This bus ride shouldn’t be dangerous but for 97% of British women, including girls as young as eight, everyday life has been blighted by sexual harassment. Harriet Kean meets two sisters who are determined to make our streets safer.
Gemma Tutton was just 11 when she was first sexually harassed. A group of men began shouting lewd comments at her as she walked home from school. ‘I didn’t understand – I was wearing shorts that day so I assumed it was my fault,’ she recalls. Feeling terrified and ashamed, she ran crying to her friend’s house.
Then, at 13, Gemma was walking past a café when a group of men made explicit remarks about her. ‘When I told them my age, they said, “That doesn’t matter to us.” And that terrified me,’ she says. These distressing experiences led to Gemma becoming petrified of public spaces. ‘Every time a car came up behind me, my heart would skip a beat. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, terrified that someone was following me.’
Gemma, now 16, did not tell her mother Katy about her fear, nor the extent to which it was happening. Instead, she would often confide in her elder sister Maya, who was all too familiar with the experience of feeling powerless after being harassed by older men.
‘Public sexual harassment was very much a part of my teenage years,’ Maya, 21, explains. ‘It started when I was 12 – when I was in my school uniform, at bus stops or on trains. Once I was with two friends and some men in a car slowed down to shout really explicit threats of sexual violence at us. It had a massive impact on the way I viewed myself. It made me feel unsafe in my own town.’
Maya says that it was ‘heartbreaking’ having to explain to her sister how ubiquitous street harassment was for young girls. ‘I told her she was going to experience this constantly – and that it would probably get a lot worse.’
Aware of the impact this was having on Gemma, Maya decided she had to do something. In 2019, the sisters approached their parents – who knew little about their experiences – and announced they were starting a campaign, Our Streets Now. Inspired by the introduction of a ‘catcalling law’ in France in 2018, where there had been uproar after a woman was attacked by a man who’d harassed her, the Tutton sisters wanted to make it illegal here, too.
In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, this conversation has never felt more crucial. Public sentiment that something must be done is growing. On 13 March, a movement called Reclaim These Streets saw women come together in vigils held across the country: ‘We believe that streets should be safe for women, regardless of what you wear, where you live or what time of day or night it is,’ read their statement. ‘Women are not the problem.’
Yet shocking pictures from a gathering in Clapham, South London, marking where Sarah Everard was last seen, showed the police moving in on the crowd as night fell, dragging some women away and threatening others with arrest.
Meanwhile, a new study by UN Women UK found that 97 per cent of women aged 18-24 said they had been sexually harassed, while 80 per cent of all women said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Despite all this, at present there is no specific offence that covers public sexual harassment: an abuse which includes catcalling, intimidating behaviour and unwanted sexual advances or gestures. This means that street harassment is ‘one of the most unregulated, overlooked and misunderstood violations of fundamental rights,’ explains Dexter Dias QC, the barrister involved with Gemma and Maya’s campaign who helped draft the proposed bill that the sisters hope one day might become law.
The girls feel that this would help police prosecute offenders, dissuade other harassers and empower victims to know their rights. ‘It doesn’t even occur to people that it might be illegal and that, as a behaviour, it’s wrong,’ continues Maya, who is studying politics at university. ‘Making public street harassment a crime will show young girls that their experience is valid. They can tell the police and something can be done.’
The campaign began as a petition on change.org. ‘On our first day we struggled to get 17 signatures. But then 100,000 people signed it in 100 days,’ Maya says, after taking their crusade to Instagram (@ourstreetsnow) caused a surge of interest. ‘We realised we were tapping into some real feelings of anger and frustration.’
Now the petition has more than 400,000 signatures and the girls have recruited 26 volunteers. They organise initiatives such as workshops in schools and, last November, announced a Parliament-ready bill.
To illustrate the movement’s importance and encourage conversation, the girls have collaborated with illustrators, photographers and charities (such as UN Women) to sensitively share people’s experiences of street harassment to their 36.6k Instagram followers. ‘We want to break down the misconceptions about what harassment is,’ Maya explains. ‘It is not an unthreatening compliment in the street – most of our testimonies are about sexually intrusive incidents, often involving underage girls.’ Since the account’s inception, the girls have received testimonies on a daily basis, some of which are from girls as young as eight years old.
