Our Streets Now's campaign to end Public Sexual Harassment
Recently on my podcast, I had the pleasure of interviewing sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton who together founded Our Streets Now, a campaign which is challenging Public Sexual Harassment by ‘demanding the right for women and girls to feel and be safe in public space’. On the surface this sounds like a pretty reasonable request, right? To me it sounds like a long overdue basic human right that women and other marginalised communities have long been denied.
I was never warned or prepared for Public Sexual Harassment (PSH) growing up, despite it being something that nearly all women are inevitably going to experience just for existing. It is so normalised within our culture that no one thought to discuss it with me, it was just something I silently tried to tolerate. As Maya says on the podcast, “It [PSH] starts being just a part of life that you accept” and so growing up I learnt to navigate my life around certain public spaces for fear of being harassed by adult men whilst I was still in school. I avoided building sites, crossed the road when groups of boys were approaching, clutched my house keys in between my fingers and reminded myself that I was okay at running and could scream pretty loud if required. These insidious thoughts are relative to that of many young girls who are experiencing PSH at an alarmingly young age. Gemma, now 15, talks about her first experience of PSH when she was just 11 years old when two men shouted sexual abuse at her from a car. Gemma expressed her frustration that “there is no education about the fact that it’s not your fault”.
My own experiences of PSH have left me embarrassed, ashamed, scared, humiliated and wondering what I had done to deserve it. The onus is placed on the victim far too often, a commonality with acts of violence against women. PSH is no exception to this patriarchal unwritten rule that girls and women are somehow to blame for their assault. Too often victims are queried about their behaviour, encouraged to analyse their outfit choice, leading to a sense of blame for their experience of PSH. Our Streets Now are passionate about changing this and are encouraging young girls to be taught that this isn’t their fault. One third of girls experience PSH in their school uniform, therefore adult men are intentionally objectifying and sexualising children. Maya, 21, expresses her frustration that this is so normalised within our culture “It's a really scary statement that society doesn’t care about young girls being sexualised in school uniforms” and talks about her difficulty in knowing her 15 year old sister is regularly a victim of PSH.
Together they turned their anger and passion into a driving force for change and in April 2019 they started the Our Streets Now campaign. It was inspired by French legislation which enforces fines to perpetrators of harassment. Within a few months hundreds of fines had been enforced, which proves that changes in legislature does give victims the confidence to report. The Our Streets Now campaign focuses on both legislative change and raising awareness about the issue of PSH within our society. Maya explains the importance of the latter in recognising that in order to tackle the societal issue it must go beyond legality, “Legislation cannot solve a societal problem” it must be counterbalanced with an active education on the issue in order to see true change. They recognise the need to educate people and have a societal conversation about PSH, it’s prevalence and the impact it has on victims in order to see a positive change in attitude towards it.
We discuss how it’s essential to educate girls that this isn’t their fault, but in order to stop the problem we largely need to educate men. As Gemma says, “It’s really important to bring men into this conversion” in order for them to understand the dangers of PSH and the serious impact it has on the lives of victims. PSH can limit the potential and opportunities for young girls by damaging their confidence, self worth and mental health. If you’re harassed in uniform on your way to school then it can have a detrimental affect on your ability to learn and consume information, not just on the day it happens but moving forward. It’s difficult to concentrate in a lesson when you’re continually worrying about being harassed on your walk home or if the boys at school are going to grope you in the corridor on the way to your next lesson. So men need to listen up and get actively involved and that starts with listening and self educating. As Maya poignantly says “It shouldn’t be our job to hold our brothers and our fathers accountable”. Men need to take responsibility for disregarding PSH and often minimising the scale of the problem. This isn’t a compliment, or banter or ‘harmless catcalling’ it is abuse. Take the time to educate yourself about how PSH oppresses women and other marginalised communities and I would direct you to start with Our Streets Now who have a website full of resources to help you understand how prolific and dangerous this problem is. Whatever you do, please don’t slide into the DM’s of victims or expect the women in your life to offer one-to-one tutoring explaining their oppression, as Gemma says “I’m not here to educate you, I’m not your teacher, I’m not your mum, so look it up!” - aka we all know how to use google.
