97% of women have been sexually harassed: this is what four survivors want you to know

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  • Trigger warning - themes of sexual assault, violence and harassment.

    The heartbreaking news that marketing executive Sarah Everard, 33, is still missing – with human remains found in Kent, although no identification yet confirmed – has struck a chord with many, many women across the UK this week.

    It’s all a little too close to home. We’ve all been there. She was just walking home, from a friends house. She did everything right. She wore bright clothes. She chose a well lit route. She even rung her boyfriend. And yet, she still fell victim.

    Street harassment already impacts 75% of women in the UK, but current nationwide lockdowns only seem to be spurring on more violent and aggressive behaviour.

    Un Women UK stats this week show a staggering 97% of women aged 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they’ve experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. This is the harsh reality, and it needs to be addressed. If we don’t talk, it won’t change. We need to be encouraging people of all genders to be having conversations around safety and consent. And we need to listen, to the difficult stories, to the painful realities, and to the honest truths about what we, as a society, seem to be unable to confront.

    Here, four brave women share theirs.

    For those finding the news and social media upsetting at current, please know that this article shares stories of sexual assault. Do leave the page now if this may trigger you. 

    “I feel angry, devastated, raw. And I feel exhausted. I am so tired of carrying this fear with me every time I step out of my front door.”

    Chloe Maughan, 27, researcher and writer

    “I was 18 the first time I was assaulted by a stranger.”

    “I was walking the short walk from Dalston Kingsland station to Ridley Road, where I was renting a spare room. It’s a distance of just a few hundred metres. It was about 7pm, and still light out. In the daytime, the road houses a busy market, but by 7pm everything is packed up and so the road was almost empty.

    “That was, except for a group of men stood just a few buildings down from my front door. As I approached one of them stepped into my path. He grabbed hold of my wrist and pulled me into his torso. He asked if he could walk me home. Conscious that I was outnumbered, I politely declined but still he held on to my wrist. He tried to persuade me. Tried to change my ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.”

    “In that moment, I feared I was going to be raped or killed. I got away not because anyone intervened, but because after he’d groped me his hand landed on my stomach, and he mistook my rounded stomach for a pregnancy. He let me go.”

    “I was alone in London, so didn’t seek support in the immediate aftermath, and it wasn’t until a few years later when I was followed by a group of men in Berlin that the effects really started to hit me.”

    PTSD is like that for a lot of women. It’s not always one event, but the cumulative effect of being harassed and fearing for your safety constantly. I stopped being able to walk anywhere at night, and became very socially withdrawn.”

    “I did years of therapy, and after some specialist trauma therapy, I was able to walk at night again without having panic attacks every time.”

    “Before the pandemic, I felt like I’d recovered, but after twelve months of repeated lockdowns, my avoidance behaviours have crept back in. The streets are scarier now. The roads around me that would usually feel busy feel eerily quiet even in the middle of the day.”

    “Throughout December, I couldn’t leave the house after 4pm. Today I feel angry, I feel devastated, I feel raw. And I feel exhausted. I am so tired of carrying this fear with me every time I step out of my front door.”

    Sexual harassment in lockdown

    “We tell women not to walk after dark, but I was assaulted in the cold light of day.”

    Georgia O’Brien, 27, communications officer

    “Nearly two years ago on a bright August morning, I’d left early for work. I was eager to make a good impression at my new job. Yet, just a few steps from my front door, a man grabbed and sexually assaulted me.”

    “Eventually a passerby intervened. He called 999 and my attacker was arrested. But it was the beginning of the longest six months of my life.”

    “What surprised me most was that I felt lucky. Lucky that the long skirt I wore that made it more difficult as he groped through my clothes. Lucky that as he began to push me against a wall, someone appeared.”

    “And in many ways, I was lucky. The perpetrator was arrested at the scene and the entire incident caught on CCTV. But when I thought it was over, it began again. Despite the overwhelming evidence, he pled not guilty. And so it went to trial.”

    “My assault lasted barely 30 seconds, but I resented the minutes and hours and days it cost me in the months that followed. I wasn’t allowed to forget. I wasn’t allowed to move on.”

    “The resentment built. Resenting time I lost walking to avoid where it happened. Resenting being late to work because it took a two-hour round trip to give my victim impact statement. Resenting associating blocked numbers so strongly with the police that I once cried over a sales call.”

    “The week after I was assaulted, a stranger tapped on the shoulder to tell me that my backpack was open. I was so panicked by being unexpectedly touched that I began to sob while he repeatedly apologised for scaring me. I resented kindness killed by fear.”

