The past year has been mentally exhausting. Long overdue, a consequence of the world coming to a halt has been the inability to deny the problems insidiously bubbling under the surface. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I do wonder if these issues would have gained the same degree of traction had the majority of the world not been stuck at home. Without the distraction of fancy Instagram brunches and flights to hop on, maybe the pandemic has forced us to finally address the issues that as a society, we’ve been pretty good at repressing.
The death of Sarah Everard, in my opinion, has acted as a catalyst from which women are finally speaking out on years worth of shared experiences, telling the world “enough is enough”. Rightly or wrongly, the murder of a woman on her walk home has come to symbolise a legitimate fear ingrained in women and girls everywhere.
I think that part of the problem when trying to articulate my experience as a woman is that it cannot be attributed to a single incident. The varying degrees of harassment that I have experienced over the years cannot be neatly wrapped into a few hundred words and presented to the men in my life; “here, now do you understand?”. As a consequence, it seems that a lot of men are viewing the current outpour as a vast overreaction when in reality, it’s the product of years of experiences.
If you’re shocked by the UN Women report that 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment – here’s another shocker – each of those women will have experienced it dozens and dozens of times. And I’m not talking about a ‘friendly’ wolf whistle. As it goes, wolf whistles don’t even cut the Top 100 list of creepy things that I’ve experienced as a woman. You know what does? The men who have groped me in broad daylight. The men who have followed me to my workplace. The men who have got aggressive after I rejected them. The men who have shouted vulgar things about my body. The men at bars who have grabbed my arm to stop me from leaving. The men who have exposed themselves in public. The men who have sent me unsolicited messages online explaining e-x-a-c-t-l-y what they want to do to me. The men who have leered at me on public transport. The men who haven’t taken no for an answer.
And it’s not just something we can walk away from. It’s happened in school, at university, at work. In bars, in clubs, at the beach. In the daytime, in the evening and in every. single. country I have been to. Whether with friends or alone. And that’s before you add social media to the mix. Consider a whole lifetime peppered with incidents like this (seriously, grown men propositioning children on their way home from school??), and you can see why women are angry.
But it’s not enough to be angry. Because even a million voices from (“emotional“, “overreacting“, and “hormonal“) women aren’t going to change what is inherently a male problem.
Men need to start taking accountability for their own behaviours and that of their friends. Sure, maybe you’re not a rapist, but by failing to call out your mates for behaviours that you know are wrong, you are not only allowing them to minimise and rationalise their actions, but you’re essentially giving them a leg up. If we view sexual violence as a pyramid (with the most serious crimes at the top), then we need to acknowledge that the men at the top are standing on the shoulders of the enablers below.
Granted, the previous examples don’t apply to everyone. I doubt that most of the men reading this shout obscenities at strangers, and I’d like to think they’re smart enough to realise that following someone down the street won’t get them a date.
But too many men see the objectification of girls and women as some kind of rite of passage. Too many will happily admit to plying girls with alcohol to get them to go home with them. Will share images meant only for them. Will get put out after a date because obviously spending a few ££ on dinner should = sex. Too many will tell women that she’s a bore if she doesn’t, yet a whore if she does. And too many will accept the victim-blaming narrative (or worse, not believe the victim in the first place). These are the behaviours that time and time again are left unchallenged.
Whilst there are serious improvements that need to be made across the criminal justice system (I could write a whole essay on this), we can all make a start within our own families and friendship groups. Young boys need to be taught earlier about respect and consent. Young girls need to understand that their bodies do not exist for male pleasure. They need to feel comfortable coming forwards and trust that their voice will be heard. Whilst a singular incident often feels too trivial to speak about, it adds fuels to the fear that burdens women every single day.
To the women reading this; speak up. Don’t let your voices be silenced. To the men; I hope I have given even the smallest insight into the issue. And don’t you dare tell us that we’re overreacting – this is the first time we’ve spoken about it.