by maddie millington-drake ~
We are constantly told what to do to avoid sexual harassment.
We grow up being taught how to keep ourselves safe.
We – women – the harassed not the harasser, are told to change our behaviours.
Something seems a little off here to me.
Following the tragic disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard on the 3rd March, there has been the reignition of a conversation that has always hummed along under the surface – the issue of women’s safety and violence towards women.
Sarah tragically is one of hundreds of thousands of women who have experienced violence at the hands of men. Many survive physically, others sadly do not, but the emotional burden remains for all who have experienced assault, whose friends, sisters, mothers, aunts, have experienced assault.
It has brought up a lot of feelings, with women across the UK currently questioning their safety; feelings fuelled by the arrest of a Metropolitan Police officer, a badge that is meant to signify safety and protection. It has also brought up questions about how urban planning still does not take into account women’s needs, how so many still change their route home for fear of poorly-lit routes, or ill-placed bus stops.
It has made me remember how my friends and I used to behave and will continue to behave in a post-lockdown world – that when we used to walk home at night alone or get a taxi, there would always be a phone call or a text to say we had got home safely. How any noise in the dark scares me. And how I hook my keys around my fingers once it is dark.
Conversations made me consider that at university there was an alley that ran between a main and a residential road. I never walked down it alone at night, hearing the warning “don’t walk home via Rape Alley” many times. I’m not even sure if women were assaulted there, but we never questioned what had happened or how frequently for it to earn its name.
I hope it has also reminded us how so many women across the world have to question their safety every day to a far greater extent than we often do in the UK. Globally 1 in 3 women have experienced physical and/or intimate partner sexual violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime . In the UK 97% of young women (18-24) have been sexually harassed . During the Covid-19 pandemic, calls to helplines connected with domestic abuse have increased five-fold .
Women make up half the world’s population, so if by just being the ‘wrong’ half we are ‘drawing attention’ that causes us to be unsafe we have a serious problem…and we (the world) clearly do.
In Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women (I would implore anyone who hasn’t read it to do so) she discusses the issues around urban planning and the statistics around women’s fear of public places. Almost 9 in 10 women feel unsafe in public places around the world . Transport is often a site of a violence towards women; the UK Department of Transport published figures in 2015 that showed that 60% of women were scared of walking through multi-storey car parks, and 59% were scared of walking home from a bus stop or station (the numbers for men were 31% and 25% respectively) . Sadly, and it is important to stress, these figures are not spread equally across ethnic groups, with BAME women experiencing more forms of harassment and/or assault on transport and in the workplace. A 2020 survey conducted by Visible found that 41% of women changed their clothing, their commutes or the times they travelled due to harassment on the London Underground [5,6].
There are easy solutions that have been found to make women feel safer on transport; for example on night buses, it has been found that measures such as a guard, panic button and well lit-bus stops can help to make women feel more comfortable. The best measure found are ‘intermediary stops’ where women can ask to get off between stops to be nearer to her final destination, thereby reducing her walk home.
We change our behaviour, such as changing our route home, to try and make ourselves feel safe. This doesn’t stop at transport links, these are ingrained behaviours that as women we are taught from a very young age in order to ‘protect ourselves’; to ensure that we don’t ‘draw attention’ to ourselves; because if you are wearing a short skirt you are at risk of being told “you were asking for it” or having to hear the question “what did you expect?”. Sarah’s choice of clothes that night have been branded as her making the ‘right’ choices, the acknowledgement that yes sadly what women wear is constantly associated with how men treat us.
It’s no longer good enough for women to be told what to do to help keep themselves safe when it’s the system we are told to put our faith in that is failing us.
The 2021 YouGov survey shows extremely low levels of reporting of sexual harassment in the UK, with over 95% of all women not reporting their experiences of sexual harassment . This was the lowest ever level of reporting, with young women (aged 18-24) being the group most likely to not report an experience of sexual harassment. Why is this? Is it ingrained that we should expect it? How have we got to the point where sexual harassment is normalised?
45% of women did not feel that reporting the incident would help, with 50% thinking what had happened to them was not serious enough, often associated with a lack of understanding due to the multiple definitions of sexual harassment that exist. And finally 16% of women did not report the incident because they thought they would not be believed .
As these statistics show women are always the focus. The person or group committing these crimes are not even acknowledged, they are a passive party. The issue is always framed as a women’s issue, not a men’s one as Jackson Katz famous 2012 TED talk discusses . That the questions asked are always placing the onus on women, “why was she out late?”; “what was she wearing?”. We are asking the wrong questions. This is victim-blaming, and also an unconscious habit we all use when addressing this topic. What are the questions that we should be asking? Perhaps we should be asking why rape is still being used as a punchline? Or why has revenge porn become so common? What structures exist in society that have bred this culture? A culture that doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
We live in a society that is ignoring half the population. The correct measures are still not in place to allow women to feel safe: to allow our voice to be believed and to be taken seriously is vital, to break the trend. But perhaps fundamentally, the issue is not being framed correctly, the focus needs to shift away from it being a women’s issue to the root cause.
It’s time for the conversation to change.
 WHO 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women
 UN Women (2021).Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces. https://www.unwomenuk.org/appg-unwomen
 Plan International (2016). https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/almost-two-thirds-of-women-feel-unsafe-walking-alone-after-dark
 Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women (2019).
 Peake, E. (2020, October 22). Mind the data gap: why do so few women report sexual harassment on the London Underground? Retrieved from New Statesman: Mind the data gap: why do so few women report sexual harassment on the London Underground?
 YouGov. (2020). Most women have been sexually harassed on London public transport. Retrieved from https://yougov.co.uk/topics/legal/articles- reports/2020/01/22/most-women-have-been-sexually-harassed-london-publ
 Jackson Katz TEDtalk 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue/transcript?language=en#t-122134