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In light of the news that Scotland might soon be announcing it is going ahead with Sex Self-ID, I wanted to get a clearer picture of what kinds of sexual harassment British women & girls were already experiencing in public places.
Self-ID stands to make all spaces truly public spaces, because they will be open, either in practice or in theory, to the reach of any male who wishes to be there. I found a multi page report that was ordered by the House of Commons…
...and published by the Women and Equalities Committee in 2018, that paints a picture of some of what women face day to day. I thought I’d highlight some key findings, & link at the end to the report itself for those who have the time to read it themselves.
One of the first points the report makes is that because sexual harassment is experienced by females from such a young age it becomes normalised,& the consequences extend far beyond each incident,even to what choices we are able to make when we must carry the fear of further harm
Talking to many people over the course of making the report, it became clear to the authors that sexual harassment in public spaces was pervasive. It was often called “street harassment”, but included public transport,parks,bars,clubs,educational settings & online spaces.
It also became clear to them that “sexual harassment, wherever it takes place, is overwhelmingly experienced by women and girls, has a particular impact on them, and is an issue of women’s equality.”
The collating done for the report seems useful in scope. They received “over 100 written submissions, including from the Government, police bodies, women’s organisations, unions, researchers and transport bodies”.
They also “took evidence in four oral evidence sessions about the prevalence, perpetration, scale and impact of sexual harassment of women and girls in public places”.
Some of the behaviours they heard about included unwanted sexual comments in the street, rape threats on public transport, sexual assault in bars and clubs, racist abuse when women rejected men, men exposing themselves and/or masturbating in front of women in public…
...As well as sexual rubbing on a crowded train. There were also a group of women who spoke of experiencing sexual harassment in the criminal justice system, including in prison.
Cat calling was exceptionally common, in fact it was the most common of these types of behaviours, as was being shouted at by men in provocative ways.
Here I must pause to say that on reading these paragraphs I was aware that anecdotally, even only looking at the women I know, we have collectively, & repeatedly, experienced most of these, & more.
Whether it was the friend who got on a nearly empty train in the middle of the day & was raped before it reached the next stop or the relative who stood on the escalator at a train station, felt something warm, & looked down to find a man with a lighter looking up her skirt.
My entire class at school was exposed to a man masturbating while looking at us in our uniforms, and I was sexually assaulted as a young teen at a music event, on a night in which the same young boy assaulted several other girls. Some of whom were my friends.
While we tend to look at wolf-whistling and the compliments of builders up scaffolds as comparatively benign (in part, perhaps, because they are a pretty safe distance away), many women I know have experienced that kind of sexual commentary as well.
I can’t help but feel (& the data would suggest it is the case) that the majority of British women could read this & say more or less the same.The details might change, but the exposure to these kinds of behaviours remains the same.This is the environment we are all steeped in.
The first direct quote they publish from one of the women they spoke to also illustrates this point. It reads:
“I have been sexually harassed, & suffered physical assault too, many times over a 30-year period. The harassment ranges from whistles & ‘catcalls’ to my breasts, bottom, legs & groin being touched.
These events have taken place on buses & trains, while walking or standing in public places during the day, in shops and bars—anywhere where men are present, in fact.”
The authors note that their research shows men are much less aware of the frequency of public sexual harassment, & the impact of it, than women are, & that women are able to understand & recognise it better because they’re overwhelmingly the group of people it is happening to
Next, the authors lay out the findings of a survey the EU Fundamental Rights Agency published in 2014 which found that sexual harassment was the most common form of violence against women across the EU:
68 % of women respondents from the UK said they had experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15. 25 % had been sexually harassed in the past year.
The End Violence Against Women coalition carried out their own survey in 2016. They found that 85 % of women aged 18–24, and 64 % of women of all ages reported they had experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, while 35 % had experienced unwanted sexual touching.
Plan UK surveyed 14-21 year olds, in 2018, and found that 38 % of girls experience verbal harassment including sexual comments in public places at least once a month, while 15 % are being touched, groped or grabbed at least once a month, too.
The Girls Attitudes Survey 2018 discovered that 63 % of girls & young women aged 13–21 have experienced (or know someone who has experienced) not feeling safe walking home alone.
