Violence in public spaces
“Text me when you’re home safely!” Such a common conclusion to a night out – especially amongst female friends – may seem innocuous, even sensible. But for some campaigners, such commonplace behaviour reveals that women feel responsible for avoiding their own harassment and assault. Since 1977, feminist groups have organised marches through the streets for women who no longer wish to feel afraid of rape and harassment. These Reclaim the Night marches are still being organised around the UK with an almost unchanged message, despite having roots in 70s feminism. The London Reclaim the Night website demonstrates that 2nd-wave feminist aims can nestle happily alongside contemporary anti-austerity politics: “With ideological cuts threatening the refuge and rape crisis movements in our country we need to take back the capital to demonstrate women’s support for essential women’s services, demand justice for survivors and spread the message that no woman is ever to blame for male violence against her.”
Caitlin Hayward-Tapp, a member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, explains why the group decided to run a local Reclaim the Night march to coincide with the main event in the capital. “It made sense to do a local march, since one of the first Reclaim the Night marches was here in Brighton,” she explains, but also indicates some disagreement with the “mentality” of the London organisers: “There’s been a history of transphobia [at London reclaim the Night] and also a strong anti-sex work sentiment, and that’s not something we choose to support at all.” Unlike in London, the Brighton event is not women-only, and embraces the presence of trans* people and sex-workers who may have their voices silenced by more traditional feminist groups. Caitlin indicates that the silencing of those groups, who have a strong claim to needing safe streets, is “frankly offensive.”
She strongly believes that the task of ending street-harassment and victim-blaming is just as important as it was 40 years ago: “Women are still not feeling safe in the streets. People still think women should be walked home by a male friend at night, even though women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know. There’s a real culture of fear, and of blame too: if a woman was walking on her own and got attacked people will say, ‘well, she should have been with someone, she was asking for it.’”
The statistics reveal this to be no hyperbole. According to the Pixel Project, dedicated to ending violence against women, and the Stop Street Harassment campaign, the percentage of women who report being subjected to harassment in public is regularly recorded as 80-90%. The number of women who have experienced sexual violence is between 1 in 4 and 1 in 7. Defined by the Stop Street Harassment campaign as “[c]atcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation and assault,” harassment of this kind is a perennial feminist issue due to its strongly gendered nature: women are mostly the victims, and men are mostly the perpetrators.
Speaking to students on campus, it appears to be on the minds of many young men and women. Tori, a student at Sussex, suggests that street harassment should be of paramount concern to anyone who cares about women’s rights. “It happens to everyone I know whether they identify as female or not. If they’re perceived as female they get catcalled, shouted at, called a dyke…” They[GL1] explain that Reclaim the Night is an important way of raising awareness and “making it into a national issue, because right now it’s being ignored.” Kye, another member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, agreed that street harassment was a common occurrence for women, “without a doubt. It’s one of those unspoken things that nobody wants to talk about.”
The NUS Women’s Campaign tackled this perceived ignorance around women’s safety with their Hidden Marks report, published in 2010. 1 in 7 female students reported experiencing a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university, and 68% had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. Despite reporting loss of confidence and increased fear after being harassed, only 2% of respondents reported ‘less serious’ assaults because they felt what had happened to them was not serious enough to report. It is this fear of being dismissed that Reclaim the Night aims to tackle by demonstrating the widespread nature of street harassment and sexual assault.
How to tackle the problem is a matter of some debate. In the UK, there is no specific crime of ‘street harassment,’ meaning that victims have limited options if they wish to report their attacker. Jennifer, a student in London, was groped by a man on the street earlier this year. She was told her options were to press charges of sexual assault, which would go to court, or the officer could book him for being drunk and disorderly. Jennifer felt that “just straight away it was down my throat as ‘are you serious enough about this to go through the criminal justice system over a man grabbing your butt?’” She is still waiting to find whether she will have to give evidence in court.
Many Sussex students worried that, were street harassment to become illegal, it would be a difficult crime to define. “I think it would make me feel more safe,” said Amy, who admitted to pretending to be on the phone when walking alone at night to deter harassers, “but it depends how it was enforced.” Tori agrees: “It would be difficult to enforce, but I would like to see harsher penalties for things like following someone home. I’d like to be able to call the police and for them to take it seriously.”
Some women go to great lengths to avoid harassment and assault, like psychology student Rhianna. She has a routine of safety measures for walking alone at night, including “a personal attack alarm that I always carry in my pocket, I actively avoid streets with poor street lighting, and I have a safety text ready send out immediately to my boyfriend or my mum.” Her measures are not exceptions, but seem to echo a feeling amongst other female students that if they don’t take precautions, they could be targets of violence. Esme, a first year Films Studies student, reflects on the messages she absorbed from family and friends: “always travel in groups at night, make sure not to go down any dark alleyways, that sort of thing.”
Other women feel that Brighton is home turf, and does not pose many threats to them. In light of that, campaigns like Reclaim the Night and Stop Street Harassment run the risk of over-emphasising women’s victimhood and reinforcing the culture of fear that is a daily routine for many female students. Vee, a student in her first year, expresses this concern but places the blame firmly at the door of misogynist culture rather than feminist campaigners. “When you’re kids…that’s when it all starts, in my opinion. Don’t tell girls that they’re vulnerable because they’re girls and that boys are tough and strong.” Alicja, a first year medic, feels that Reclaim the Night does portray women as victims, “but in a good way!” She explains, “It raises awareness that [women] are victimized. I’ll be going on the march this year.”
Despite the regular comments from the media on the ‘death of feminism,’ it is clear that Reclaim the Night’s message still resonates strongly with young people, and thousands are expected to march in London on the 24th November. As austerity measures kick in and funding for rape crisis centres and women’s refuges dries up, these protests are only set to get bigger, louder, and angrier.
Words: Gillian Love