By Anna Burt, EDI Champion.
I’ve been experiencing sexual harassment since I was at school and throughout my adult life, like most of my friends and peers. Every woman I know has multiple experiences of harassment; everyone has stories and they are usually quite horrific.
I have been targeted in bars and clubs with unwanted attention and inappropriate touching. I have been cat called from vans whilst in my school uniform and wolf whistled during a job interview. I have been followed, chased and had someone expose themselves while I was walking with friends.
When I experience harassment like this, it really negatively impacts my mental health. I always come away wishing I had done more or said more, but when faced with a situation which is quite frightening, I find I shut down or withdraw. I am a fairly outgoing person and happy to have a natter with someone on the street, but being at the receiving end of harassment like this destroys my confidence and power. I feel small and vulnerable, and as if any kind of agency I had has been taken away. I find myself becoming mistrustful of everyone and unnecessarily judgemental. I hate feeling this way, but have learnt to adapt to survive.
This kind of behaviour happens so regularly throughout our lives that my friends and I have become completely accustomed to it. We talk about it casually when friends ask us how our week was, they become part of our shared memories: ‘remember that night out where that guy…’ or ‘when we lived in that flat near that man…’. We know how to report it; we’ve told staff, we’ve warned friends. We detach ourselves from the trauma with humour and complacency.
We are so acclimatised to a constant low-level threat that it becomes part of our daily life. Autumn is my favourite time of year but I struggle with the darker months as it feels like I have a curfew as soon as it gets dark. If I’m ever going anywhere, I let my friends and family know and put my live location on. I share my journey with friends when I’m in an Uber and always try and sit near the driver when on buses. I carry a power pack in case my phone loses battery and I can’t contact anyone. I don’t walk with headphones in or my phone out and have learnt to be over-vigilant when walking alone, always looking ahead and behind me and for any easy exits. I have made myself late for appointments because the bus was too crowded and I felt trapped near someone who was acting strangely. I trust my gut and intuition above all, but often this hyper vigilance when I’m just trying to get home can be exhausting.
It’s second nature in my female friendship groups to state how far away we are, when we’ve got home safely and to put our keys in between our knuckles when we leave the house. We wait for others to get in their taxis or get on their trains. We schedule face times and over-plan our routes. We buy alarms and sprays, torches and whistles, all to simply get home.
I’ve had a few men make jokes about how women always go to the toilet together, not realising it’s a way we’ve learnt to keep ourselves safe.
Every day women in this country carry out these little rituals in order to keep themselves alive.
Sometimes I get lost in the mundanity of it all, but it’s so important to take a step back and realise: No. This is not ok, this is not acceptable and it shouldn’t be happening.
All this being said, allies and advocates do help. In all the harassment I have experienced, I have also had people help. When walking home at night, some men have pulled back so they aren’t walking so close to me, or crossed the street to show they aren’t a threat. Friends have carefully manoeuvred themselves to block me from people in clubs. I’ve had family members stay up late to make sure I got in ok or offer a lift home. Bar staff have contacted security for me and trustworthy strangers have watched my drink when I’ve gone to the toilet or asked me ‘Is this person bothering you?’ if I look cornered.
I’m also learning to be more vocal myself, despite how scary this can be. If anyone makes an inappropriate joke or says something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I try to call them out by parroting what they’ve said back to them – to highlight their sexism. Sometimes, to challenge stereotypes, I play dumb by saying ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I’m not sure what you mean by that’. Forcing them to repeat their ‘joke’ and diminishing its humour. It’s not a lot, but it’s a small way to get my power back. Its these small acts that help to combat this behaviour and reinforce what’s always in the back of our minds but not said; No. This is not ok, this is not acceptable and it shouldn’t be happening.