The past six months have seen an unprecedented rise in awareness of the extent of the sexual harassment of women and girls. #MeToo and Times Up have meant that women are finally having their experiences heard and validated, and government inquiries have been launched in the UK not only on sexual harassment in the workplace, but also in of one the most overlooked contexts for sexual harassment – public places.
For over five years I’ve been talking to women across the UK, aged from late teens to late sixties, about their experiences of sexual harassment in public. The sheer range of experiences is difficult to comprehend. Women have spoken about being sexually assaulted in chip shops, masturbated at in supermarkets, and raped in public parks. They have been called fat, stupid and ugly. They have been threatened, followed across multiple tube carriages and train lines and told they should work in topless modelling. Women from black and minoritised ethnic (BME) backgrounds have talked about experiencing racialised sexual harassment and both these experiences and their impact are articulated powerfully in a short film by specialist BME women’s organisation Imkaan.
While this focus on what is done to women is important we have yet to centre the discussion on what women have to do in response which means that the full impact of sexual harassment isn’t being captured. From changing routes home to choosing seats on public transport, physically reducing themselves in public, to using headphones and sunglasses as a way of feeling invisible, my research has shown that women across the UK are routinely making strategic decisions to avoid sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in public. Different women, at different times, acutely aware of their surroundings and tuned into the presence of unknown men. Some of these actions are conscious – crossing the road to avoid the three men by the corner; some of them are memorable – hiding in someone’s front garden to avoid the man in the car following you at night; but most of it is habitual – taking up less space on public transport, bag on lap, eyes to the ground.
When considered in isolation such changes can be dismissed as an annoying but necessary result of living in a world where strangers occasionally may do you harm. But when seen across the course of a woman’s life, these adaptations can come to be understood as responding to a particularly gendered message: that women need to be less – less vocal, less visible, less free – in order to be safe.
The work of creating safety – or “safety work” as it has been termed by Liz Kelly – begins for many girls in childhood. Early experiences of sexual harassment in public – wolf-whistles at girls in school uniforms or being interrogated by male strangers about where they’ve been or if they have a boyfriend – are commonly trivialised or configured by adults as compliments, irrespective of how they might feel to the girl herself. Girls are taught this is all part of growing up and as such if they want to avoid it, they are the ones who have to change. These changes are often based on restriction; small adaptations to what they want to do, where they want to go, what they want to wear, or how they want to act. A trade-off of their freedom in order to feel safer. Over time these limitations become unnoticed and we start to think of them as just common sense. It is just common sense for a woman to not hold the hand of a female partner when passing close to a group of men, or to not go for a walk late at night by herself.
This is a problem not only because it renders what we do invisible even to ourselves, but also because it can mean that we blame those who do not act in the ways we feel they ought to. Instead of an optional addition ‘safety work’ comes to be understood as a requirement, as something a woman is rather than something a woman does. When it is not performed, or not performed successfully, women are perceived not only as having done something wrong, but as being something wrong.
The results of this approach to women’s safety work were seen in June this year in Melbourne, Australia. The Victorian police responded to the rape and murder of a young woman by a male stranger in a public park not with outrage over the man’s actions but with a statement claiming that ‘people’ – in this case a stand in for women – need to have more “situational awareness”. Such comments work to infantilise women – focused on what is understood as reasonable advice the underlying message is that women lack reason. Eurydice Dixon was killed just 900 metres away from her home, soon after she had texted her boyfriend one of the ‘almost home safe’ messages that many women are all too familiar with sending. These kinds of messages, rarely required of men in the same way, are just a small demonstration of just how situationally aware women and girls are.
The women I’ve spoken with have described a highly developed sense of their environment and others within it. They talk about responding to the environment and to intrusive men within it using an escalation calculation, drawing on a template of risk to evaluate the safest course of action. This evaluation includes not only an evaluation of the man himself, but of the entire situation – including whether other people would intervene should the men’s actions escalate. The calculation doesn’t always end at the end of the encounter: it can continue after initial action is taken, assessing the consequences, adjusting the response. It is complex, nuanced, and skillful, looking forward to the future, drawing on lessons from the past, to establish how to act in the present. And yet none of this is acknowledged in comments like those of the Victorian police. Instead these comments, like the safety campaigns by UK police forces, demonstrate just how unrecognised the sheer scale of the work women already do is.
This lack of acknowledgment, though deplorable, is understandable when we examine the logic of safety work more closely. What we find is that it is not only the work itself that is invisible, but also how often it is potentially successful.
The vast majority of women’s safety work is pre-emptive, conducted before anything happens. How then can women and girls know if nothing happened because they got it right and prevented it, or nothing happened because they were wrong to begin with? Taught from childhood to dismiss their experiences regardless of how they make them feel, women learn to doubt their own sense-making of an event (is he staring at me or just looking my way? Did he just touch me or is it just that the train carriage is full?). Such doubt means they often feel they need escalation to confirm that what they feel is happening is actually happening. But this escalation is exactly what their safety work is designed to prevent. With no way to know when they’re getting it right, women are caught: blamed if they do not act to prevent sexual violence, yet unable to claim any success for the, inevitabley, numerous, times that they do.
This means that there can never be a “right” amount of panic for women and girls in public places, no matter how much they are told to be more aware or to take more precautions. There can only ever be too much panic – because nothing happened – or not enough – because something did. Women are caught in a catch-22 which renders the work they do invisible and blames them for the inevitable times they get it wrong.
We need to change the story on rape prevention and the well-meaning safety advice, because this makes it harder for women and girls to speak out and hides the amount of work they are already doing. It is time to recognise women as rational, capable, skilful actors and to see women’s safety work for the expert negotiation that it actually is.
Fiona Vera-Gray is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Durham Law School researching violence against women and girls. Her current project, women on porn, is the first study in the UK to focus specifically on the range of women’s experiences of, and relationships to, mainstream online pornography. The Right Amount of Panic: How women trade freedom for safety (2018) is out now with Policy Press. Her previous book on public sexual harassment, Men’s Intrusion, Women’s Embodiment: A critical analysis of street harassment (2016) is available from Routledge, @VeraGrayF