Not even a pandemic has stopped Evie Hairsine from being publicly harassed. The student campaigner and founder of Our Bodies Our Streets, tells her shocking story and why street harassment should be illegal
Catcalling is not harmless, it fills me with fear and anxiety. It’s an aggressive act of male power and needs to be criminalised. While I’m out exercising in my local park, you’d think what with the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, that catcalling would be the very least of my worries. But even on the now quiet streets, according to a study by Plan International UK, one in five women reported harassment.
‘Why don’t you smile?’
‘You’d be sexy if you didn’t have a bitch face!’
These words ring in my ears as I run faster along the main road, my ‘bitch face’ progressively hardening after each so-called ‘catcall’. Turning up my earphones to the highest volume, I try to block out the voices of the leering and aggressive men, but feel dizzy and disoriented, when I see a man approaching me on his bike and shouting at me.
Why are we abused?
I increase my pace and run past him, looking away – only to find him waiting for me, trying to speak to me, as I run back along the same path later. I can sense his anger when I ignore him and don’t respond.
The next time, it’s the same: ‘You have no self-respect!’ a middle-aged man calls to me from a car as I run in my shorts. Using our bodies to move in clothes that are comfortable seems to signal to these men that we are worthy of abuse.
The time after that, it’s the same: ‘Nice arse’, ‘Come on, smile for me’ young men shout. I have been verbally harassed upwards of ten times between 9-10am while walking through the city centre I call home. I feel like my body is not my own. I begin to question whether these streets are mine to use.
Harassment: the shocking stats
Sadly, this is an experience shared by women and girls across the UK. Plan International UK and grassroots organisation Our Streets Now have found that half of girls in the UK experienced some form of public sexual harassment last summer. Other studies have revealed another shocking stat, that 64% of UK women of all ages have been sexually harassed in public, a number that increases to a staggering 85% if you’re ticking the 18- to-24-year-old box. This harassment is happening everywhere; from parks, university campuses and bus stops to our local high streets. They’re being followed, shouted at, touched, groped and grabbed – and they want it to stop.
For me, the harassment seems to be amplified when I exercise. Running outdoors is fundamental to looking after my physical and mental health, like it is for so many others. And now more than ever, it is vital that girls and women have equal access to streets, parks and public spaces to nurture their physical and mental health during this pandemic crisis. Yet women – particularly young women – do not get their fair share of this basic human right.
What’s more, duing winter, women are facing even greater confinement as the chance to exercise in daylight – which feels marginally safer than the dark – is a small window of opportunity. Research by Plan International UK and Our Streets Now found 41% of parents have asked their daughters not to go out after dark due to worries about public sexual harassment.
And on top of this, the constant objectification girls face in public prevents them from developing positive relationships with their bodies as vehicles for living. Meaning that girls and women are being held back from equal participation in life and society.
Men are literally getting away with it
As it stands, the current law around public sexual harassment is piecemeal and unclear. There is no one law that protects girls and women. And the upshot is, many girls are confused about what they can and can’t report, as they fear they’ll not be taken seriously if they do. Many do not report at all; 76% of girls aged 14-21, who have experienced harassment have never reported it to the police. Yet an overwhelming 94% of girls think public sexual harassment should be illegal. The UK is currently falling behind other countries’ legislative action on this issue and must take a stand for its women and girls.
That’s why Plan International UK have launched their #CrimeNotCompliment campaign, in partnership with Our Streets Now, to make public sexual harassment a specific, standalone criminal offence. It’s time to listen to women and girls. We need to make the perpetrators accountable.
As for me, I will keep running and making use of the streets that I know I am entitled to be on.
* Plan International UK and Our Streets Now are asking you to join the campaign and show MPs that it’s time to make public sexual harassment a crime
* Evie is the founder of Our Bodies Our Streets, an intersectional feminist campaign empowering people to exercise outdoors in Sheffield without fear of street harassment