    “I got what many assault victims will never get. My attacker was found guilty and sentenced. But it wasn’t the closure I hoped for. We tell women not to walk after dark, but I was assaulted in the cold light of day. We tell women to take a taxi, but that didn’t help those assaulted by John Worboys. It’s time we stop focusing on women’s choices, and start focusing on the men that attack us.”

    “Little girls are taught from primary school age how to moderate their behaviour to keep themselves safe.”

    Faye White, 28, multimedia producer

    “During the first national lockdown last spring, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger on my way home from work. It was around 9:30pm and it was dark, but I was cycling on a main road and the streets were well lit.”

    “I’d come across some roadworks and had to get off my bike to walk it through the obstruction. But then I heard someone shouting in the distance. Suddenly, a man came around the corner. He was shouting and swigging from a can, but he hadn’t noticed me standing near him on the pavement. There was no room for me to pass by with the bike, so I froze and waited for him to move on.”

    “As he came closer, his eyes focussed on me. He smiled and swiped out in front of him to grab me. I heard my own voice reverberating, “get away from me” around the empty London street.”

    “This exchange happened a few more times before he gave up. He laughed and moved on, whispering verbal abuse under his breath as he walked away. But as I went to get back on my bike, suddenly he was behind me.”

    “I cycled the remaining ten minutes home as quickly as I could. I was living alone at the time and coming home to my empty house didn’t feel safe. I immediately called the police to report what had happened. My voice shook on the phone. As a rape survivor, this is not the first time I have reported something like this to the police. I was in shock that I was a victim again.”

    “I asked the call handler twice if the police could patrol the area. They said no.”

    “A female police officer came to my flat to take a statement from me at 3pm the next day. She said I should have called the police from where the attack took place. But I did not feel safe to make a phone call in the empty street and wait for the police to arrive, in case the man returned and attacked me again. She also told me that I would have to access the CCTV footage myself if I wanted it.”

    “Following some therapy, I found the courage to email the council two months later to ask for the footage, but it had been deleted. The case was closed and nothing further was done.”

    “Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said in a statement this week that there would be increased police patrols due to recent events. But where were the police when I needed them?

    “Gender based violence on our streets isn’t new and every woman you know has a story, if not several. Little girls are taught from primary school age how to moderate their behaviour to keep themselves safe. The Met Police’s message for women to stay at home to protect themselves from violence reinforces the narrative that this is women’s fault. Their fault for being out on the street after the sun goes down, for wearing headphones, for walking alone or for daring to live their lives without fear.”

    “The only thing that will truly keep women safe is if the violence directed at them is eradicated.”

    Lockdown street harassment

    “Now, when I get the train, I make sure I’m sat as close to the doors as I can.”

    Jane Alisa Pearson, 32, head of PR and communications.

    “My first experience of harassment was in 2010.”

    “I walked back home from an internship in the daylight along a very busy road. While walking, I realised that a man was following me. I felt terrified and walked quicker, and naively thought he would just go away.”

    “Unfortunately, the man continued to follow me, and eventually sprinted towards me, grabbed and groped me before running down a side street.”

    “I felt stunned. I just didn’t expect something like that to happen in daylight by a bustling road with other pedestrians. And then came the shame. I felt naïve, and wondered what I could have done differently to prevent it. Because of this shame, I only told a few close friends and family members and didn’t seek out any support.”

    “Ten years later, in June 2020, I got on a train to go to work; while on the train, a man came and sat down next to me even though the seat was taped off for social distancing.”

    “He then began harassing me. He kept talking to me and moving closer. I noticed he had a screwdriver in his hand during this time, and I began to panic. I continued talking to him for fear of something bad happening.”

    “Thankfully, I managed to get to off at the next stop. As soon as I left the train station, I was very emotional and upset. I was just so shocked that someone could brazenly harass someone on public transport.”

    “Straight after the incident, I reported it to the Transport Police and provided them with a picture of the man with the screwdriver in his hand I managed to take as I wanted them to take this matter seriously. The Transport Police did an initial report and did meet me off the train on another occasion to see if I was ok, but the investigation never went further. They also referred me to victim support, and I told more friends than the first time I was harassed, which made me feel better.”

    “Since the incident, I have caught the train again. But I don’t view it is a simple commute anymore where I just can listen to a podcast and mind my own business. Now I make sure I’m sat near the doors. I try and get on a carriage with women, and I always ring my boyfriend or mum if I feel scared.”

    “Hearing the awful news about Sarah made me feel really angry and reminded me of the fear I felt previously. I can’t believe its 2021, and women still can’t walk the streets free from harm, fear and threat.”

    Lockdown street harassment

    Anyone seeking professional support can contact Victim Support’s 24/7 Supportline on 0808 16 89 111 or use their live chat services via the website, victimsupport.org.uk.

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