The recent scenes of police literally manhandling women at the vigil for Sarah Everard were shocking and disturbing, especially because a serving Met police officer has been arrested for her murder. The fallout from this event has been huge. Even Priti Patel commented on Twitter that the footage was “upsetting” and called for an inquiry.
Images of male police officers dragging women away were reminiscent of similar scenes over 100 years ago, when suffragettes were demonstrating for women’s right to vote.
This prompted us to consider whether sexual harassment and violence have increased or changed in nature over the years. The facts are stark: according to Home Office statistics, “In the UK, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse and 1 in 5 sexual assault in her lifetime.” This equates to 3.4 million women, 83% of whom did not report their experiences to the police.
We asked five women of different ages, from 12 to 72, to tell us about events in their own lives that have affected them. There are some striking similarities.
Freya and Lily
My granddaughter Lily and I experienced similar events more than 50 years apart. The events were familiar in their predictability: a man singling out a young woman in order to take advantage of her, because he thought he could. Our experiences were equally traumatising, but our reactions so totally different that it gives me hope that, after the #MeToo movement and #ReclaimTheseStreets, women are finally coming together to call this out.
When I was 16, at around 9.30 at night, I turned into my road following an evening at my local youth club. I was about 5 minutes’ walk from my front door, when I suddenly felt a man’s hand over my mouth and the other hand pushed up my skirt. I was terrified enough to let out an almighty scream, at which the man ran past me and dashed off down the road ahead of me. I ran home and fell into the front door. What happened next is what many women describe. I said nothing to either of my parents, nor did I breathe a word to anyone for years.
It was only when I was working with people as a therapist that the memory returned and I was able to talk about it. It affected my relationships throughout my life. It felt shameful, although none of it was my fault.
My granddaughter was about 12, walking home from school in broad daylight, when a car passed by and the driver, who had clearly noticed her, turned his car round and started to follow her by kerb crawling. She hurried on and turned into a side road; but he followed her, got out of the car and started running after her. By this time she had managed to reach her front door without being caught. She told my daughter immediately as she was so traumatised and frightened. Every day from then on, she had to be met at the bus stop from school.
A few months later a friend noticed that Lily had lost large clumps of hair at the back of her head. I was convinced this had something to do with the previous events and suggested to her parents she had some counselling. A local child therapist talked Lily through the event. On the fifth session, the therapist accompanied her to the spot where she was being followed, helped her understand she was resilient and enabled her to find her inner resources. And more importantly, that it was not her fault. It never is. Now is the time that message needs to stick.
When I thought about my personal experience of sexual harassment and assault over my lifetime, the memories came in waves, like peeling back layers of skin. Near the surface were memories of wolf whistles and catcalls during my teens and twenties: examples of everyday sexism that were mildly irritating. Next came the more annoying instances of approaches by kerb-crawling men, while living in London in my mid-twenties. These became a real nuisance as I tried to walk to the underground station. I ended up hitting the men’s cars and swearing at them.
Gradually, I started to remember more disturbing incidents. When I was ten and travelling by train to visit a friend, a man purposefully moved closer to me on a nearly empty train. Instinctively feeling threatened, I jumped off before the train left the station and sought refuge in a ‘ladies only’ carriage, which still existed on some trains in the late 1950s. I was terrified, especially when the man walked along the platform looking in all the carriages for me. This incident made me ultra-conscious and wary of men following me, which is with me to this day.
Other memories were hidden more deeply: two attempted rapes when I was 20, one by a male friend and another by a total stranger. After I had fought him off, my friend excused his behaviour by saying that a mate had “put him up to it”, arguing that I would probably “come round and succumb” to his advances. I was not frightened, just furious. But the other incident was terrifying. The perpetrator was a well-dressed man in a suit who picked me up while hitchhiking (considered safe at the time). I fled for my life.
I never told anyone about either incident, because at some level I thought I was to blame. Thinking about these events now, I had clearly internalised the ‘asking for it’ narrative.
Victim blaming was commonplace in the late 60s, when these events took place. But even now the message, all too often, is that women need to change their behaviour, not men.
I had never really sat down and examined my own experiences of #MeToo and what they meant to my psyche. There are key moments in your life that you remember vividly, right down to what you were wearing and the exchange that took place.
At the age of around ten, I answered the phone at home when my mum was at work. He said his name was Mr Jackson or Mr Johnson (both of those are in my memory). He asked me if I would like to take part in a competition, and that the questions would be very simple. He proceeded to ask me what I was wearing. A pink dress would you believe. He then got down to the detail. What was under my pink dress?
By that stage I was feeling very uncomfortable and I put the phone down, as he had begun to get obscene. I felt dirty and guilty at the same time. From the time of his call to the time my mum returned home I was terrified. Convinced that he was watching me. I stood by the curtains and tried to peer out without being seen, waiting for him to pounce.
When I told my mum, I started to cry and I remember her comforting me. From that day onward our phone number became ex-directory and I never had a call like that again.
I still have vivid memories of this ‘dirty phone call’ and only recently wrote a short story about a nightmare in which it featured. I don’t know if that counts as a #MeToo moment. It certainly had an influence on my life and made me suspicious of men.
Some years later, I embarked on a five-year relationship with a slightly older man. It all went pear-shaped at the end, especially when I told him I wanted to go to college. I’d bought all the books for my course, was excited, and he knew I was going. He burnt them all and then threatened to blow up the car with him inside it. It was all empty threats thankfully and extremely fraught at the time, but what gives someone the right to behave that way and use coercive behaviour to control someone? And yet at the time it didn’t seem unusual, just emotive and highly-strung, and I was made to feel guilty and in the wrong. It took me a bit longer to leave that man, but I did eventually and never looked back.
