This article prompted a huge debate before it was even written - showing what an important issue this is to Brixton residents. Here, S. Villarino writes that street-harassment remains a big problem in Lambeth and beyond…
In 2012 Lambeth Council ran a campaign: Know the Difference. Part of the aim was to educate men about the boundary between harassment and flirtation. And for good reason.
According to Stop Street Harassment, 80% of women and LGBTQ people in Europe have experienced sexual harassment and a YouGov poll revealed 41% of young women under 34 received unwanted sexual attention in 2012. In public places, streets and transport, harassment intrudes upon many women’s lives from all walks of life.
Unfortunately, like everywhere else, Brixton is no exception. For many young women walking down the road or travelling on the tube sexual harassment is the norm. When I leave the house, I will often receive cat calls, men shouting at me from across the street, be occasionally followed, and, when I refuse to respond in a subserviently feminine fashion, receive an earful of nasty, verbal abuse.
My experience is not unique. Sarah says, “2 out of 5 times I leave my house I get comments like ‘sexy’ or ‘hey princess’ or whistles or cat noises made at me or men leaning out of car windows to wolf whistle or comment on my legs… Once a man coming out the supermarket said ‘yum yum’ at me (definitely ‘at’ me rather than ‘to’ me) which was particularly ridiculous – but then it isn’t just ridiculous it’s actually a bit upsetting to be made to feel suddenly like a sexual object when you’re just trying to buy milk.”
Other women have been approached by men asking them to perform oral sex on them, followed to their doorstep and blocked on their way home while propositioning them. It raises the question, “What did we do to deserve this?”
The experience of street-based harassment varies significantly amongst women who live in Brixton. Some have not received any harassment despite living in Brixton for decades while others come across it daily. Indeed, many contend that Brixton is better than other places. But this is little comfort when this is mostly down to experiencing worse elsewhere.
Part of this is because Brixton’s bustle makes several women feel safer when faced with harassment than in quieter, residential areas. Furthermore, many regard the tone of low level street harassment more annoying than intimidating.
While Lambeth has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual violence in London, there are notoriously few statistics on street-based harassment as these kinds of offences rarely get reported.
However, with current and former Brixtonians citing Islington, The City, Shepherd’s Bush, Seven Sisters, Bethnal Green, Clapham, Tooting, central London as worse places, no part of London is immune. This doesn’t even begin to touch on cases outside of the Capital…
But it doesn’t matter where street harassment takes place: it needs to be stopped. Whether subjected to low level frequent leering or shocking one-off abuse, many women change their behaviour to mitigate street harassment. Dressing down, avoiding certain places, shunning eye contact, donning headphones, refusing to wear skirts are just a few (often futile) ways many women try to cope.
The widespread normalisation and acceptance of street harassment makes it difficult for women to speak out without being accused of “being oversensitive”, in spite of the emotional distress, and can cast its shadow over simple journeys.
No cat caller or kerb crawler (or straight man in general) has ever had to change the way they dress or their route to work because they fear being sexually harassed. Faced with this incredible asymmetry it’s vital for straight men to learn to understand the significantly damaging effects it has on women’s lives. Believe it or not, as a woman I have never once had the impulse to comment on a man’s crotch size as he walked by or to make idiotic animal noises to get his attention. A bit of common courtesy (with a touch of common sense) would be nice, thank you.
But as that hasn’t got us very far, there need to be more legal protections against street harassment. Unlike the workplace, a woman has few safeguards against passing strangers who feel entitled to comment on their bodies.
Through progress is slow, street harassment is increasingly being recognised as a serious problem. With organisations such as Stop Street Harassment, the Everyday Sexism Project and hollaback! leading the charge, women can share their stories without being told to “toughen up” or “take it as a compliment”. Greeted with mixed reviews, The British Transport Police are encouraging women to report incidents of sexual harassment on public transport as part of Project Guardian.
Regardless of whether they are drunken lads, City slickers or pubescent pipsqueaks, many men do not know the difference between harassment and flirting. But even if they did, that wouldn’t go far enough. We need to end street harassment, not just recognise it.