In 2016, YouGov conducted a poll in the UK investigating street harassment and found that 64% of women (of all ages) and 85% of women between the ages of 18 and 24 have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places. Despite many women having street harassment stories about themselves or others, it still feels like it’s not talked about enough. There must be something stopping us from talking about it and making it illegal.
Let’s explore the possible reasons why street harassment is STILL not illegal…
OK, so my first thought when I began thinking about this was: The Patriarchy. For sure. In case you don’t know the exact definition of ‘patriarchy’, it’s this: ‘a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it’. I’d go as far as to say completely excluded from it, unless we make massive efforts to be included. Many of us don’t challenge this discrimination against women, perhaps because it’s all we have known for our whole lives. But even when we do challenge discriminatory behaviours against women, for instance street harassment, it’s almost impossible to be heard by the thousands of politicians and individuals who believe it’s OK (Gina Martin’s book ‘Be The Change’ highlights this issue). I struggle to believe that politicians just haven’t thought about street harassment, because it’s their job to consider social issues and they will have heard many reports about it (some very harrowing).
Recently, I’ve been reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1790 novel ‘Rights of Woman’, and one quote, in particular, has stuck with me:
‘Men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment’.
It’s crazy to think that things haven’t changed since then. Admittedly, inequality between men and women is exhibited differently today, but the objectification of women is still apparent. It even comes down to more minor things, such as commenting on women’s bodies on TV. We don’t do this to men anywhere near as often as we do to women. Women’s bodies are viewed in society as public property, allowing people permission to say whatever they like about them. And these underlying beliefs about women are rarely ever challenged – only by a small percentage of people, i.e. the infamous ‘angry’ feminists. As for why they’re infamous – hmm, oh yeah… the patriarchy. God forbid women should want to be treated equally!
Another thing to consider is that 50% of the population are failing to advocate for women: it would help massively if men were on our side. Especially white, heterosexual, cisgender men who are more likely to be heard due to their privilege and power. However, I don’t want to put men to complete blame here – it’s much more rare for heterosexual, cisgender men to experience street harassment themselves, and people rarely talk about it, so why would they understand? Unless they actively research, or ask women. But these actions are unlikely to happen if men aren’t even aware there is an issue to begin with. I’ve also heard men say “If I was catcalled by a woman I’d find it funny”. However, they don’t think about the fact that there is a huge power imbalance between men and women, causing women to feel physically threatened. We all need to be educated in schools and in the workplace.
Women don’t report their street harassment experiences, because it’s not illegal, and therefore it feels pointless. You’re reporting a compliment as a crime? Get over yourself, love (that’s the patriarchy in our heads talking). However, we need to keep shouting about our experiences with street harassment: report it. Even if police tell us it’s not illegal (and they will), at least it’s on their system. Remember the number plate of the perpetrator, or film them in the act. There are many things we can try to do. It’s important not to feel guilty on behalf of the men we accuse. They are not complimenting you, they are not kind. They see you as an object, a piece of meat. And who knows what they might do to other women in the future. This possibility is what should frighten us the most.
We don’t feel embarrassed or guilty about protesting to make other social matters illegal. Yet, street harassment is arguably more important than other social issues, because it makes women feel unsafe in their daily lives.
We deserve just as much respect as men get. We deserve to have a voice. And we deserve to feel safe in our streets.