Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A quick note on my post about Assange

As opposed to repeating this ad nauseum in the comments section, I thought I would clear up this here and now.

Some commenters have pointed out that the defence quotes mentioned in my Assange myths post were the defence outlining the accusations against Assange.

This completely misses the point of what I was writing.

The issue is clear. Assange's supporters are reading the accusations made against him, and arguing that what he allegedly did is legal under English law. That it's 'sex by surprise' and not really rape. However, the accusations made against him are clearly and definitely rape and sexual assault under UK law.

My issue with this, and the issue we should all have with this, is that by repeatedly denying that the alleged offence was not rape, they're silencing and invalidating the experiences of thousands, millions of women across the world. This is not acceptable. What's more, it is hugely revealing about what people are prepared to believe about consent.

It is incredibly troubling that people across the political spectrum are happy to argue that rape isn't rape. The impact this has on how we talk about and define consent is huge.

I don't know if Assange is guilty. Neither do you. What I do know is that he is accused of rape. Not sex by surprise, not 'having sex without a condom', it's rape. And we need to respect that this is how rape is defined in English law, and respect the experiences and voices of survivors.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Unpicking the Assange myths, and how survivors of rape have rights too


Ok, so I know I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve had a really busy week and y’know, I’m editing my kid’s book…but here I am now, ready to blog about the latest step in what I’m billing Assange: the fight against justice and due process. 

This week Assange sought bail in the Ecuadorian Embassy, after the Supreme Court decided that, despite his appeal, he could still be extradited to Sweden to face questioning about two alleged sexual assaults against two women. 

Here’s a reminder of the defence team’s description of Assange’s actions. I say this every time but please bear in mind that this is his DEFENCE!!:

"AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … She did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … AA tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly."

“'They fell asleep and she woke up by his penetrating her. She immediately asked if he was wearing anything. He answered: "You." She said: "You better not have HIV." He said: "Of course not." She may have been upset, but she clearly consented to its [the sexual encounter's] continuation and that is a central consideration.”

Every time Assange’s case hits the headlines, the same things happen. The same rape apologism emerges and the same Assange myths are parroted. Despite the fact that so many of these myths have been shown to be untrue multiple times since his arrest in 2010, they are still being repeated as though they’re gospel.

Firstly, we have the myth that what Assange allegedly did (as spoken by his defence) is not illegal under UK law, and so therefore he can’t be extradited to Sweden. It wasn’t rape, the myth goes, it was ‘sex by surprise’. 

Well, sex by surprise, however and whichever way you swing it, is rape. Penetrating someone when they are sleeping is rape, in the UK, in Sweden, in the USA – in fact in any country where rape is illegal. Blogger and lawyer David Allen Green has the info here about how the allegation is still illegal in the UK. 

Of course, Assange is innocent before proven guilty. It might be that when the evidence is presented, and he answers police questions, he didn’t commit any offence. But if anyone penetrates a woman whilst she was sleeping, as the defence describes, and if anyone physically coerces a woman into sex, as described, then that is illegal. No ifs, no buts. If a person is found guilty of doing either of those things in a court of law, then they are found guilty of rape and sexual assault. It isn’t just illegal in Sweden because they have a wacky ‘feminazi conspiracy government hell bent on repressing men’. It’s illegal because it’s rape, it’s sexual assault, it’s a gross violation of another person’s bodily autonomy. 

The idea that what Assange is accused of is not illegal in the UK has become incredibly embedded in the popular imagination of this case. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who I respect, who are really smart, who still believe that he’s only accused of some leftfield Swedish law, that what he did is perfectly fine in the UK. Not only is this hampering a lot of reporting around the case, but it’s also setting a very worrying precedent about what we understand rape and sexual assault to be. 

If we continue down a line where we’re openly saying that penetrating a sleeping woman without consent isn’t rape, then we’re creating a culture where we’re redefining what we mean by rape. There’s already a huge amount of confusion among young people about consent. When public figures defend Assange on TV, when they imply and say that what he’s accused of isn’t rape, they are perpetuating and encouraging rape myths that disempower victims and survivors, and silence their voices. They’re saying to thousands of women that what happened to them wasn’t rape. The impact this could have on women who are raped whilst asleep or unconscious is much more far reaching than they realise. They’re encouraging a culture where these women won’t be believed, and where the right we all have to name what happens to us is taken away. 

