The UK legal definition of sexual harassment, drawn from the Equality Act of 2010, is:
“unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
It is fair to say that most women, and girls of a certain age, have experienced sexual harassment. It shifts and shudders into many different shapes.
One of the most common forms of sexual harassment is cat-calling, or wolf-whistling. It is not a coincidence that this pattern of behaviour is expressed using animal imagery. This comportment grows from the perception that a woman or a girl is a sexual object, as we looked at yesterday.
I wouldn’t be able to count the amount of times I have been sexually harassed in the street. I remember that the first time it happened, I was about thirteen. I was minding my own business at a bus stop – and this man just would not leave me alone.
I’m now twenty-four, and have, unfortunately, experienced a much wider breadth of sexual harassment since that time I was cornered at a bus stop. In Italy, where I lived for six months, in addition to the quasi-daily harassment; as a Black woman, I also found that sexism there was racialised. Sexual trafficking of Black women from Nigeria and Ghana in particular is rife there, and a few times on my journeys to and from work, I found that men thought my job was to sell them something. And it wasn’t my translation skills.
In addition to the above, I’ve been inappropriately touched a number of times, stalked for months at different times by two different men, experienced unwanted attention at work… And I’m just one woman.
To highlight just how common a problem this is, and how it lives everywhere, I will share with you something that happened to me.
Ironically, it was at a Press Red event. I was very inappropriately touched by a man, in public.
Although it was not the first time I had been subjected to this type of behaviour, it was the first time that it had been done in this particular way. What still shocks me is that I was at a gathering, held by a Christian charity working to raise awareness about gender-based violence, and someone could have no qualms whatsoever about acting that way in such a context.
I’ve been pondering all week on why these things happen so often to us as women and girls.
And I just haven’t been able to shake the notion of “entitlement” off. What a frightening degree of entitlement exists when another human being feels that they can reach out and grope intimate areas of another person’s body without their permission. As we considered yesterday, it illustrates a profound denial of the dignity of the female.
On Saturday I was at an event in Newcastle representing Press Red, and Elaine Storkey, theologian, sociologist and QUEEN, spoke there about the global epidemic that is violence against women and girls. Some (all) of the statistics she shared are tremendously worrying.
Figures compiled from studies in England and Wales show that 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. Globally, this figure rises to 1 in 3.
The study in 2017 from which these figures are taken also shows that 20% of women (as opposed to 4% of men) have experienced some type of sexual assault since age 16. 5 in 6 did not report to the police.
The crisis is rife in universities across the globe. A study conducted by Channel 4 found that the number of reported incidents of rape or sexual assault at UK universities rose from 65 in 2014, to 626 in 2018. In the last year alone, there has been an 82% increase.
When I first started writing this post, I would never have even considered that I have ever been sexually assaulted. I would have downplayed those incidents as “inappropriate touching”. I have since learnt that:
“the overall definition of sexual or indecent assault is an act of physical, psychological and emotional violation in the form of a sexual act, inflicted on someone without their consent.” – Metropolitan Police.
Their website adds, “Not all cases of sexual assault involve violence, cause physical injury or leave visible marks. Sexual assault can cause severe distress, emotional harm and injuries which can’t be seen – all of which can take a long time to recover from. This is why we use the term ‘assault’, and treat reports just as seriously as those of violent, physical attacks.”
We as women and girls often downplay attacks on our personhood. And so do the societies we live in. Let’s PRESS RED on that.
Press Red are hugely disappointed that such behaviour happened at one of our events and wholeheartedly condemn it. We stand by Ruth as she deals with this behaviour: it only spurs us on to work even harder.