As you may be aware, incidences of street harassment in Nottinghamshire – notably catcalling – will now be investigated and treated as misogyny hate crimes. Nottinghamshire Police has expanded its definition of hate crime to include misogynistic instances, characterized as behavior targeted towards a victim simply because they are a woman. Examples include: unwanted or uninvited sexual advances, physical or verbal assault, unwanted or uninvited physical contact or engagement, and use of mobile phones to send unwanted or uninvited messages or take photographs without consent. Sue Fish, Chief Constable of the Nottinghamshire Police said, “We do not think it is acceptable for men to grope women in nightclubs, or for men to shout sexually explicit comments about what they want to do to a woman … we want to give women the confidence to report misogynistic hate crime, educate everyone about the impact that this sort of behaviour can have on people’s quality of life [and] show that this should not be tolerated”.
Undoubtedly, the work Nottinghamshire Police – in collaboration with Nottingham Women’s Centre – is undertaking in this area proves a huge step forward for both women and the LGBT community across the UK. But this should be continued and implemented across the whole of the UK. Actually, it should have been seriously dealt with an extremely long time ago and although we do already have some legislation relating to such acts, it does not exclusively relate to verbal sexual abuse in public spaces.
Moments of sexual harassment, as Laura Bates beautifully puts it, “slip like beads onto an endless string to form a necklace that only you can feel the weight of. It can drag you down without another person ever witnessing a single thing”. Everyday Sexism: Laura Bates (Simon and Schuster, 2014, London)
This “daily, niggling, normalised sexism” (Everyday Sexism) is very rarely noticed nor taken seriously because of the normalisation of incidences such as catcalling. It is deemed an everyday norm to be both verbally abused yourself and to shout these indecencies towards women in the street. Now, before the men reading this feel they are being ‘picked on’, women are just as responsible for this normalisation as men are – including myself.
Recently, my friend was subject to an incident of street harassment as we were walking down the street in broad daylight. Obviously we were disrespected and angry, but I felt as if I had to provide extensive reason in order to justify reporting the issue, because “this sort of thing happens all the time” and “it won’t be taken seriously” (guilty). But this is actually the crux of the issue, because it happens regularly to almost every female, issues of verbal sexual harassment have become normal and aren’t even considered as sexual harassment in society at all. In certain circumstances, you may feel guilty, ashamed or as if you’re being a nuisance by bringing up cases of catcalling. If you do happen to bring it up, you’re accused of overreacting, “you can’t take a joke”, “don’t wear provocative clothing”, “it’s a compliment”, “just reply to them!” As a result, you learn to brush it off as a normal part of your day, because obviously you’re over exaggerating, and men shouting inappropriate sexually motivated abuse at you in the street is funny; it’s just a joke, you need to lighten up! Obviously.
Due to this twisted logic, street harassment isn’t seriously recognised outside of personal experiences. I can’t think of any woman I know who hasn’t been subject to catcalling at some point in her life. Just because something happens on a regular basis, every day, in every location and to all women without immediately obvious ramifications, does not mean it is acceptable behavior.
When discussing issues of catcalling I have heard the overused rebuttal time and time again: “yes, but what were they wearing at the time”, as if wearing a short skirt or high heels justifies a man’s objectification and mistreatment of a woman, ultimately making it “her fault”. Why can’t women dress freely (as men are able to do) without it being perceived as a justification or an invitation for abuse? I can positively say that I have never walked down the street and shouted indecencies at a guy with his legs out, and I’m sure the majority of women haven’t either; so why has the exposure of women’s bare legs been embedded into our culture as a perfectly justifiable invitation for harassment?
People simply refuse to accept that this type of sexism occurs, or even refuse to perceive it as sexism at all; but it isn’t just men taking this view, it’s women too. Ella Whelan of the Spectator for example, responded to an article by Jessica Valenti – with that claim that “if you don’t like what someone says to you on the street, say something back, put your headphones on, or just laugh – it’s really not that bad”. Oh, I was under the impression that it really was that bad, but thank you Ella for reassuring me; when your thirteen year old daughter comes home after being verbally abused on the street, shaken up, crying and afraid to go outside, you just tell her that it’s not really that bad.
It is exactly this perception that fuels the reoccurrence of street harassment and has lead to its normalisation within society.
The law imposed in Nottingham is extremely important and provides a huge step forward. This is not to say, however, that catcalling and other forms of street harassment will be effectively stopped, nor will it eradicate societal perceptions of such issues, which are continually downplayed – especially within the media. For example, in response to Poppy Smart reporting her month-long daily experiences of sexual harassment, the Daily Mail essentially devalued her story by insinuating Smart overreacted by taking such drastic measures in their front page headline, which read: “Girl calls in police after wolf-whistles from builders”. It is these perceptions of catcalling and street harassment that seriously need to be tackled if any progress is actually going to be made.
Nottingham is the first step, but in order to further their achievements societal perceptions of verbal abuse – both individually and within the media – must seriously change. Ignoring sexist verbal harassment creates a culture whereby other types of violence against women are perceived to be acceptable. Confronting instances of street harassment is the important first step in tackling all types of verbal and physical hate crimes against women.
Bry studies International Relations and Politcs at The University of Sheffield.
Follow Bry – @Bryvince