I think Assange apologists need to think about that. They need to understand that it isn’t for them to tell women who’ve been raped whilst they’ve slept that what happened to them isn’t really rape. It is. 

The other big myth in the Assange case is that if he’s extradited to Sweden, then he will be whisked off to the US of A and executed. 

Now, recently I’ve been doing a lot of research as part of my job in to the death penalty, and also on rendition. No-one at the moment is more cynical than I am about the often-appalling American justice system. 

But I simply find it very, very hard to believe that Assange will be extradited from Sweden. Firstly because Sweden will not extradite anyone to face the death penalty or for political offences.  (HT to Stavvers for that link, her blog on this issue is here). In fact, if Assange was going to be extradited to the US, well, the UK can do that. In fact, the UK government is so extradition-happy right now, we’ve been trying to send a suspected terrorist to Jordan, even though we know the evidence collected against him was gained by torture. If I was Assange, I’d take my chances in Sweden, who, as it happens also takes a pretty hard line against rendition. (again, unlike the UK). 

In fact, one country I wouldn’t be taking my chances with is Ecuador. A country that is, after all, pretty anti freedom of expression. You know, that thing that Assange is supposed to be an ambassador for. The reason he has so many fans in the first place. Does he not care that his new Ecuadorian government buddies clamp down on journalists that disagree with their work? Has he so thoroughly abandoned his principles that he seeks asylum with a government that are so completely opposed to the one-time ethos of Wikileaks? Did he have any principles in the first place? 

The final myth is that the only reason these allegations are being taken so seriously is because governments across the world want to bury and discredit Assange. And you know what? There may well be some truth in this one. Rape accusations, on the whole, aren’t taken very seriously. In fact, the Met have recently revealed just how un-seriously they took scores of rape allegations as they falsified reports and hid evidence. The estimates are there that between 80,000-100,000 women are raped in the UK every year, and still we only manage to convict 6.5% of those cases. So perhaps the Assange case was taken more seriously, was chased more thoroughly, for political reasons. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because the point here is that ALL rape allegations should be taken seriously. All of them. Every woman who goes to the police and reports a rape should be listened to, heard and taken seriously. It doesn’t matter why this was the case in December 2010. It matters why this isn’t the case for every woman. 

In the end, in the middle of the media circus that has seen women like Jemima Khan stump up bail of £1000s for a man accused of rape, are two women. Two women whose voices have been ignored, silenced, belittled. Who have had unfounded and wicked accusations made against them in the court of popular opinion. Two women who simply want their day in court, who want to see due process and justice. Assange has rights. He has the right to claim asylum, he has the right to innocence before proven guilty. But what’s so often forgotten in this is that survivors of rape and sexual violence have rights too.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

A round up of rape culture stories


A recent rape case where the defendants were found not guilty came to my attention the other week. The man and boy involved were proven innocent so I’m not going to comment on that side of things. Instead, I want to talk about some of the language used by the lawyer, and how that language made me think further about how we re-enforce myths about how victims of rape are supposed to behave.

The argument was presented that because the girl had not curled up, struggled or verbally protested, then consent existed. It was suggested that she could have struggled, or kicked or curled her body up if she hadn’t wanted to have sex, if it was rape.

I’m not going to talk any more about that case. As I said, the defendants were found not guilty by the jury. I don’t know much more than that, and that the defence spoke about her physical reaction. This post is about how the kind of language we use around rape enforces the idea that there is a correct way to respond to sexual violence and rape. The myth that all women will respond in the same way, and that if we don’t respond that way then we must be consenting.

Of course, we know this is simply not true. There is no ‘correct’ way to behave, there is no rule book that victims and survivors can follow that delineates how they are supposed to behave when they are raped.

One of the things we talk about when we talk about how women react to violence is the 'freeze response'. This means that when we are in danger, when we are afraid, we freeze to keep ourselves safe. Because we know, we understand, that shouting, screaming, kicking – reacting in this way could lead to further violence. It's a very natural, very normal human and animal response and it is very common in situations of rape and sexual assault. When we are in danger we understand that to fight back, to kick, to scream - this could lead to more violence. Whether it’s not reacting to street harassment, work-based sexual harassment or not fighting back when we are physically attacked, we know as humans what our survival instinct is telling us to do and we trust that. 

