flippancy (and this is months before the videos I uploaded). These were men who I had tried to seek comfort in before but, instead of acknowledging my worries, didn’t pay proper attention. Now these same men are starting to understand. One of them even requested that I (should I feel comfortable) let him know every time an incident happens, so that he can properly try to gauge the scope of this.
Men are starting to listen. The conversation has finally properly started, and it has to continue.
It really upsets me that, before lockdown, I was not only used to sexual harassment, but I also expected it and felt resigned to it. I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it; it was just “one of those things” you have to get through, like school or a hard day at the office.
This has to change, and I am hopeful of things to come.
How to help
Something that the sympathetic men in my life have asked me is: “What can I do to help?” Here is a great article on this. It is specifically to do with university campuses, but it actually applies to anyone.
To this article I will add that in addition to “teaming up with allies”, I think it’s great to follow campaigns such as Our Streets Now on social media, so that you are regularly seeing the kind of content that reminds you to continue being an ally. There is an excellent episode of the Discuss with Hayley Rose Dean podcast that interviews the two creators of Our Streets Now, called “6: Discussing Public Sexual Harassment and Our Streets Now campaign with Gemma & Maya Tutton”, which you can find wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Here ends my perspective, and where I raise that of others.
Links to people from other communities talking about their experiences with street harassment
Dirk is a trans TikTokker who discusses social changes he has noticed since he began living as a man. This includes, for example, this statement: “When I pass women in the hall and I make eye contact with them, I notice they all look down, because God forbid you make eye contact with a man for too long and they get the wrong idea.”
Dirk’s perspective is so interesting because, pre-transition, he lived life being perceived as a woman, and so he understands why women are cautious around him now that they view him as a man.
- TEDx Talks: “LGBTQueering the Narrative of Sexual Violence | Paige Leigh Baker-Braxton”
Dr Baker-Braxton (who runs the “In Power” programme, designed to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ survivors of sexual violence) examines who we, collectively as a society, view as victims (“That person would definitely be female, likely white, probably under 40, typically thin, and always straight”). She addresses how these perceptions impact legislation and the amount of empathy survivors receive, as well as the reality of the situation.
Here’s a snippet:
“The data we have surrounding assault against LGBTQ people is alarming. We know that 44% of lesbians will be raped, experience physical violence or stalking by the hands of an intimate partner, compared to 35% of straight women. We know that gay and bisexual men are both twice as likely as straight men to experience sexual harassment and that one in two bisexual women will be raped in their life. And one in two people who identify as transgender will experience sexual violence.”Dr Baker-Braxton
She also features on an episode of Podcast on Crimes Against Women entitled “Moving the Needle: Violence Against Transgender Women and the Work to Create Inclusive Services and Solutions for the Transgender Community”.
- them: “Trans Women Open Up About Their #MeToo Sexual Assault Experiences”
In this video, trans women discuss their experiences with sexual assault. An excellent quote from activist Munroe Bergdorf in this video is: “All women go up against [victim-blaming]. But when you add the trans level, that’s an intersection; and that means that I’m gonna then experience what cis women experience but then with another layer.”
I will end with two further quotes from this video, one from writer Xoài Pham and another from Munroe Bergdorf:
“If everyone realised that all of our battles, individually, are part of collective human experience [and] if all of us are free then it’s a much better world. And if one of us is left behind then that means that there is no real justice.”Xoài Pham
“It’s difficult to understand what everyone has been through but it just takes listening. I don’t think that everybody knows everything. We get things wrong, and there’s no shame in getting things wrong. But it’s where you go from there, it’s how you listen to your sister.”Munroe Bergdorf