I knew exactly what it was. I’d experienced it many times, usually in the form of a car beeping at me, or being shouted at in the street.
Such things may sound minor. Some would even say it’s a form of flattery. But believe me, that’s not how it feels when boys no older than 10 years old yell horrible things at you. That’s not a compliment, that’s harassment. After a while, it wears you down.
I know others who regularly deal with whistling, honking or sexist comments. Some have even been physically assaulted. A YouGov survey found that 85% of young women had experienced street harassment. In another poll by the Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project they found that, 52% of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes.
Worst of all, sexual harassment, defined as unwanted sexual advances and obscene remarks, starts from a young age. Research by Girlguiding in 2014 warned that it was becoming part of normal life for girls, with almost 60% of 13 to 21-year-olds reporting sexual harassment at school or college.
A study last year by the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee concluded that “sexually charged behaviour” was driving young people’s interactions, both online and in person. Within their findings, one 22-year-old said “lad culture” is a big issue: “In my school lads would come up to girls and grab their arse, try and push them into the changing rooms and then say: don’t get upset, it’s just banter.”
That dismissive attitude is really frustrating, this behaviour is really a form of bullying. And because it’s so common, many people don’t even notice it.
Yet it’s happening even to girls as young as nine years old. There’s something seriously wrong with a society that thinks it’s okay to yell ‘hot’, ‘fit’, or ‘nice arse’ at a child.
At any age, the difference between harassment and giving a compliment should be blindingly obvious from body language and tone of voice. I’m not saying you can’t find a stranger attractive, or strike up a conversation, but street harassment is no more about compliments than rape is about sex.
It’s hard to know what to do when strangers treat you this way: try to confront them, ignore them, get angry or just don’t think about it? Personally, as I’ve got older, I just accept it when it happens to me. Many women, who experience harassment, have also adapted their behaviour. This includes avoiding walking in certain places, according to Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, a website that catalogues women’s experiences of chauvinism, on a day to day basis.
What can be done? It might feel like we’ve made progress thanks to recent women’s marches and high profile feminists such as actress Emma Watson. But it’s not enough. We need more substantial education, starting at school, to ensure people understand the damaging effects of sexual harassment and bullying.
Young people interviewed by the Women and Equalities Committee said schools could do more to help them deal with sexual threats and aggressive behaviour, for example ensuring counselling is available. Sex and relationship education should be mandatory, for girls and boys. And all schools should have clear policies for dealing with sexual harassment and violence.
There is more awareness these days about the challenges facing young people — but it’s not just teenagers that need educating about sexual harassment. It should be obvious to everyone that it’s not “just a bit of fun”. Sadly, many people, young and old, need to be reminded of this.
If you’ve experienced sexual harassment, Victim Support provides advice and confidential support.
Off to Work during her gap year to save for her travels to Asia and South America. Over the past two years she has taken part in various projects with Exposure which has improved her communication skills. Hannah will be going to Sussex university next year to study Law with Criminology.
Exposure is an award-winning youth communications charity giving young people in north London a voice. Please support us to continue our work. Thank you.