The CWASU website explains how there is no standard way that women respond to violence on their website. They explain in their list of rape myths:

"To be raped is the worst thing that can happen - so you would resist to the utmost"
Many women assess their attacker, and make moment by moment decisions about their survival. In many circumstances, women being sexually assaulted fear for their lives. When rapists have a weapon, or threaten the victim, most will strategise for their own survival by not unduly alarming or aggravating their attacker; they follow his instructions in order to stay alive, and this may include not making a noise or resisting. Being raped is not worse than being dead or permanently injured - opting to submit is a rational decision, made in a context where there are very few choices or options.


This shows very clearly how kicking and screaming isn’t the only signifier that a woman isn’t consenting. There are many ways a woman may respond to violence, and she should not be judged for not responding ‘properly’, according to a rape myth rule book that simply doesn’t exist outside patriarchy’s head.

When I interviewed Emilia Di Girolamo earlier this year about her Law and Order UK episode on gang rape, she explained to me more about the freeze response to rape and group sexual assault, something she portrays in the TV show:

"It was something that I felt had happened to me and I didn’t understand – I grew up thinking that I was in the wrong and that I should have fought and should have shouted no, and I didn’t. It was only when I started reading about freeze response that I realised that’s exactly what happened to me. That’s how I felt, I couldn’t move and I couldn’t shout or scream. Boys need to be taught that if a girl doesn’t say no it doesn’t necessarily mean she is saying yes. It’s about making boys understand that consent isn’t just about waiting for a girl to say no or push him off"
(read full interview here: http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/challenging-rape-myths-interview-with.html)

Consent isn't defined by a no or a scream or by curling up in the foetal position. Consent isn't about doing anything you can to protect yourself and keep yourself safe from further violence. Consent is about mutually wanting to engage in sexual activity, for pleasure, for lust, for love.

Interestingly, an entirely opposing argument has been used to define consent in the ongoing Assange case. It shows how, in fact, women can't win. Because on the one hand we have the rape myth that dictates women should physically “do what they can to deter” a rapist (I’ve put that in scare quotes because I don’t believe that it’s right to say that the responsibility to stop rape lies with the woman, it lies with the rapist), AA in the Assange case did use her body to try to defend herself. Assange's defence explains how:

"AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … She did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … AA tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly."

I've said it before, but THAT'S HIS DEFENCE.

So in this case we have a woman doing almost everything that the rape myth rule book says she should be doing to show she isn’t consenting. She squeezed her legs together, she tried to turn away, she felt like she might cry. But in the Assange case, her actions are being used to suggest consent existed.

You start to wonder, exactly how are women supposed to behave? How are women supposed to respond when threatened with sexual violence?

And then I remember. There is no 'correct' way to respond. Because our society and our rape culture privileges the perpetrators and refuses to believe women.

One rape case where there has been a guilty verdict is the Ched Evans case. He was found guilty and then, instead of universal condemnation of a man raping a young woman, he was defended and cheered by people who chose to accuse his victim of lying.

One of the chief accusations levelled against the survivor in the Ched Evans case was that she 'wanted her 15 minutes of fame' and that she was a gold digger. This is a common statement made when a woman accuses a sports star of rape and sexual assault. Yet it is completely backwards. Accusing a man of rape is no way to get famous. You're anonymous for a start. You don't tend to get paid by anyone and criminal compensation is pretty hard to get in a rape case - precisely because there is so much victim blaming out there. Then on top of that is the whole trauma and difficulty of going to the police, persuading the police and the CPS to believe you, getting to court, persuading jurors to believe you, and then seeing your rapist only jailed for a few years. Accusing someone of rape isn't something that women take lightly. There are reasons why the reporting rates are so low (15% - BCS average over 6 years), and one of them is that the conviction rate remains so low (6.5% from incident to conviction).

And one of them is because of the prevalence of rape myths. The belief that women lie, that women are at fault if they drink, if they have a sexuality, if they don't behave how the 'perfect victim' should behave.

Another case that has got a lot of attention this week has been the rape of a young woman in Sheffield. Media coverage of the case has focused on the fact that she was trying to catch a bus home, was 20p short and the bus driver refused to let her on the bus. Whilst walking to meet her mum who was coming to pick her up, she was raped by Joseph Moran (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9318551/Law-student-raped-after-being-turfed-off-bus-because-she-was-20p-short-of-the-fare.html).

