Sexual harassment is never the victim’s fault, no matter what society tells us
Gemma Tutton is the co-founder of Our Streets Now, a campaign with over 500,000 supporters that aims to end public sexual harassment in the UK through cultural and legislative change.
For PinkNews, Gemma explains why the culture of victim-blaming and misogyny around sexual harassment must end, now.
Over the past two years, Our Streets Now has received thousands of testimonies from victims of sexual harassment as young as 10 years old. Sexual harassment happens everywhere in the UK – in the street, in school, at university, in gyms, parks and on public transport. Whatever we do, we just can’t escape it.
One victim, who was targeted on public transport, wrote in testimony to Our Streets Now: “He tapped me on the leg. I took my headphones out and he said quietly to me: ‘I have never had sex with anyone with that hair colour before.’ I was so shocked and sickened, I felt disgusted and dirty. I never told anyone.”
What has become painfully clear when reading the testimonies we receive from our followers is that most victims experience deeply entrenched feelings of shame, guilt and responsibility. Even though it is never their fault, a pervasive culture of misogyny and victim-blaming means they invariably feel it is their behaviour that is to blame.
Too often the onus is put on the victim to change our behaviour, rather than the emphasis being placed on the root of the issue: predominantly, male violence.
A study by Our Schools Now, our education branch, found that 64 per cent of pupils have never been taught about sexual harassment in school even though 54 per cent of 12- to 14-year-old girls have experienced it. The lack of acknowledgement of this epidemic of male violence is making girls and other marginalised people mistakenly believe it is their choices, from the route they took home to the clothes they were wearing, that led to them being the subject of unwanted sexual attention.
“The first notable time I remember was when I was 11 walking home from school,” reads on testimony sent to Our Streets Now. “Older boys sang behind me: ‘show us your tits’ (which I didn’t even have yet). It made me feel ashamed and embarrassed by other people who saw. I felt like I had done something wrong.”
We do not all experience sexual harassment in the same way; people with multiple oppressed identities are subject to more frequent, intrusive, and aggressive forms of harassment. For example, a recent study by Plan International UK found that 82 per cent of Black girls have experienced sexual harassment compared to just 75 per cent of white girls. Furthermore, 90 per cent of queer young women have faced sexual harassment. Not all instances of unwanted sexual attention are the same, but they are all tied together by the core power dynamic in which the harasser seeks to dominate the harassed.
In the case of LGBTQ+ people, we can feel guilt for dressing more queer-presenting. It is as if because we’ve ‘chosen’ to ‘look gay’, we deserve the queer-phobic or fetishising harassment we face. I remember the fear I experienced when holding hands with my first girlfriend, looking twice around me to see if someone was looking before I kissed them goodbye. I’m certain if something had happened, I would have felt it was my fault for openly showing I was queer.
Another testimony from Out Streets Now underlines this: “One time me and my partner were walking back from a date – very clear to everyone we were together and had been out together but about four cars drove past and whistled and cat-called at us out of their window. I’ve never felt more embarrassed to be out in public in my life.”
To be clear, sexual harassment is a human rights issue that reflects hereto-patriarchal male violence. It perpetuates an environment and culture that disregards historically vulnerable and oppressed groups of people, diminishing their sense of self-worth and denying equal access to public space. Most importantly – it is never the victim’s fault, whether they are in a mini skirt or a bikini, in a dark alleyway or an open park.
TfL and National Rail state clearly that sexual harassment will not be tolerated on their networks. TfL advises that incidents of sexual harassment on the bus network should be reported at met.police.uk, and via text to the British Transport Police on 61016 for all other TfL services. TfL says that in an emergency, always dial 999.