Increasingly I feel awkward and embarrassed when walking around my city. Most mornings, upon leaving my house, I attract the attention of at least one lecherous motorist, or a pair of wayward builders. When I step out into the open, I am stepping into a man’s world, where I must be reserved yet sexual, demure yet demanding, and attractive, without allowing myself to become an exhibit.
But what women have accepted as the norm for a lifetime – some of my friends even find it “flattering” – is now attracting retaliation. On Monday evening, blogger London Feminist launched a twitter hash-tag encouraging people to share experiences of street harassment and sexual abuse that they had never reported.
The response to #Ididnotreport was extraordinary, demonstrating the overwhelming social stigma that still exists around “low-level” gender-based abuse. Some tweeted: “#Ididnotreport because reporting the first time ruined my life,” and others: “#Ididnotreport because some ‘friends’ think that you shouldn’t cause a scene when a stranger puts his hand between your legs.”
The ‘taboo’ subject attracted the attention of public figures. Brave and moving was Laurie Penny’s contribution: “#Ididnotreport the man who date-raped me when I was 19. I did tell mutual friends, who called me a liar.”
Out of solidarity, I felt moved to offer my own experience – a possessive and jealous ex-boyfriend who manipulated me until I felt so worthless that I didn’t know I deserved better.
Some criticise the modern dependence on social media as a dangerous move away from accountability and interaction, to anonymity. But #Ididnotreport has given new levels of depth to Virginia Woolf’s belief that: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Anonymous is still a woman, but now faceless interaction has allowed us to share and assimilate in a way never before possible.
Twitter has given women a platform to tell the world the things they were too scared to tell their families, friends, or the police. As a collective, women who have suffered abuse silently become a more powerful voice than they could ever have been alone.
On the same day, parenting forum Mumsnet launched their “We Believe You” campaign. Like #Ididnotreport, the campaign aims firstly to bring into the open the huge number of rapes and sexual assault that are inflicted on the ‘weaker sex’, and secondly to pull apart the many myths surrounding rape that lead to women not reporting sexual assault out of the fear they will not be believed.
Rape and sexual assault are far more common than the world at large wants to admit, and the vast majority of cases are never even reported. Some women feel ashamed or embarrassed, many fear they will not be believed, and more say that low conviction rates put them off reporting an assault.
A survey by Mumsnet found this week that one in ten women have been raped, and more than a third have been sexually assaulted in some way. In two-thirds of cases, the women knew the person responsible.
83 per cent of women who had been sexually assaulted or raped did not report the crime to the police. One quarter did not tell anyone at all.
It is time to dispel the victim-blaming attitudes surrounding ‘rape culture’. You didn’t deserve it because you dressed provocatively; yes, it can still be rape if he is your friend or boyfriend. When people buy into these myths, they limit women’s freedom of movement by implying that rape can be prevented by avoiding certain places.
Like rape, street harassment restricts girls’ and women’s access to public places. Catcalls, sexist comments, public masturbation, groping and assault make public places unfriendly, frightening and dangerous for many girls, women, and LGBT people.
Anti-street harassment week begins this weekend, March 18-24. “Meet Us On The Street” is the rallying call for the movement started by Stop Street Harassment, which promotes equal access to public space and civil rights. Anyone can get involved in the international week of action by raising awareness on social media, educating your children about sexual harassment, or by starting a Meet Us On The Street program in your town. For more suggestions on how to get involved, see the campaign website here.
On International Women’s Day last Thursday, one ‘lad’ I follow on Twitter tweeted the following: “Have a good one girls, because the other 364 days belong to us #IWD.”
Needless to say, this ‘joke’ did not feel very funny. However, in the wake of my anger, I realised that it wasn’t his ignorance that offended me so greatly, but the fact that he was, largely, right.
Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, produce half of its food, yet earn just 10 per cent of its income, and own 1 per cent of its property. And – it is increasingly obvious – own zero per cent of the streets we walk around in.