Headlines have abounded with stories about how the woman was raped ‘after being turfed off the bus because she was 20p short’; how she was ‘raped after being kicked off the bus’; how she was ‘raped for the want of a 20p fare’.

What none of these headlines do is focus on the rapist. All of the coverage I have seen on this case has focused on the girl’s action (sympathetically I must add – there hasn’t been any victim blaming in the press as far as I’ve seen), and the bus driver. Undoubtedly harsh, undoubtedly unreasonable, and – it would appear – undoubtedly failing to follow guidelines that would have let the girl on the bus.

But what none of the headlines do is mention that the rape happened because Joseph Moran chose to rape.

Increasingly my understanding of rape culture is that as a society, we are so scared to confront the reality that thousands of men rape thousands of women every week, month, year – and face the reality that we allow it to happen and allow them to get away with it; that we look to blame anything and anyone rather the perpetrator.

Rape culture is about the fact that our society continues to privilege perpetrators over survivors. That rather than stand up and confront the fact that we routinely allow men to rape women and girls and routinely deny women and girls justice, we decide to disbelieve women and find every excuse we can for the men. We decide to focus on what the women and girls do - their alcohol consumption, their words, their sexuality - rather than on the actions of the men who choose to commit a brutal and vicious crime. We choose to shift the goal posts about how we think a rape victim should react to the crime committed against her, and then judge her for not matching those warped expectations.

That’s what rape culture is. And I've had enough of it.

£500,000 over three years? That's not commitment

On Monday at the Bristol Feminist Network ‘Where are the Women’ event, my friend Shabana spoke about her work setting up the Sky Project (http://www.skyproject.org.uk/), a charity dedicated to working with young women affected by forced marriage. She said how it was all of our responsibilities to tackle and raise awareness of forced marriage, it isn’t a cultural issue, but a women’s issue and a human rights issue. We all need to speak out about all the issues that impact on women’s safety, right to freedom and right to bodily autonomy. So I’m speaking out about it, in my own small way, here.

After a long period of consultation, the government yesterday announced that it would make forced marriage officially a criminal offence yesterday, along with a pledge of commitment to tackling the causes of the crime.

The Guardian reported that last year the forced marriage unit dealt with nearly 1500 cases, 600 this year (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/08/forced-marriage-criminal-offence-david-cameron). It’s difficult of course to know how many people are forced into marriage each year in the UK - the estimated number is believed to be between 5,000 – 8,000. Forced marriage affects women and men, but the majority of the victims are women – 78% in fact (http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/when-things-go-wrong/forced-marriage). According to 2010 statistics, a third of victims referred to the forced marriage unit were under 18 (http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/11926).

There has been a lot of debate about whether or not forced marriage should be categorised as a criminal offence, and both sides of the debate speak a lot of sense. The pro side argue that by making forced marriage a criminal offence, a strong message is sent out to perpetrators that what they are doing is wrong, and that if they do force someone into marriage they will be punished with a prison sentence. That message is important and powerful. It brooks no argument and it refuses to let anyone off the hook. The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Association, quoted in yesterday’s Guardian, praised the move, arguing that it would hold perpetrators to account and empower women with the knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong.

The flipside of the argument is that criminalisation will have a detrimental impact on levels of reporting and force the issue underground. As Imkaan explain in their Myths and Realities of Forced Marriage post (http://imkaan.tumblr.com/post/20551683898/forced-marriage-myths-and-realities), legislation doesn’t stop an offence happening, and without work to change attitudes, a law which puts prosecution in place without a wider plan of education to change attitudes won’t have the desired impact on protecting young women from a gross violation of their human rights. The Ashiana Network – the only refuge dedicated to working with survivors of forced marriage – asked the 20 women in their refuges what they thought of criminalisation. Seven believed that it would raise awareness within affected communities, but 19 out of 20 said they would not have come forward if forced marriage was a criminal offence in case it meant their parents went to prison. Many of the women also feared that reporting would leave them ostracised by their community and left vulnerable. All together it shows that this is not a straightforward issue. (https://theguardian/commentisfree/2012/apr/09/forced-marriages-criminalising).

Many of the elements of forced marriage – such as abduction, imprisonment and rape – are already criminal offences. So there is an argument that perpetrators can and should be prosecuted on those grounds, rather than through a separate criminal offence. Currently those who press charges against their families do so through the family courts, assured that parents won’t be prosecuted before they make their statement. All this could allow for forced marriage to be an aggravating factor in a criminal case, rather than the criminal offence itself.

