97% of young women have been sexually harassed. 80% of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Read that again.
The first time I was catcalled, I was 11 years old. My friend and I were walking home with ice creams we’d bought from the village shop. It was the middle of July and we were wearing shorts. A man three times our age honked his car horn, leaned out of his window and yelled ‘sexy pins’ and sped off down the road.
When I told my mum what had happened, she said it was probably time I started thinking more carefully about what I wore out in public. I don’t blame her for this – she was trying to protect me. It’s the same advice her mother would have given her in the 1970s. 35 years later, she was repeating the same words to her own daughter with the same fear in her eyes. Nothing had changed.
When I was 20, I was groped by a man I knew from work. It was a bar job – naturally, I spent a lot of time bending down, picking up crates, leaning over surfaces to wipe them. This man made inappropriate comments about my body at every opportunity. He insisted that I talk to him on my breaks. He insisted that there was something between us, that I was flirting with him too. He wouldn’t leave me alone until I agreed to go out with him. And I went, because our society had led me to believe that my standards were too high, that I was asking for too much from men, that I should give him a chance – even though my gut was screaming at me to stay away.
I said I wanted to leave after one drink; he made me stay for three. He walked me back to the station on the back route where there were no people, no street lamps, no CCTV. He wouldn’t take his hand off my waist as we walked. He pinned me to his body and called me a tease. His breath was hot and sour in my ear. I used the SING manoeuvre from Miss Congeniality and ran for my life.
Two years later, I was attacked by a man when I was walking home from my place of work. I, like Sarah Everard, did the ‘right things’. The things we have all done. I was with someone (a male someone). I was wearing trainers and a thick winter coat. We were walking down a main road in a nice part of west London that was fully covered by street lamps and other pedestrians. And yet, I was still hit in the face twice. The court case was dropped. He walks free.
Every woman I know has multiple stories like this. Every woman you know has multiple stories like this. You might be shocked to read our stories, but we’ve heard so many that we feel numb.
But you don’t go around harassing women, do you? So you’re not part of the problem, right?
Wrong. You’re probably not a bad man. You might even wear purple on International Women’s Day and not react with horror when you find out your surgeon is a woman. (How progressive of you, my goodness! Would you like a gold star?)
But you’re not part of the solution. I don’t see you educating yourselves on our experiences. I don’t see you calling out sexist comments in your workplace. I don’t see you shutting down your lads’ banter.
I know you think that your boys’ group is harmless. You think your mates would never. But the thing is, statistically, you’re wrong. You like to talk over me and explain things to me when I haven’t asked for it, so explain this. How is it that 80% of all women of all ages have been sexually harassed, yet you all claim to have nothing to do with it? Are you absolutely sure your boys are innocent?
Don’t tell me that not all men are bad men. I know this. We all know this. Show me by being better. Not just today – but every single day for the rest of your life. Commit to doing the work:
- Listen to our stories and experiences. Let us know you are there to support and help us, no matter how uncomfortable it is for you. Talk to us directly. Listen to the podcasts and the music we make, read books and watch films and TV about what it’s like to be one of us. Try to understand what it’s like to walk in our shoes.
- Call out sexist comments when you hear them. Especially when we’re not around. We’re not the butt of your jokes. They’re not funny. They never have been.
- Stand up for us. Has a meeting been monopolised by men? Make an opening in the conversation for us to speak. See some guys being creepy towards us at nightclubs or gigs? Look out for us. Ask us if we need help.
- Talk to your male friends. Nothing will change if you don’t.
- Educate your sons.
- Read feminist theory. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a good place to start. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall should also be on your list.
- Practise intersectional feminism. Understand that these problems grow exponentially for Black women and women of colour, trans women, disabled women and non-heterosexual women. Women of colour who go missing are often neglected by the media. Think of Sarah Everard, but think also of Blessing Olusegun, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry.
Don’t do this work because you have a wife, girlfriend, sister or daughter. Don’t do this expecting praise. Do this because it’s the right thing to do. Do this because it’s what you should have been doing your whole life. Do this because this isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. Do this for the women you don’t know, the women you’ll never know and all the women who will come after us.
And to all the men who continue to do and say nothing: we see you. We hear your silence loud and clear. You have failed us all.
One of the 97%.