A few years ago, some ‘shocking’ statistics came to light, spotlighting a modern-day epidemic infecting women’s ability to be safe every day, everywhere. A survey of 1,000 women across the UK found that 71% reported being sexually harassed in public, and 97% between ages 18-24 reported being harassed or assaulted. As you can imagine, it wasn’t that shocking to 97% of women, at least. It certainly wasn’t shocking to me as someone who has been sexually harassed and assaulted in public between the ages of 18-24. I want to tell you about two of those incidents today to illustrate that 97% isn’t just a shocking number. Behind the 97% are women like me with stories like this…
I still feel guilty that I did not report the man wearing a hi-vis jacket who cycled past me and grabbed my backside while I was walking between university campuses. It was 2016, and at the time, I didn’t even think it was an option to report something like that. I didn’t know it was a crime or that it was considered assault, especially when I compared it to other more serious crimes. As a 20-year-old university student, it didn’t cross my mind that the police would need to know or actually care about it. Evidently, I’m not alone in this thinking, with 60% of sexual assaults going unreported to the police. An alarming sign of something systemically going wrong if so many of us think violations against our bodies don’t really matter to the institutes that govern us. How do we combat this overwhelming narrative on a local level? Well, actions. Local government need to work closer with partners like the police service and educational institutions to provide better education, clarity, support, and counselling and show real sincerity and conviction in following through with consequences. Give people a reason to believe in the value of reporting because, evidently, most don’t.
In my experience of stranger harassment out in the community, it’s been more common to have men say intimidating things to try and scare me. This is still an ordeal of its own, but the moments where a stranger has the audacity to physically touch you, well, it brings with it an entirely new sense of dread. My initial reaction when this man touched me and then smirked at me as he peddled away was anger, then I felt ashamed, and then I felt angry that I felt ashamed.
In the months that followed, I replayed the moment in my mind a lot, often thinking about how I wished I could have fought back. This was before the Me Too movement, and already in my two decades of life, I had experienced far too many incidents of men harassing and assaulting me to list here or even remember. It didn’t matter where I was: a shop, park, school, a club or just on the street. Darting my eyes down, tugging at my clothes and praying I could just disappear from their gaze has been common practice for me for a very long time, as I know it is for many women.
Of course, life goes on. I tried to put the incident behind me and not let anyone realise how much it still bothered me because it felt silly, trivial almost. How can I complain because other women have had it so much worse? But then, does my not complaining about these smaller incidents of harassment contribute towards why it gets worse? The dilemma makes me feel the guilt and shame again. A few months later, I came across a report that made my heart sink. They had caught a man who had been riding around the city on a bike, wearing a hi-vis jacket and assaulting women. In total, he had assaulted seventeen women, including a child as young as 11 years old – and those are just the ones who came forward. All these years later, I often think about how that poor girl was approached and assaulted on her way to school and how I was not part of the solution that could have stopped that from happening. I probably carry more guilt than the man who did it will ever feel. Since I didn’t come forward, who can say for sure that the man who assaulted them assaulted me? It was a similar crime at a similar time, but then again, there is the sad reality that more than one perpetrator could be using the same tactics. After all, with headline stats like 97% of women, it definitely isn’t just one man going around doing it all.
It still hurts to admit that the moment after it happened, shame and minimisation overtook the anger. I felt lucky. I knew that it could have been so much worse that dark winter night on a lonely pathway. Not only was I thankful that this man had shown ‘mercy’ on me, but I initially felt like I was to blame because of the situation I had put myself in. A narrative that I recognise is defective and damaging and yet is so ingrained that it is instinctual. It probably played an underlying role as to why I didn’t report it.
This blame and shame is so integrated into women’s everyday thinking because the onus has always been on us to take responsibility for our own safety. When ‘we fail’, we let ourselves down, instead of society having let us down by setting us up for what has been deemed an accepted inevitability. This narrative needs to be broken, smashed to pieces from the top-down and bottom-up if we’re going to fully deliver interventions that truly improve women’s safety. Not band-aids, actual fixes.
I moved on, but I never forgot. A few years later I was starting out as a real adult with my first proper job in Birmingham, and this required a bit of commuting, so I got myself a bike to ride to the train station. I had always loved biking ever since I was a kid. The freedom, the wind on your face. Over the next few months, my commute was the most therapeutic and enjoyable part of my day. Biking to work in the morning gave me a burst of energy, and then it gave me a chance to unwind on my way home after work.
That changed on a mid-spring morning. The weather had turned dull overnight with no sign of the usual morning sunshine, just dark, miserable skies. With hindsight, I might have called it foreboding. Given this is a pretty typical day in the UK, I used the usual route cutting through a public park with open fields and play areas. Usually, it was filled with dog walkers around that time, but not that morning.
I thought it was just me until I saw a man emerge up ahead from out of the play area and head onto the cycle path. Initially, I thought he was just inconsiderate – placing himself smack bang in the middle of the path so that I could not easily fit by him on either side. When I got closer, I steered off the path completely and onto the grass just to avoid brushing up next to him. When I passed by, he reached out and tried to yank me off the bike. I was just out of reach. Even though he only grazed me, I could see from how he lunged that he was planning to yank me off. Again, I felt lucky that my instincts led me to create space between us.
