By Ellen Wilkinson

Content Warning: discussion of public sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I was fourteen the first time I experienced harassment while travelling alone. I was on my way to a friend’s party at around 8pm; it was dark, and I had nodded at my parents’ parting messages of ‘be careful’ with mild irritation. I was barely at the end of my road before a drunken man in his forties appeared out of nowhere, making a sudden movement, as if to attack me. I jumped instinctively, suddenly sick with fear; he swaggered while laughing ‘scared you didn’t I, you bitch’. I ran down the rest of my street until I made it to a main road, my heart still thumping aggressively. I turned back to see if he was following – he wasn’t. 

More recently, I was taking the tube on my way to a practice session. It was dark, sometime after 7pm on the Bakerloo line, and I didn’t register that I was alone in the carriage until a man in his twenties entered it at the next station. He sat on my side and our eyes met briefly: there was an instant mutual realisation that anything could happen on this journey and no one would witness it. I immediately fixed my eyes on my phone, but could sense him staring at me. Glancing up quickly, I saw him smile and maintain eye contact – it was not friendly eye contact. The panic started in my stomach and seeped through me, until I was frozen stiff with adrenaline, trying simultaneously to sense what he was doing while staring deliberately downwards, a twitching rabbit caught in headlights. The journey seemed to last an age but was a few minutes; minutes in which I became keenly aware of my exceptionally small frame, and how easily I could be pinned down or picked up. He stood up suddenly, and moved closer, still staring and sometimes smiling – there were now only a couple of seats between us. I felt frantic but was outwardly calm, until he moved to the seat next to me; I sprung up immediately and dashed to the door of the carriage, looking at him as if to say ‘I’m getting off now, leave me alone’. He held up his hands in a defensive gesture: ‘I wasn’t gonna do anything’, and I hurriedly left the carriage. 

I made it to the practice room and sobbed. Terrified, relieved, angry, frustrated tears. I hated feeling so vulnerable and small, and felt embarrassed that nothing had actually happened; not a word or touch was exchanged and yet I had felt utterly powerless. I thought back to a similar experience, a few months earlier, but that time the guy had left the carriage before me. I was relieved, only to look up and see him walking along the platform to follow the moving tube, laughing and staring at me through the window. This was a game of cat and mouse.

When the Guardian released the YouGov poll statistic that 86% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed in public spaces, I came to the sickening realisation that these were my lucky escapes, where the man had been in it for the psychological power trip, rather than the physical. The same week as these statistics were published, Sarah Everard was murdered by a man, after walking alone through Clapham common at 9pm. I live in Brixton, have done the same walk as Sarah many times and along with women all over Britain, am grappling with the anxiety that any of us could have been her. I mourned as low level harassment now filled me with horror, as well as the usual nervousness. 

Artwork by Ruby Howells and Jess Abrahams

To better understand the 86% statistic I interviewed eight women between the ages of 19-22 about their experiences and anxieties travelling alone. Every woman had experienced public sexual harassment, including disconcerting stares, following and catcalling. Every woman interviewed feels vulnerable when travelling alone at any time of day. At the age of 16, Jo* had crouched under a car in a stranger’s driveway after she noticed a large SUV truck following her on the walk back from her dance class. The car idled at the driveway, before making a U-turn, leaving the petrified Jo to dash back to her boarding house. 

Hanna is catcalled at least twice every time she runs, with shouts of ‘keep going beautiful’ from middle aged men an unwelcome part of her routine. ‘Running is a very meditative way for me to deal with the pressures of my music career, but it’s frustrating that I can never be fully relaxed’. She finds it embarrassing and annoying, but has to brush it off as she can experience it three or four times in a day; ‘it’s a constant undertone of travelling anywhere’. Bella described how on tube, a man rested his hand on her bum for the entire journey and that when she sat back to back with a man on a bus, he started to talk very quietly in her ear about his penis; she left the bus ‘completely terrified.’ ‘Men look at you like they want to eat you, it feels very primal.’

I was talking with eight articulate, confident and independent women who are reduced every day to feeling like a walking target.

Most women said they became aware of this type of behaviour between the ages of thirteen to fifteen, and experienced harassment from men of all ages when walking home from school. Three women described first noticing it when they developed breasts and a fuller figure, as if the harassment is a grim symbol of womanhood. In Lauren’s case, this was at the age of nine from the boys in her class, as they made fun of her for being the first girl to get a bra. She was also disgusted by how much more unwanted attention she received after she lost weight in the first lockdown:  ‘I felt objectified when I was younger for being bigger, and now I feel objectified for being slimmer’. She has experienced sexual harassment for a decade and is only nineteen. 

The psychological impact of this cannot be underestimated; ‘every time you see a man alone after dark, there is an instant thought process and a slight quickening of the heart rate’, Hanna describes. Every woman interviewed adjusts her behaviour when travelling alone, from having a finger poised over a rape alarm, asking male friends to accompany them, changing their clothing and running through poorly lit streets. ‘The feeling of constantly needing to be on guard is exhausting’, explains Jo, and ‘the “what if” and “could be” is rattling around your head whenever a guy stares for a bit too long’. There is a larger scale impact too: Lauren has never been to a nightclub out of fear of sexual harassment, and Bella questions whether she wants to live in London after graduating because of what she has endured on public transport. 

I was talking with eight articulate, confident and independent women who are reduced every day to feeling like a walking target. How do modern young women and people of marginalised genders reconcile their independence with the demeaning reality of their daily commute? 

One woman aiming to tackle this question is twenty-one year old Ellen Bell-Davies, higher education lead for the youth led campaign ‘Our Streets Now’. The campaign was set up in April 2019 by sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton, after Gemma experienced public sexual harassment at school age. They started a petition to make public sexual harassment a specific criminal offence, which has since gained over 400,000 signatures, and are working with Plan UK to form a bill which is now parliament ready. Public sexual harassment (PSH) covers spaces such as streets, parks, gyms, public transport and university campuses and behaviours including persistent staring, sexual gestures or comments, groping and up skirting. ‘PSH is the most common form of gender based violence’ Ellen explains, ‘and phrases like catcalling and wolf whistling trivialise the issue and describe women and non-binary people as animals’. 

Ellen Bell-Davies is a higher education lead for Our Streets Now

As a higher education lead for the campaign, Ellen is working with 80+ ambassadors in over 30 universities across Britain with four key demands for the institutions: well funded visible PSH awareness campaigns, working with transport networks and local councils to better protect students, compulsory consent/PSH training for staff and students and universities employing a specific sexual harassment counsellor. ‘According to our survey of 100 university students across the UK, 84% have experienced PSH, and 49% have experienced it travelling to their institution’. Ellen urges students to sign the petition, start a dialogue at their university and get involved on social media. ‘With legislative change comes cultural change; through having a law, society denounces PSH.’

The dialogue surrounding PSH has shifted recently to focus on how men should adjust their behaviour, rather than women. Our Streets Now, as part of a coalition of charities and organisations, has posted #allmencan, with phrases such as ‘all men can see that it is not up to women to keep themselves safe’. Steph, one of my interviewees, encourages men to keep their distance if they see a woman alone after dark, spontaneously offer to accompany their female friends and call out their peers’ misogyny. ‘If the “good guys” make an effort to do these things, we will be able to distinguish the threat more easily.’ I would ask men to be more aware of their presence in public places, and empathise with the trauma that could be going through a woman or non-binary person’s mind when they see you across the street.  

*names have been changed 

How to get involved with ‘Our Streets Now’

 Where to seek support 

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