‘We’re told it’s a compliment’ – Women share their experiences of street harassment in London and advocate for change

Studies conducted by non-profit organisation Stop Street Harassment (SSH) revealed that 64% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed in public, a figure which increases to 85% amongst women aged between 18 and 24.

This issue affects women’s freedom to exercise in particular. In September, Runner’s World surveyed 1,000 runners and discovered that nearly 50% of women had experienced harassment whilst running, compared with just 9% of men.

Eva Brockschmidt, 28, from Battersea, was once followed by several teenage boys on bicycles. 

She explained: “They were catcalling and shouting vulgar things at me.

“There were lots of people around, but no one said or did anything – which just made me feel even more intimidated.”

Jane Copland, 36, was also pursued while running in Central London. 

She said: “A man started shouting the typical, sexual ‘compliments’ which aren’t compliments at me.

“I gave him the finger. In response, he chased me up a hill – which was pretty terrifying.”

Gabrielle Nash, 36, from Sutton, was even groped whilst on a run. 

Conversations around these experiences have recently been spotlighted by the UK’s second lockdown, which has seen many women expressing concern over how the closure of gyms impacted their ability to exercise.

With evenings getting darker earlier, the streets aren’t necessarily a safe space for women. Those with normal working hours have been pushed to choose between health and safety.

Jessica Goodson, 29, commented: “Gyms closing really made me panic – I just don’t feel safe going out alone when it’s dark.

“The reality is that the streets can be a very different place for women than they are for men.”

It may be the reality – but it shouldn’t be the norm, and many women, charities, and organisations are now speaking out against street harassment and taking steps to help women feel safe whilst exercising in public spaces.

This Mum Runs, the world’s largest running community for mothers, hopes to connect and empower women through exercise.

Covid-19 regulations suspended the club’s usual protocol – where members run in large groups in parks across the UK – but during lockdown the organisation launched an app and hosted virtual challenges to bring the ethos of the community to those running alone.

EMPOWERED: This Mum Runs helps women to feel confident and safe whilst exercising in public Credit: This Mum Runs

CEO Mel Bound said: “This Mum Runs was born out of a sense of community – helping connect women who didn’t feel confident or safe to be out exercising.

“Running with someone is still permitted under all Covid-19 guidelines, so during lockdown our regional groups arranged meet-ups for members to keep everyone connected and moving.”

This Girl Can also launched a campaign during lockdown to encourage women to stay active.

Campaign lead Kate Dale said the initiative found that street harassment is a serious factor which prevents women from exercising.

She commented: “I’m torn because the dangers for women are a reality, so we do find ourselves giving out advice – be conscious of your surroundings, let people know where you are, stick to well-lit areas, keep one earphone out…

“Yet, it makes my blood boil saying those things. Why should we change the things we do because of how some men behave?

“We need to shift the dial on this issue. We need to move away from thinking this behaviour is harmless. We need to call it out and we need men to join us in calling it out. We need everyone’s voices if we want change.”

The Our Streets Now campaign, co-founded by Maya and Gemma Tutton, thrives on the importance of listening to women’s voices.

The organisation, which shares testimonies of female experiences, recently launched its #CrimeNotCompliment campaign with international children’s charity Plan UK. The initiative petitions Parliament to introduce legislative change to make street harassment a criminal offence.

Gemma said: “Public sexual harassment has been so normalised and belittled that bringing it to light can feel scary.

“When we try to raise awareness, we’re told it’s a compliment – to take it whilst we’re young. Or the blame is placed on us for wearing clothes that show skin, for going out alone, or even for going out at all.

“But we’re not blowing this out of proportion. We are simply telling real stories that people send us every single day.”

SSH Founder Holly Kearl added: “It’s important to let women know that what’s happening is not their fault.

“Sharing stories helps women know they’re not alone and encourages others to speak out – this can cause people to take action or change their behaviour.”

The exchanging of stories also encourages women to share their own ideas on how to improve things.

Jessica Goodson advocated for better street lighting and said more women should be involved in town planning.

Gabrielle Nash stressed the importance of education – both to improve attitudes and protect young women.

Eva Brockschmidt spoke of the need to consider the entire narrative.

She said: “Too often in focusing on the victims, we edit out the perpetrators. In doing so, we absolve those people of responsibility.”

Jane Copland commented on the value of acknowledging the various forms harassment can take.

She explained: “Someone laying hands on you is terrible. But people also need to realise that shouting ‘nice tits’ out a window is on the same spectrum – these things are part of the same problem.”

Progress may seem slow, but it’s being made. The Our Streets Now initiative has gained support from MPs, celebrities, and academic experts – in addition to tens of thousands of men and women – while Stop Street Harassment has succeeded in petitioning six companies to change adverts which trivialise or ridicule street harassment.

In the interim, women will continue to empower each other. This Mum Runs will continue moving, This Girl Can will continue inspiring, Our Streets Now will continue campaigning… and women will continue running.

Feature image credit: This Mum Runs.

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