I don’t know what the right answer is. I understand the arguments for criminalisation as this does send a message. But I also have grave concerns that once again the government has held a consultation, disliked what women’s groups and experts on women’s rights have had to say, and done what they wanted to. If the women who work on the ground on this issue every day are telling you something, then listen to them. Hear their truths and hear their reasons. They know what young women need and what young women want, far more than, as one tweeter put it to me, 23 millionaires sitting in cabinet (most of whom, in case we needed reminding, are men). Just as with the consultation on reform to family courts, which found that there was no bias towards women and that the secondary care giver was almost always allowed access, the government show signs of hearing what they want to believe, not to women’s voices.

As I say, I don’t know the answer. I recognise both arguments, and believe very strongly that we listen to the voices of survivors, and those who work with survivors. And of course, not all these voices agree, as the links I have shared above clearly show.

To support the new law, the government have promised £500,000 over three years to tackle the causes of forced marriage, through education particularly.

And this is when alarm bells started ringing for me. £500,000? Over three years? To tackle a crime against women that is such a huge violation of their human rights? Is this what the government’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls looks like?

I have real concerns that once again, this move by the government is not much more than a statement with no plans behind it. Froth, but no beer. It’s all very well making something a criminal offence. But if you are not going to invest time and money into making the crime stop, if you are not going to invest real money and time into education, into refuges, into support networks and groups for the young women affected, then frankly change isn’t going to happen just like that. We already know the violence against women and girls sector is facing a crisis of funding. We need to see proper commitment.

Because otherwise we’ll end up where we are with FGM – where there have been zero convictions since the law against the practise was passed, where the ministerial position to tackle FGM has been cut and where the work of supporting and helping young women is split between different agencies and charities, and varies wildly depending on postcode. Where I live in Bristol we have some excellent work happening to tackle FGM – with healthcare, social and education services working together in partnership with the community and charities to affect change. But that is certainly not the case everywhere. And that is the case here because of the incredible work of a few people making change happen.

£500,000 over three years isn’t a lot of money when we estimate 8,000 women and men are affected every year. The intentions might be good, but the commitment seems to be missing. If the government are really serious about stopping violence against women and girls, they need to stop talking the talk, and start investing money and time into the sector that can make it stop.

The above link has info to various organisations working with survivors of forced marriage and other types of gender based violence.

Friday, 8 June 2012

My body is not your property - street harassment

Last month (May 2012) a report found that 43% of young women (18-25) in London had experienced street harassment. Whilst many commenters on Comment is Free shook their heads in disbelief at the number being so high, most women and feminists were equally as confused as to why the number was that low. A quick chat to any group of women about street harassment quickly reveals that the number is closer to 100%, rather than just under half. 

Which begged the question – how exactly do we measure or categorise harassment? Is it a grope, is it a shout, is it violent sexual insults, is it flashing or physical and sexual assault, is it being masturbated on? How do we understand harassment and how do we categorise it? Is it being told to smile? Having ‘bitch’ chanted at you? Having a man scream in your face to give him, and I quote, ‘a blowie’?

The answer we came to during a discussion group on sexual harassment last night was simple. We, as women, are the only people who have the right and the knowledge to define what happens to us as harassment. No-one else can tell us what we’ve experienced, how we’ve experienced it, or try to define our experience for us. 

It sounds obvious doesn’t it? Sounds quite simple. But yet…but yet…When you talk about street harassment you are all too often met with a barrage of disbelief from (some) men.  Disbelief that centres on how it can’t happen that often, turning into accusations of sensitivity on your part and then grumbles of ‘it’s a compliment if anything’, that next we women will want to ‘legislate against flirting’. 

And it’s hard, it’s hard when faced with disbelief, with dismissal of acts that might be irritating, might be triggering, might be traumatising, might be violent, might be threatening. It’s hard in the face of this disregard to remember that what is happening to us, on a daily basis, is harassment. That it is a crime. An assertion of power that deliberately seeks to exclude women from public spaces. 

Make no mistake. A deliberate assertion of power to exclude women from public space is exactly what harassment is. Whether it’s a sexist joke at work to remind you that you’re not part of the boys club, to the showing off of pornographic material to intimidate girls in the classroom, to the shouting of sexually violent words to me on the street – the root is the same. It’s the man or men explaining to you, in the most demeaning way possible, that this is their space, and that they have more of a right to be in it than you do. 

