Provocation Piece: Sexual Harassment

Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which gathers women’s stories about instances of sexism experienced on a day to day basis. An author, media contributor and TEDx speaker, she received a BEM in 2015 for services to gender equality.

I don’t remember the first time I was sexually harassed. Not because it wasn’t upsetting and traumatic. Not because it didn’t impact my life. But because I can’t remember a time when it didn’t happen. I can’t remember a time before men made aggressively sexual comments about my body in the street. I can’t remember a time when just walking down the pavement felt completely safe. I can’t remember time before I tensed up walking past large groups of men, or felt my heart start to race if there was a crowd of drunk football fans in my train carriage.

I have been spat at, sworn at and followed. A man rolled down his car window and turned my skin to ice by telling me the exact times and days of the week when he knew I walked down that particular street. Two men cornered me against a wall in a cobbled street and shouted “we’re going to part those legs and f*** that c***”, then walked away laughing as I cowered in terror. A boy no older than 16 came up behind me and grabbed me, hard between the legs. A man slid his hands up my legs on the bus. A man pursued me home, refusing to take no for an answer. A man sat across the aisle from me on the bus, his eyes drilling unblinkingly into mine as he masturbated methodically under his leather jacket. Daring me to object.

When I have objected, it hasn’t gone well.

“Alright darling” turns to “f*** you, slut” in the blink of an eye. One man turned to his friend in front of me and casually said: “I’d hold a knife to that”.

It has been over twenty years since I have felt safe in a public space.

And, like so many women and LGBTQ folk, I have duly performed the endless safety work that becomes just ‘normal’. Changing my route. Travelling with others. Crossing the street. Avoiding dark alleys. Wearing headphones. Holding my keys between my fingers. Texting my friends when I get home safely.

It doesn’t work.

Two thirds of British women have received unwanted sexual attention in public and over a third have received unwanted sexual physical contact.

It doesn’t matter what we wear, or what we drink, or where we are, or how we behave. Because we are not the problem.

The answer is not telling women to do things differently. To stay in groups or travel by car or wear longer skirts or get home earlier or watch their drinks or buy rape alarms or travel in women-only carriages.

We have to stop the problem happening in the first place. We need to educate boys. We need to talk to men. We need men to talk to each other. And we need to prosecute perpetrators.

And above all else, we have to shatter the normalisation that sees us accept sexual harassment, whether it’s in the street or the workplace, at school or university, as just ‘part of life’. We have to break the cycle that sees women blamed. We have to stop asking: ‘what was she wearing?’ or telling her: ‘you were asking for it.’

When a man groped me between the legs on a crowded bus and I said out loud what was happening, everybody looked away. Not one person stepped in, supported me, challenged him, or even made eye contact.

Every one of us has the power to change this. Your reaction might let a woman know she isn’t alone, that it isn’t OK, and she doesn’t have to put up with it. Or let a perpetrator know he can’t just get away with it, because people won’t turn a blind eye.

Every one of us could take action today to challenge what is considered normal. Nothing will change until we do.