Monday: “Nice legs”, “Why don’t you smile?”, “You’d be sexy if you didn’t have a bitch face”.
These words reverberate in my ears as I run faster along the main road, my “bitch face” progressively hardening after each catcall. Turning up my earphones to the highest volume, I try to block out the voices of the leering and aggressive men. But I feel dizzied and disoriented when, without hearing his words, I see a man’s mouth moving fast, addressing me and approaching me on his bike. Startled, 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 look away and don’t respond. This happens every time. I begin to question whether these streets are mine to use.
Wednesday: “You have no self-respect!” a middle-aged man calls to me from a car as I run through the heatwave in shorts and a sports bra. It appears that using my body to move in clothes that are comfortable signals to these men that I am worthy of abuse.
Saturday: “Nice arse”, “Come on, smile for me”….young men shout at me from shops on West Street. I’m not surprised to have been verbally harassed upwards of ten times between 9am and 10am walking through the city centre. I am trying to move between places, to get to work, to exist. I feel as if my body is not my own.
Image above: Evie Hairsine, founder of Our Bodies Our Streets. Credits: herself.
This was just a typical week, but my experience is far from rare. A survey by End Violence Against Women found that 85% of women aged 18 to 24 in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, with most girls’ first experience below the age of 18. Sexual harassment prevents women and non-binary people from using their bodies without shame, fear and self-objectification. Over the past few weeks I’ve spoken to many other people about their experiences. The details may vary but the general experiences are chillingly similar. Jess Taylor, a 19-year-old student at the University of Sheffield, told me “I’ve never been that into exercise because of feeling self-conscious, and I really feel like these issues are compounded by street harassment”. Constant reminding that our bodies are seen primarily as sex objects, we begin to feel that we cannot move them, we cannot use them and we cannot take ownership of them.
But this is not my story to tell. I am an able-bodied, white, cisgender, straight woman. Therefore my experience of the male gaze is tempered by privilege. Catcalling and harassment are inherently violent and they damage everyone they touch. But, by largely conforming to the stereotypical patriarchal standards around appearance, I am protected from some of the most vile, hateful and physically threatening abuse. The very worst of it is directed towards groups whose experience of sexism is compounded by other structures of societal oppression. Street harassment is as intersectional as any other feminist issue.
Many people seem to see this as a problem of the past – arguing that we’ve moved away from the cruder sexism of previous decades. But the evidence tells a different story. Recent months have seen a huge rise in street harassment in the UK. A survey by London activist Farah Benis has recorded a 36% rise in catcalling since the start of lockdown. Quieter streets have made men more sexually uninhibited, leaving some victims scared to leave the house at all. This comes at a time where our ability to nurture our physical and mental health through exercise is more vital than ever.
Harassment is particularly bad in Sheffield. Madeline Jackson, a 19-year-old student at Sheffield Hallam University, says that she finds catcalling “much worse in Sheffield” than at home in Wakefield and Ellie Taylor, 16, noticed that catcalling was “especially bad” when she visited the city for a day.
And it’s not just coming from older men. From surveys I’ve carried out via Instagram I’ve seen worrying reports of harassment from younger men. Nell Attwood, 19, describes being “spat at by young boys”, and Rebekah Dimmock, 19, says she mainly experiences catcalling from people her age or slightly older. We must not let narrow stereotypes about the middle aged ‘white van man’ prevent us from tackling the toxic attitudes within our own social circles. This includes men at our university who need to realise that not only do they personally know the victims of street harassment, but they probably know the perpetrators, and it is their responsibility to intervene.
Last November I joined the ‘Reclaim the Night’ Protest against Sexual Harassment in Sheffield. Despite the unsurprising abuse we faced, I went home inspired and empowered. As a result of this, and my recent experiences, I have set up a new campaign called ‘Our Bodies Our Streets’ to focus on engaging women and LGBTQ+ people with body positive exercise. We aim to tackle the daytime harassment which is most common in the summer months. We’re going to support each other to exercise confidently and without fear of abuse. We’ll learn about safe bystander intervention and build towards a 5k protest day, where victims and allies move through Sheffield in solidarity, wearing clothes decorated with their messages to perpetrators.
Please join our movement and our conversation. From a position of relative privilege, I want to make this movement as equitable, inclusive and a safe space for all marginalised groups and undertake to put intersectionality at the forefront of our campaign.
Follow or message @ourbodiesourstreets on instagram, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved in any way you can! We need your help to reclaim our bodies and our city.
Feature image: Pixabay.com