It’s a trope synonymous with British Summer Time – as soon as the sun comes out and the temperature hits the low 20s, menfolk the country over will rip off their t-shirts. Not a care is given to the body underneath, or how their nakedness might make strangers around them feel.
For women, we’ve an all-together very different experience. Every morning over the past few weeks of hot weather, I’ve agonised over what clothes to wear so that I can keep cool and avoid the inevitable street harassment showing skin is likely to invite. Sexual harassment is a problem all year round, and in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder back in March, there’s been a spotlight shone on how we can make the streets safer for women.
One suggestion has been to make sexual street harassment a crime, in the same ways other forms of public abuse are. And while no one plans on sending the odd wolf-whistler straight to jail, it would help to send the message that sexual harassment on the street isn’t ok, and can have real consequences for the victim.
I’d had my jumper off for all of three minutes when a stranger started shouting lewd comments about my body last week. Standing at a busy bus terminal, surrounded by people, I felt targeted, humiliated, and on some level, annoyed at myself for being out in a vest top. After over a year indoors where I could dress as I please, the easing of lockdown coinciding with the hot weather has added an extra layer of anxiety for returning to normal.
“Like the rest of the world, I'm desperate to have a proper summer, but know all too well that after a year of lockdown, ‘best behaviour’ is not going to be the first thing on everyone's minds,” says Eliza Hatch, creator of Cheer Up Luv, an Instagram account and photography project chronicling womens’ experience of harassment.
“During the pandemic, my followers submitted varying testimonies, ranging from experiencing dramatically reduced harassment while the streets where empty and enjoying the anonymity of wearing a mask, to the polar opposite of being aggressively harassed when there's no one around, receiving antagonising sexual remarks specifically to do with wearing a face mask, like: 'Does your mask match your knickers’ – ‘are you smiling under there?’ – ‘Show me your smile, love!’”
Following my experience last week, I reported the incident to the police. I had an exact time and location, and there is undoubtedly CCTV in the area – all the things you need when reporting a crime. But the problem is, what happened to me isn’t actually a crime. It happens day in, day out, and 97% of women have experienced it, but for generations, it has been something we’re expected to tolerate. It’s just part of life for women existing in the world.
Even without the loosening of restrictions we're currently seeing, many women see an uptick in street harassment as the weather gets hotter, says Eliza. 'Summer and harassment go hand in hand unfortunately. It's something every woman and non-binary person will subconsciously think about before trying on their summer wardrobe, even though we should have the right to wear anything we want in public without feeling unsafe.
'I know I do it all the time without even thinking. I'll wear trousers instead of a skirt one day, or will make sure I'm wearing cycling shorts under a dress, just so I feel more comfortable. It's so expected and normalised, that you can anticipate it happening before you've even left the house.'
Now there’s been something of pushback (in tandem with, predictably, a tidal wave of ‘not-all-men-ery’), some women, like me, are feeling bolstered, but despite the endless testimonies and the work of people like Eliza, the issue still isn’t being taken seriously by parliament, with a petition to put reporting infrastructure in place recently dismissed.
Plan International UK have recently partners with grassroots movement Our Streets Now to launch their Crime Not Compliment campaign, stating the current law is “not fit for purpose” with street harassment going “unreported and unpunished”.
“There is no single law which criminalises Public Sexual Harassment in the UK,” says Rose Caldwell, the CEO of Plan International UK. “Instead, we have a piecemeal set of laws stretching back centuries which mean many forms of PSH fall through the legal gaps. For girls, there’s no guarantee that reporting these incidents will help them or lead to further action, or result in consequences for the perpetrator, despite the harm it causes. As one girl told us, you can be fined for dropping litter in the UK, but not for harassing a woman or girl in public. This cannot be right.
“Funding will help, but we need legal change to start a cultural shift, so that girls and women will finally begin to feel safe in public spaces. We have taken our case to the Home Secretary, to demand a clear law that criminalises all forms of public sexual harassment and protects the rights of girls to a life lived without fear.”
Eliza agrees, “Sexual harassment has been normalised for so long in our society, that it will seem as though there has been a huge increase, but that's only because people have finally started to come to terms with things they've been experiencing and brushing off their whole lives.
“There's definitely more infrastructure in place than there was three years ago for reporting assault and harassment, but we still have a long way to go in terms of feeling safe in public spaces.”