A new poll of over 1,000 Londoners found that more than four in 10 of the city's women between the ages of 18 and 34 had experienced public sexual harassment over the past year. Are we the only ones who thought, huh, that's not as many as we expected? A horrible reaction, yes, but other studies, like a 2008 poll by Stop Street Harassment, found that nearly 90% of women had experienced street harassment motivated by gender by age 19. How can we get rid of a centuries-old practice, especially since women are conditioned to ignore unwanted harassment rather than confront it?
The London YouGov study, commissioned by End Violence Against Women Coalition, found that girls as young as 12 were being targeted. Previous research by the group shows that one in three UK schoolgirls had experienced "unwanted sexual contact." Rookie's predominantly teenage staffers wrote a great but harrowing piece about their own experiences earlier this week, because, "It dawned on us that you can take any random group of girls and women, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of them will have multiple stories of terrible things that were said to them and done to them on the street by strangers, as a matter of course. Just the normal state of affairs when you are out in public, being female. Like, we're not special. This happens to everybody." One staffer said she goes into "full pretending-to-be-a-horrible-tortured-monster mode," which is awesome, but not everyone feels safe responding in such a way — especially younger women.
But ignoring street harassment won't solve the problem, either. And dismissing street harassment as "harmless fun" or complimentary — as so many people, both male and female, tend to do — is dangerous, Holly Dustin, EVAW's director, told the Guardian. "Sexual harassment has a real impact on women's lives, whether it is changing their behaviour or whether they feel safe on the streets," she said. "It feeds into a fear of rape and sexual violence and has a harmful effect on broader issues of equality."
Is there any third-party solution? There have been a few anti-street harassment social media campaigns over the past few years, most famously Hollaback, which encourages women to "holla back" by taking pictures of harassers and posting them online. But while that kind of response helps women feel stronger, it doesn't really stop harassment from happening in the moment.
Now, Hollaback's London affiliate is joining with the UK Anti Street Harassment Campaign and calling for a public awareness campaign on buses and subways, similar to signs that tell passengers not to put their feet on seats or eat and drink on public transport. "We are asking for training for transport staff to help them deal with these incidents and serious police intervention when it is needed," Dustin said. "But we are also asking for the wider community to recognise this is not acceptable and speak out against it when they see it happening."
I used to try and talk back to catcallers when I felt that it was safe to do so; I was curious if I could actually convince any of them to change their ways, since so much of street harassment seems second-nature, more about proving one's manliness to friends or even just in the public sphere — it's not like street harassers actually expect women to respond to a hollered "Damn baby, sexy legs." But I stopped after too many men called me "dyke" or "slut" when I asked them not to comment on me like that; the whole thing just got tiring and easier to ignore for my own sake. It'll be interesting to see whether the London signage will actually be approved — and, if so, whether anyone will take it seriously.
Image via SVLuma/Shutterstock.