A range of other findings from the same survey suggest girls feel less safe online than they did five years ago. 25 % said threatening things had been said about them on social media. A 4% increase on 2013.
24% of them said they had been sent photos or content, by people they knew, that they found upsetting, which was up 7% when compared to 2013.
Additionally, recent research by Slater and Gordon shows that, in the last year alone, almost four in ten women have experienced sexual harassment in a workplace context.
The main report states that as well as commonly having to deal with a first experience of sexual harassment before the age of 18, some girls even talked to them about having dealt with that before the age of 10.
The girls in Plan UK’s 2016 research described witnessing/dealing with the harassment of girls aged eight and upwards, among whom girls in uniform appeared to be “a particular target, with girls describing feeling fetishised by ‘older men targeting school girls’.”
A further concern was how this made such interactions seem normal to young people, and set the tone for what passed as acceptable behaviour between men and women later on. It also taught girls to minimise these experiences.
The personal stories in the report were quite awful to read. One woman described how a group of men behind her on a bus made sexual comments, asking her to come & sit with them. She ignored them & put her headphones in:
“Eventually a note landed in my lap which read: ‘when you get off this bus we will rape you.’ I got off at the busiest stop possible & went into a shop until I was sure they hadn’t followed me.” She said.
In one survey 87 % of women reported changing their route as a result of harassment and nearly 80 % chose different forms of transport, for example calling a cab instead of walking or taking a bus.
15% of women had had to deal with unwanted sexual behaviour while travelling on London public transport in the last year alone. The most common of those sexual behaviours were touching, staring, sexual comments & body rubbing. Men viewing porn in plain sight was not uncommon.
Women told of a wide range of horrible experiences. They were groped and men rubbed against them with an erection in rush hour. During off-peak times men masturbated or flashed, & late in the evening or at night women were grabbed & kissed, propositioned, or verbally abused.
Women also experienced upskirting, stalking and being ejaculated on.
The authors felt that sexual harassment & other violence against women was blighting our experiences of university and that acceptance of sexual harassment in venues like bars and clubs turned it into a regular feature of a night out.
They wrote that “sexual harassment affects the lives of nearly every woman in the UK. Most experience harassment at some point; many start to experience it when they are still children, & are harassed so frequently that it becomes a routine part of everyday life…
...Even when sexual harassment is not taking place directly, memory or fear of it affects women’s behaviour & choices & it restricts their freedom to be in public spaces.
Women and girls should not be expected to endure it. It should matter to us that women and girls are respected, and are not forced to change the way they live to avoid daily sexual harassment and abuse.”
We are constantly asking women to take on the burden of egregious behaviour. That we are now asking them to give up their sole right to the few spaces they had that offered them a chance to escape that behaviour seems like a further, and unforgivable, imposition.
Something else to consider is that sexual harassment in public places is not yet centrally measured. Even where there is data on specific criminal offences, such as indecent exposure,it isn’t being brought together.
The Government has left it to others, like the Women and Equalities Committee, to gather information. This means that unless other groups do due diligence we will have no clear way to know the true impact of Self ID.
We are implementing, or considering implementing, policies without even making sure we have the ability to evaluate the consequences of them on the safety and well-being of women and girls.
I haven’t included information about other forms of violence women experience because, though they are relevant to the wider discussion of male violence this conversation takes place in, they aren’t related to the specific concern of harm in public spaces raised by Self-ID.
The information about harassment online was not, to my mind, specifically relevant either but I included it because it fell into the category of public space as defined by the report.
It mustn’t be forgotten that when there were reasonable safeguarding standards in place that governed which males migrated to our single sex spaces, women happily accomodated transsexuals. It is this new idea that such safeguarding measures are oppressive that has led us here.
All the time we are dealing with proposals that would mean any Male can stake a claim to female spaces, by his word alone, the issue of Male violence is an imperative consideration. Failing to seriously engage with that leaves us unable to resolve this conflict.
As a woman who lives in this society, & has dealt with how the opposite sex treats members of my own sex, I am unable to take it on trust that Male people will not take advantage of lax laws, & the lack of any apparent or thoughtful protection that self ID offers.
I believe there will be those who will use this to continue to harass and harm us. To treat us, in fact, in exactly the ways they already are.
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