It felt like groundhog day when, years later, my next ex-partner, in an aggressive pique of rage, shouted at me that I wasn’t to look for other work because my job was to stay and run the company that we jointly managed. A takeaway gift from that coupling, when things reached bursting point, is a small scar on my back, from being thrown against a glass window that splintered.
But why do we put up with such things? That was over 30 years ago and things have changed a great deal, but not enough. I didn’t think to tell my story, because it seemed minor in comparison to all the sexual abuse, rape and harassment cases that are rife in both the media and online. But in being quiet all those years, was I being complicit? We owe it to each other to call things what they are and to shout out when we see coercive, manipulative behaviour of any kind. I voted with my feet and left, but not all women have that luxury.
“One two, one two.” He mimicked my step as I tried to get around him. “Which way, four eyes?” − “Four eyes are better than two,” I would have retorted to this shortsighted man, but he grabbed my boob first. “Dude!” his friend exhaled, and they smirked, sauntering past. It was lunchtime, on a busy street, and I was 12 years old. Did anyone see? Did anyone get hurt?
The story feels too banal to recount, but I do because it bounds the beginning of a time. My body had just changed shape, revealing a new public to me: an all-male cast of commentators in whom my new lumps and bumps evoked visceral actions. It didn’t matter what I wore, or where I went, what I thought, read or said. The body I inhabited got attention from this male gaze. Four or five humiliating honks each time I went outside. A grope here, an unwanted follower or flasher there. A handful of times I was assaulted by an (always male) taxi driver – touched, robbed, taken far from my home.
The more that happened, the less I felt happened to me – these things happened to this carapace of a body I inhabited. They happened to my friends’ bodies too. And we tried to navigate, learning something about masks and doubles, gender and performance for this uninvited audience. Playing to preserve our selves, mediated as we were through our gender. Like many women now, I recall my protection strategies and note similarities with Sarah Everard: walking well-trodden paths, wearing bright clothes that facilitate fast escape, being on the phone to a man, letting people know where you are, clutching keys between your knuckles… Walking these paths, to let other women know they could walk too.
And yet. It’s luck it wasn’t me this time. Or you. Or them.
Bewildering and isolating, as a child I wasn’t sure the adults I knew saw it. And as an adult, I no longer feel its intensity. I don’t get honked at any more, and I’m tempted to conclude things have got better: we’ve had #MeToo and some Saviles have fallen. But I cannot see what’s happening for my younger digital native sisters. I do not know how it is for them.
Having bent and morphed, split and shrunk and scattered to fit… to pass… to remain – it’s time to shine a light on the other. Men: it’s over to you. What are you going to do about this?
Sexual harassment and abuse continue across generations
“So generation after generation, women struggle for insights others had already had before them, resulting in the constant inventing of the wheel.”Gerda Lerner
What is striking about all these accounts is the young age at which each of these first harassment or assault incidents occurred and the strong impact they had on each of the women.
A report for UN Women found that 86% of young women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed in public spaces, though no mention is made of under 18s. Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK, said: “We are looking at a situation where younger women are constantly modifying their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being objectified or attacked.”
Kerb crawling is already illegal when done to solicit a prostitute, but Harriet Harman has recently called for it to be made illegal in more circumstances, describing the fact that schoolgirls experience predatory kerb crawling as “absolutely frightening”.
Tricia’s account was particularly disturbing in reporting partners’ coercive control and domestic violence. Women’s Aid describes coercive control as “an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation” designed to frighten or punish their victim. New amendments have been added to the Domestic Abuse Bill to cover coercive behaviour from ex-partners. The charity Refuge reports the horrifying figure of two women a week being killed by a current of former partner in England and Wales, and according to Counting Dead Women at least 35 women this year alone have been killed by men. Domestic abuse generally has surged during lockdowns.
Going forward: breaking the chain
A common element across most of the women’s accounts is how guilty or ashamed they felt about events that had been perpetrated by men, and how women changed their own behaviour in the light of abuse or harassment. As Casper Jay writes, it is time to turn the spotlight on men. We agree that not all men are violent or abusive towards women, but most women have experienced male violence and abuse of some kind. This has to stop.
The #NotAllMen meme is infuriating, unhelpful and deeply flawed, as a recent article (by a man) in Yorkshire Bylines points out: “#NotAllMen focuses attention away from the fact that women are being harassed and assaulted, instead concentrating attention on men who are keen to remind the world that they are not harassing and assaulting women.”
We need to teach boys to respect girls and women, as the policing minister Kit Malthouse suggested recently in the light of Sarah Everard’s murder. The recent furore about reported rape culture at Dulwich College and other top private schools is extremely disturbing, but it is prevalent in state schools too: the online platform Everyone’s Invited has received almost 10,000 testimonies already.
Parents and teachers have an important role in educating boys not to become violent men, by empowering them to process their emotions and helping them to understand that sexual harassment and violence are never acceptable.
When men who are kind and gentle stand up for their sisters and challenge male toxicity, male power and privilege, without fearing being called ‘woke’ or ‘snowflake’, then we will truly start to see progress.
With many thanks to the women who contributed to this article. All names have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Do contribute to the Violence Against Women and Girls Call for Evidence.