“I was running in the early hours of the morning when a man up ahead stopped to watch me.”
“‘Text me when you get home’. It is that line in particular that really got us as women” says Nikki Owen, multi-award-winning author, journalist, copywriter and endurance athlete from Stroud, Gloucestershire.
The kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard on 3 March 2021 by PC Wayne Couzens was extremely emotional for women everywhere. The situation particularly struck a nerve for women, given that “she did all the things women do to look out for each other and keep each other safe”.
This tragic incident provoked another wave in the ongoing conversation about the ‘shadow pandemic’ – that is, the widespread violence against women and girls. But is enough being done to tackle it?
Sexual harassment is pervasive in society. It affects the day-to-day lives of girls and women everywhere. According to data collected by campaign group Our Streets Now, 68% of adult women have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15. In fact, findings from a research survey conducted by Cornell University and Hollaback! highlight the lengths women go to, to avoid sexual harassment, from changing their clothing or taking a different route home, to considering moving jobs or homes to avoid harassing and threatening behaviour.
60% of women surveyed by Runner’s World stated that they had been harassed whilst running. As a female endurance athlete, sexual harassment is part of Nikki’s daily life. From being stared at and catcalled to being followed and shouted at, this culture of harassment aimed at women is pervasive.
“I was running in the early hours of the morning when a man up ahead stopped to watch me. At first, I was not too concerned as he had turned into another road. However, he then proceeded to come back out onto the road on which I was running and stood there, watching me. Deliberately staring at me.”
Nikki describes how she confronted this man and explained how intimidating and scary it is for a woman running in the early hours of the morning, by herself, to be constantly stared at and followed by men.
“There needs to be a shift in conversation from the passive to the active”, Nikki explains, “starting the uncomfortable conversations and pushing for change”.
An argument commonly raised by those seeking to side-line the issue is that sexual harassment is something that has always happened in society and that is just the way it is. Whilst it is true that sexual harassment against women and girls is nothing new, its prevalence and severity has radically increased.
Technology and social media have facilitated new forms of public sexual harassment. These include “viewing pornography on smartphones in public, and a range of image-based sexual abuse including ‘revenge porn’, ‘upskirting’ (taking photos or videos up someone’s skirt without their consent), non-consensual sending of ‘dickpics’, and ‘deepfake’ or photo-shopped images”.
The normalisation of boys and young men watching pornography needs to change. It is extremely damaging and has led to many men having unrealistic attitudes about sex, the belief that women are sex objects and less progressive gender role attitudes.
So, what can be done?
The long-term strategy needs to be education: educating young men and boys how to respect women. Teaching them that it is not acceptable to catcall and harass women. Teaching them about meaningful, informed consent. Teaching them that porn is not real. Teaching them that women deserve to be treated as equals.
This has been, and will continue to be, a slow process. But it is happening. The more we encourage conversation about these issues, the more we can understand each other’s perspectives. That is where the real change comes.
It would be liberating to finally stop having to tell our daughters, our sisters and our friends to be cautious with what they wear and where they walk. It would be liberating to know that a woman will not be blamed for being raped or assaulted because their outfit implied that they were ‘asking for it’. Liberation from the fear that women experience every day is all we are asking for.
So, for all our male readers, please remember – it could be your mother or your sister or your daughter. Listen to them. Respect them. Learn from them. Let’s build a world in which you never have to say to them “text me when you get home”.
Written by Sydney-Anne McAllister
Founder of FemLegal