After almost a year of the pandemic, Lucie from Didcot was at the supermarket when a stranger began harassing her. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday in February and the 22-year-old was bending down to get some flour from a shelf when a man - staring at her running leggings - told her 'I forgot where I was for a minute'. 'When I expressed confusion, he repeated himself, insinuating he’d been staring at my bum and I should be flattered. It was very creepy,' she says.
Lucie was concerned the man would wait for her outside the shop, continue to pester her, or follow her home. His face mask had made him hard to identify so she was reluctant to challenge his comments or report to staff. This wasn’t the only time during the pandemic that Lucie had felt unsafe. During lockdown, she saw a lot of misogynistic jokes and comments in Facebook groups. 'The aggression that would’ve been expressed on the street seemed to have migrated online...unfortunately it just seems to be part of the female experience,' she explains.
As Covid-19 reached UK shores in early 2020, it was described as a 'great leveller' for its ability to impact everyone equally - but we quickly discovered that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not least when it came to the impact it had on women. Any optimism about a potentially kinder society borne overnight of shared adversity evaporated in the face of cold hard numbers.
Two out of three women aged 16 to 34 were harassed between June 2020 and June 2021 with 44% receiving catcalls, comments or jokes, and 29% feeling they’d been followed, according to an Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey. A poll by Plan UK found a fifth of girls and women aged between 14 and 21 experienced street harassment during the spring lockdown, a figure which rose to 51% during the summer as restrictions on public life eased. No wonder six in ten women and girls felt anxious about being out again post-lockdown due to harassment.
For key workers the situation became more precarious with many reporting a rise in sexual harassment as they worked day and night to keep the country running. Women were certainly not any safer at home as rates of domestic abuse rose an estimated 10% overall and 61% of women living with an abuser said it had worsened. Women’s Aid described the situation as a 'perfect storm'. For others, remote working brought its own challenges with UN Women reporting that digital harassment and cyberflashing (which is still not illegal) increased. A report by Glitch found the experience was markedly worse for Black, non-binary and minority women.
That’s why Grazia is calling for cyberflashing – aka unsolicited dick pics - to be made illegal under the Online Safety Bill, due to be published later this year.
Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird told Grazia: 'Life for women really has gone down in the pandemic', adding that people often mistakenly conclude that online harassment - which rose steeply - is automatically less harmful than offline. '[They think] it is only some "snowflakes" who are bothered but [online harassment] is insidious and ubiquitous. You want to use your phone, it is there. You are trying to write on the computer for work, it is there.'
Across the full spectrum of sexual violence and harassment, people being confined to their homes had not bettered anything for women.
There was also a 'concerning increase in stalking behaviours during the pandemic,' according to a report by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which detected a 49% per cent increase in online stalking and 32% offline. One thing is clear - across the full spectrum of sexual violence and harassment, people being confined to their homes had not bettered anything for women. A UN investigation summarised the situation as a 'shadow pandemic', saying: 'Since the outbreak of Covid-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.'
Experts have attributed the rise in harassment to a number of reasons. These include victims being trapped at home; empty streets with less chance for bystander intervention; perpetrators having more time on their hands especially if furloughed; a belief that support organisations would not be functioning because of the lockdown or that police would be overwhelmed with pandemic-related business; face masks aiding anonymity of perpetrators; and victims not wanting to admit they’d been out of the house if it constituted rule breaking.
Grass roots organisations, like Cheer Up Luv and Our Streets Now, both told Grazia how women had shared more stories of harassment including everything from Deliveroo drivers harassing women on the doorstep to women being followed home after a run. Eliza Hatch from Cheer Up Luv, had a first hand experience: 'I was walking down a main road, which was deserted, and a van slowed down and all the men leered out the window shouting sexual remarks. I felt really unsafe. Usually that road would have been so busy it would be harder to be so brazen.'
Particular high profile pandemic instances of violence against women, including the deaths of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, proved rallying moments for women across the country. Rebecca Hitchen, Head of Policy & Campaigns at the End Violence against Women Coalition (EVAW) says: 'While we as a society have been trying to respond to a global pandemic, we were also confronted with the fact that even when the world turns upside down, violence against women and girls remains a constant threat in every sphere of existence.'
People have spent time devising new and more appalling ways of interfering in someone’s peace of mind, they’re not just going to forget them.
As we leave the pandemic behind, and return to pubs, clubs, and the streets, experts do not see the situation improving - instead it will bring together new techniques and ways of harassing women with historic ones. Dame Baird says: 'People have spent time devising new and more appalling ways of interfering in someone’s peace of mind, they’re not just going to forget them.' Measures like mask-wearing will also continue to help disguise and embolden perpetrators.
In July, the government published its VAWG strategy. It said it was 'looking at where there might be gaps in existing law' but stopped short of creating a new harassment offence. Hitchens says currently funding is not there. 'Even before the pandemic, support services were starved...long term investment and commitment to tackling the root causes of violence against women and girls, as well as provision of specialist support services, must be an urgent government priority.'
For now, organisations and individuals are left to establish their own initiatives, like Reclaim Our Run, or the UN Women’s ‘Safe Spaces Now’ programme that asks live events to commit to improving safety. It will be piloted at the Strawberries & Creem festival. Claire Barnett, Executive Director of UN Women UK, said: 'We have a unique opportunity as we return from lockdown to reconsider the way we construct and use our public spaces to be safer for the long term.'
We are calling for criminalisation of cyberflashing within the Online Harms Bill which is due to be published later this year. We have an opportunity to change things NOW, so please sign our petition to show your support.