Why is it ‘normal’ for women to stick in protective groups on nights out? Why is harassment and assault expected parts of a woman’s life instead of criminal acts?
In March 2013, I sat in the corner of a hired studio and listened as a teenage girl recounted being followed onto the bus by a man who sat down next to her and started to stroke her legs.
She was sharing her story for a short documentary about young women’s experiences of everyday sexism. Afterwards, the director asked her what impact the incident had had on her. She thought for a moment, then whispered, barely audibly: “I learned that you shouldn’t wear shorts, even if it’s summer.”
Her words made me reflect on the enormous impact such incidents have on women and girls. Experiences like this are not simply unpleasant at the time, but often inform a woman’s worldview for years to come, policing their behaviour.
Last month, a study published in the journal Sex Roles made a similar suggestion, finding that “a sociocultural context that objectifies women and their bodies is related to their sense of safety and security in the world”.
When describing their individual experiences of gender inequality, from street harassment to inappropriate comments at school or in the workplace, women and girls are regularly warned not to make a fuss. It is common to be told that you are overreacting, that you have misinterpreted the situation, or that it simply isn’t a big deal.
What such responses fail to recognise is that the incident itself is just the tip of the iceberg – the full impact often continues long afterwards.
Women who have shared their experiences with the Everyday Sexism Project repeatedly report how street harassment, for example, affects their subsequent behaviour and confidence in public spaces.
“I do things like put my hair up in a certain way that means it’s hard to be grabbed at or if I’m really scared, holding my keys between my fingers … I wear my headphones with the music turned up in town so I don’t have to hear catcalls.
“I walk at a certain distance from groups of men in front of me. If they are behind me, I take a different route. This is all just normal to me now. It’s normal for a lot of women I know. It’s everyday.”
One entry came from a woman whose pregnant friend found herself crushed against a man in a busy carriage on the London Tube. Unable to move away, she felt him push up against her and later found semen on her bag and hand. The entry ended: “She doesn’t get on the Tube any more.”
Practising such constant vigilance doesn’t only involve practical changes, but psychological ones, too. It can lead to a constant sense of being on alert, anticipating danger, and feeling unsafe.
For those who report gender inequality in the workplace, individual incidents may have serious long-term consequences for their career. Some report their experiences to HR, only to find themselves shunted sideways into a different department or treated as a troublemaker.
For others, the experience might damage their professional performance, as their confidence is undermined in an atmosphere where they are subjected to discrimination or abuse.
“My boss, who was in his 40s, tried to kiss me after the Christmas party. I was 22. I went to the woman who coordinated the graduates and told her what had happened. I was told that this was to be expected in an office and if I asked to move it would affect my future career. So, I continued in my position but felt so uncomfortable I would make myself throw up before I met with him.“
A secondary school tutor wrote to Everyday Sexism describing the regular harassment and assault he witnessed in the school environment. He added: “I have noticed sadly that as time has gone on, the girls in my classes have become more and more reserved and reluctant to draw attention to themselves.”
Every incident that reminds a girl she is likely to experience abuse if she speaks out or stands up teaches her to shrink and hide. Sexism isn’t just about individual events, but about their knock-on impact – how they change the way an individual moves through the world.
Of course, the fact that this long-term impact often manifests itself in victims moderating their own behaviour is also indicative of the extent to which our society focuses on the actions of victims rather than perpetrators.
The message is repeatedly sent to women that they should take precautions, rather than have the audacity to demand that men stop harassing and assaulting them in the first place.
It is worth considering the heavy price women pay for this status quo, as we alter our routes, change our plans, take a hit in our careers or even, as the study suggests, experience heightened psychological distress and anxiety.
As we become used to the idea that it is “normal” for women to stick in protective groups on nights out, or text when they are safely home, we also create a parallel norm: that harassment and assault are natural and even expected parts of life, rather than deliberate, criminal acts undertaken by people who should be tackled. – Guardian News & Media