Something that both Gemma and Maya are really passionate about is that the campaign doesn’t centralise one experience of PSH and that it highlights the intersections of victims and how their abuse will vary as a result of this. Maya recognises that “The violence that we do even acknowledge within this whole silencing is that of white girls, that’s the only thing we really allow in this space”. It is essential to recognise that different forms of oppression will impact the type of abuse received by a victim of PSH due to their identity meaning they are discriminated against for more than just their gender. For example, my experience of PSH as a cis, straight, white woman is not going to be the same as a black queer woman because I am not oppressed by my race or sexuality. Racism, homophobia, ableism and fatphobia are all additional forms of oppression that are inflicted on victims of PSH. Although the campaign focuses on gender based violence, both Maya and Gemma are fully aware that no experience of PSH is the same and privilege plays a big part. They are committed to having an intersectional campaign that represents all victims. ‘We want to highlight the fact that interlocking forces of oppression make individual experiences of harassment differ significantly. Our Streets Now is absolutely committed to showing the full range of PSH and we use hundreds of different testimonies to show this.’ This quote is taken from their website where they have a section dedicated to intersectionality with links to additional resources.
PSH still consumes my daily decisions as a grown woman and it is emotionally exhausting. I won’t go for a run alone because I fear the beeping horns and sexual jeers from men. The way I dress to go out is centred on how I will be viewed by the male gaze and trying to minimise the ways they can sexualise me based on my clothing choices. I financially invest in my safety in ways that are unthinkable to men like using taxis instead of public transport to reduce my chances of harassment. I experienced PSH on a tram ride home last year, where a group of young men yelled sexual abuse at me. I never felt safe getting the tram after dark again, which hugely limited social interactions with my friends because I couldn’t afford to pay for a taxi all the time. The anxiety I had at the concept of being harassed on the tram outweighed my FOMO, but it didn’t eliminate the latter entirely. It’s infuriating how many times I subsequently turned down post work drinks because I was afraid to get on the tram. Maya reflects that “Our freedom in society is fundamentally restricted by this” due to feeling unsafe.
In discussing the counter arguments, Gemma expresses her frustration by pointing out “We’re not asking for anything else apart from safety - how is this even a controversial issue?”. It is pretty baffling to think anyone would try and devise a counter argument towards a movement that is literally just asking for women’s safety in public, but it is something that they have both come across when campaigning. I can only imagine this is mostly from people who have never experienced PSH and therefore have the privilege of an imagined scenario and response situation to something that is probably unlikely to happen to them. Our Streets Now challenge any counter arguments with facts and statistics of PSH’s prevalence in our society combined with the testimonies of victims. There are many heartbreaking stories from PSH victims on their website and social media that can not be disputed. The campaign has created a safe space for people to anonymously tell their stories with the confidence that they will be taken seriously and hopefully feel heard.
As much as I admire Gemma & Maya for starting this campaign, I can’t help but feel a frustration that it is taking two young people, one of whom is legally a child, to tirelessly campaign for women’s safety and on top of that educate the masses on why this is an issue. Maya talks about how she finds it frustrating that too often societal issues like this are left in the hands of young activists to solve “Gemma shouldn’t have to at the age of 15 get back from her schools day, then go to training for 2 hours, then get back at 8pm to then do 2 hours of our streets now to challenge a culture that has sexualised her”.
Navigating public space as a woman should not be this difficult. Gemma deserves the right to walk to school without fear of being sexualised by adult men, Maya deserves the right to complete her degree without simultaneously having to justify why PSH is an issue, I deserve the right to go for a run alone with the confidence I won’t have sexual abuse yelled at me from a car window. We deserve to feel safe within our society without limitations due to our bodies being viewed as sexual objects under the male gaze. We deserve better. We deserve the rights to our streets, now.
For more information on this please visit https://www.ourstreetsnow.org/ and show your support by signing their petition to make PSH a criminal offence https://www.change.org/p/make-street-harassment-a-criminal-offence-in-the-uk . You can also follow @OurStreetsNow on Twitter & Instagram to keep up with the latest in their campaign.
To listen to the full interview and podcast episode with Maya & Gemma talking about these issues then you can do on Spotify & Apple - if you get a second to leave an apple rating or review that would be greatly appreciated!