Catcalling | Photo: Michael, CC BY 2.0
So believe it or not, I can occasionally be in a good mood. This week happens to be one of those occasions. Partly because in order to deal with the RNC, I’ve decided to detach the parts of my brain that feel anger and fear, lest I die of a premature heart attack or have a brain aneurysm. But also partly because I have read some genuinely good news. Friend M pointed me towards a story about Nottinghamshire, England, where harassment of women is now going to be recorded as a hate crime. This means that catcalling, sexual harassment, unwanted photographs, and other forms of daily abuse that women are usually supposed to just shrug and accept will actually be taken seriously by police.
In recording harassment in this way, a few very important things are able to happen. First, the police will actually investigate the harassment, and second, there will be support for the victims. Third, the police will be able to collect data on harassment and form an analysis of the places and times that it happens in order to (hopefully) do more things to combat it. This is much better than the current state of affairs for most police forces, which is reactive rather than proactive. Yes, that man might have been staring up your skirt for the last fifteen minutes and muttering to you about how good he thinks you’d feel, but it’s not a crime until he actually puts his hand up your skirt. So why bother the police with the simple fact that you feel incredibly uncomfortable and unsafe in public places that are supposed to be welcoming to anyone?
There’s a fairly common misconception that street harassment or sexual harassment only happens to “pretty” women. It’s supposed to be a “compliment” that a total stranger has remarked on your looks, told you to smile, or invited you to perform a sexual act with them. Or in my case, be told by a stranger twenty years older than me that he “likes [my] dark hair” which in addition to being vaguely creepy, is so generic that as far as compliments go it’s one step above “I like the fact that you have skin.” (Really. So flattering.) But harassment is so pervasive, it is harder to find women who haven’t been harassed than women who have. In reporting on the Nottinghamshire case, Nadia Khomami presents a source with some seriously depressing statistics.
Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “It is great that police in Nottingham will be capturing the way a lot of harassment in public spaces is targeted at women and girls. In a recent poll we found that 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places and 45% have experienced unwanted sexual touching, which can amount to sexual assault.
“This level of harassment is having an enormous impact on women’s freedom to move about in the public space as it makes women feel a lot less safe. The women we spoke to do a lot of work to feel safer, including avoiding parts of the city they live in, taking taxis and leaving events in groups.”
That means if you took a random sampling of ten British women, one of them would have never experienced unwanted sexual attention, and one of them would be only half certain that she’d experienced unwanted sexual attention.
People ignore street harassment because they see it as a “victimless” crime. So someone remarks on your looks? So what? But as Krys notes, this type of attention has real, physical effects on women’s lives. They change how they dress, where they go, how they move about the city, and various other things in order to feel more safe, and less harassed. Jessica Williams points this out to comedic (and tragic) effect when she discusses street harassment in what might be one of my favorite Daily Show segments of all time.
Harassment is able to continue because no one takes it seriously. Hopefully Nottinghamshire is only the first of many police forces to take these steps to address harassment. Or will at least make a few more men think twice before they shout something about how they want to touch random women.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not celebrating on small islands of victory in the vast sea of misogyny, she studies gender in popular culture.
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