I was in shock, but oddly enough, my initial thought was, ‘Perhaps I have misread the situation?’ I turned back and his expression made it terrifyingly clear that I had not misread anything. He stared at me like I was prey. Without question, he meant me harm. And he tried again. He ran towards me, and I peddled faster than I thought the bike or I was capable of going. When I thought I was far enough away, I looked back. I needed to check if what happened really just happened, and I had a paranoid feeling that he was still right behind me. He wasn’t, but he was still on the path chasing me. I could feel his glare, but I knew he couldn’t catch up.
I never cycled that way again. For weeks afterwards, I got a lift to the station because I was too scared to cycle anymore, and then I left my job, thankful that I found one where I could work from home. In that one moment, he stole from me my favourite part of the day, and I felt pathetic for letting him do that. The whole incident and how I handled it still makes me feel weak. And I felt lucky, again because ultimately, I got out of there physically unharmed. Why do I feel lucky, I wonder? Have we been taught to be grateful every time we’re spared because we know how bad the odds are against us? Always reminded how it could be so much worse. Pick up a newspaper, turn on your phone, and watch the news or listen to those unguarded conversations between women. Violence against women is everywhere, all the time.
I still went to work that day. Could you even claim time off for almost being grabbed? Later that evening, I told my then-boyfriend, now fiancé, what happened and tried to initially act like it wasn’t a big deal. Just like I had downplayed most incidents of harassment or assault that I had experienced. This time I cracked. I burst out crying because I felt safe enough to just react honestly, lower my guard and say that I’m not okay with pretending that this is okay. I wish that everyone else, especially those in positions of power and authority, would make it clear that they’re not okay with any of it either. I was exhausted from years of being made to feel scared while just trying to live, and I still am. For some women, nowhere is a safe space to let it out.
It’s our collective responsibility as a community to change that and provide safe spaces to open up and get support. Local government can do so much more in this regard. From stronger messaging and campaigns on women’s safety to displaying a true lack of tolerance for it, and creating spaces to hear these stories and act on them. This is an epidemic of violence. While there is greater awareness around issues of domestic violence and people are still working to improve attitudes toward women who do report assaults, so much more needs to be done.
When I told my brother what happened, he immediately ordered me some defense spray to attach to my keys. For years, I carried the spray in my purse everywhere I went. For a while after the incident, I would carry it up my sleeve if I was walking anywhere by myself, even just around the corner to my local shops. My finger would rest on the button just in case I was caught off guard again. As time passes between incidents, the overwhelming sense of dread starts to dull, and confidence is slowly regained, but you’re always alert that any moment could change that. Some might call that paranoia, but I imagine most women would just call it lived experience.
I still can’t enjoy a bike ride alone, and I’m so thankful that I now have my dog to accompany me on every walk. I do what I can to try and avoid the same situations that have scarred me, but I also realise how futile that is given that none of it was my fault or in my control. For years, this story sat as a hidden draft that I didn’t think should be shared, mainly because of the backlash women get for talking about these everyday incidents of sexual harassment and assault. I know that some people reading this will think it was my fault for walking in the dark between campuses or that it was my fault for biking in the morning without many people around in the park. Other people may read this and say I am overreacting.
But I’m not choosing to share my worst experiences, I’m just sharing two examples of moments that caught me off guard in public spaces, to show you that even the ‘untouched’ incidents leave a scar and disrupt how you live. Whether we like it or not, we have created a culture of fear and tolerance for violence against women, which can make essential things like going to university or work a safety issue. It may be unspoken, but the underlying expectation of governments and anchor institutions is still that women need to accept and mitigate the risk posed by men. Avoid the situation. But the situation is us just trying to live.
Instead, the onus should be on men to know better, do better, and be better, and our governing bodies should teach them, show them and make them.
When it comes to what women need from local government. It begins by understanding that our experiences of assault and harassment are not just an insurmountable number that creates a ‘shocking revelation’. It’s been revealed for a long, long time now – what are we going to do about it? There’s no space anymore in politics or society to deny and be unresponsive to what’s happening on our streets. It’s time we work harder than ever to put the blame, shame and guilt back on the culprits themselves. Of course, there is no easy fix for systemic issues like this, a multi-pronged approach is needed at every angle. Local government is still largely male-dominated, especially in leadership roles, and with this lack of representation and consideration of women’s needs comes a missing gender lens in designing our public spaces to enhance safety, from transportation to infrastructure to public parks and pathways. We have to ensure women’s lived experiences and needs are at the forefront while setting policies and developing spaces. Local government must hear and respond to these stories to create the right spaces, processes and policies that prioritise women’s safety and enhance their lives.
As the governing body at the forefront of every community, local government cannot wash their hands of the responsibility they have to remember the individuality of that 97%. This is something almost every woman you’ve ever come across has experienced, and they may not feel safe enough to even tell anyone. That’s your daughters, your wives, your sisters, your aunts, your nieces, your friends, your teachers, your doctors, your shop assistants, and that’s ultimately your community and your responsibility.
Check out LGIU’s collection of resources on how local government can work to tackle inequality here