Even the seemingly innocuous shout of ‘smile’ (always aggressively, always to put you off smiling!) is an assertion of power. It’s being told that you are not behaving in an acceptable way in the public space, your behaviour is not pleasing and – because we as women are on display, the spectacle to the male spectator – we need to amend our behaviour to be acceptable. We’re public property and we’re not measuring up. So we’d better smile sweetly and demurely like a proper woman should.

But it’s a compliment if anything. Do you want to legislate against flirting? 
I once talked to my brother about street harassment, after he complained about a group of drunken women harassing him in the city centre. He claimed an equivalence in their harassment to the type of sexual harassment I and other women experience. And although I do not want to diminish the male experience, I really doubted that the two are equivalent. Did you, I asked, feel fear when those women shouted rude things at you in the street? Did you feel afraid they would follow you? Did you feel afraid they would assault or rape you? Did you feel scared to answer back, in case it escalated into physical or sexual violence? Did you feel scared to answer back, because to shout back would be to transcend a gender norm that tells women to take it, to keep their mouths shut, to nurture the male ego?

The answers to all those questions were, of course, no. When women shout obscene things at men on the street, it’s no doubt horrible and rude and my brother had every right to be angry about it. But the reason for those shouts? Not the same. Women don’t shout at men to remind men that they have more of a right to public spaces. Women don’t tend to harass men to assert power over them. And, frankly, most of the time it isn’t women harassing men anyway. Further, women don’t leave men shaking in fear after they harass them, they don’t leave men trembling or in tears because, once again, they’ve been called a bitch, or a cunt; because once again they’ve had sexual violence screamed in their faces; because once again they’ve been reminded that their bodies are public property in a public space. 

This is another key element of harassment – the idea that women’s bodies are public property and that men have a right to our bodies. This goes some way to explaining why street harassment often goes unnoticed by men – even the nice ones! In my experience, if a man starts harassing me and then realises I’m with another man, the harassment stops. Sometimes it even leads to an apology…to my boyfriend. When a woman is identifiably with another man, then her body is already identified as the property of that man, and so she won’t be harassed. And therefore the men don’t see it. 

But when we’re on our own? Then we are fair game. Our bodies resume to being public property. And when we discussed this last night, we came to the conclusion that this was one of the reasons why people don’t intervene when a woman or women are being harassed or assaulted. It’s still seen as the domestic, it’s still seen that the man has a right to that woman’s body and a right to shout, to yell…even to physically or sexually assault. To intervene would be breaking the rules that privilege the man’s right to the public space over the woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

It’s horrible. It really is. It’s horrible to feel worried about walking through your own streets, with the knowledge that at any minute someone might decide to harm you, simply because you’re a woman and they’re a man. It’s horrible to have ‘strategies’ to keep ourselves safe from harassment, from judging where to cross the road, to carrying keys in our hands, to talking to Ms Nobody on our mobile phones. It’s horrible to have to judge whether you’re safer on the street where you might get abuse shouted your way, or safer in a cab where the driver might make lewd and sexist comments to intimidate you (this happens. Cab does not equal safety).

And it’s horrible to know all of this, to speak out about all of this, and to still have people not believe you. To still have people diminish or excuse your experience. 

So what can we do? Well, since I started talking to other women about street harassment, I have felt more empowered to fight back. I feel more powerful to turn around and tell them where to go, to give the finger, to demand they fuck off. I feel the force of the sisterhood behind me. But it’s hard. Not only because you feel the very real threat that fighting back could lead to more violence, but because to shout back goes against everything we are told to do as women. To keep quiet. To take it. To not be aggressive or to defend ourselves. But when I do fight back? After the shaking and fear has passed, I do feel better. I do feel better than when I used to duck my chin, and imagine all my powerful and right on comebacks. 

Of course, sometimes it isn’t safe to fight back. We need to trust our instincts on that one. No-one should feel pressured to fight back if they feel it might put them in danger. 

Another important thing is to keep talking about it. To other women, and to men. To name and shame the men who hurt us on Hollaback. To refuse to accept the denials of our experience. And to encourage everyone to respect and honour that experience. 

I’ve written about street harassment a lot. But I will keep on writing about it, because to speak out? To shout out? To tell our truths? That’s what will make it stop in the end.