‘I was walking down the road and a man made a sexual gesture at me through a bus window,’ says 15-year-old Teän, one of the many victims who has shared their experience with Our Streets Now. ‘It was terrifying. I was really upset. It hit me really hard.’ Teän explains that she did not report the incident to the police because she ‘didn’t know how’.
Amaka, 21, tells me she often experiences racial abuse, has been groped in a crowd and sexually propositioned in the street. ‘The other day a man in his 50s leered at me: “I’d give it to you,” and during the first lockdown, a man yelled: “I’d like to taste some chocolate.” I’ve had so much harassment when I’m cycling that I’ve had to change my route.’
Rebecca is another victim who felt unable to report an incident. ‘When I was in my early 20s, I was in a crowd at Trafalgar Square and a man put his hand up my skirt and in my knickers,’ she says. ‘I just froze. He was smirking at me then eventually pulled his hand away and went off into the crowd.’ She adds that if there had been a comprehensive law against street harassment, she would have reported the crime. ‘It will also help the perpetrators realise the seriousness of what they’re doing.’
Recent research from Our Streets Now and the charity Plan UK – which focuses on sexual harassment and partnered the campaign in 2020 – shows that street harassment cases spiked last summer, prompting parents to keep their children at home or give them strict rules. The survey claims that four in ten parents had instructed their daughters not to go out after dark, or to change their routes.
‘As a parent, I am worried,’ says Rose Caldwell, CEO of Plan UK. She recalls an incident that happened to her 13-year-old daughter after she’d gone to the corner shop with a friend. ‘When they didn’t come back for a while, my partner went to look for them. A man had started to talk to them and was harassing them – they were really intimidated and relieved to be found. If my partner hadn’t turned up, how would that have gone?’
‘We noticed that the incidents mentioned in testimonies have become much more aggressive during the pandemic,’ says Maya, who explains that perpetrators often threaten to touch victims. Rose believes that the quieter streets are exacerbating the problem. ‘There are fewer people on the streets and not as many shops open for victims to go into if they feel uncomfortable,’ she explains.
Dexter Dias is also concerned about his children’s welfare in public spaces. ‘My teenage daughters are being approached and sexually propositioned by older men in public on a weekly basis,’ says Dexter, who only learnt this when he became involved in the campaign. ‘One of my daughters was cyber-flashed’ (when somebody shares pornographic material via wifi AirDrop) – and that’s not a criminal offence. My other daughter was sexually propositioned by a man who was following her in a van. Men are allowed to sexually proposition children – currently the law can do nothing about it.’
It’s profoundly important to realise how damaging public street harassment is to young girls, argues Dexter. ‘This is really happening; these young women’s lives have been made a misery because they feel there is nothing they can do. Some have become suicidal, some have mental-health damage, and we want to change that.’
Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, is supporting the campaign and says: ‘We need to be listening to what young people are saying to us. I have a 22-year-old daughter and the past 12 months have been bliss because she’s not going out. That’s the reality – every time your daughter leaves home, you worry about them coming home safely.’ She believes that a law against public street harassment would show ‘that we’re listening to what young people are worried about and are prepared to take action’.
France issued more than 700 fines in a year after passing its catcalling law which is ‘evidence that you can introduce legislation and it can work,’ says Nokes.
This month, in the aftermath of the news about Sarah Everard, the Government has announced ‘immediate steps’ at improving safety on the streets for women and girls, including an extra £25 million for better lighting and CCTV. Reports have also emerged that it is now considering making public sexual harassment illegal (though at the time of going to press, a parliamentary session had not yet been called). That would be a landmark moment for the campaign and a ‘huge victory for the girls and young women who have bravely shared their stories,’ says Rose. ‘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.’
‘We’ve never been closer to changing the law,’ adds Maya. ‘That’s why it’s so important for people to join our campaign now and ensure that street harassment is unacceptable in 21st-century Britain.’
A CATCALLER CONFESSES: ‘I’VE DONE IT ALL MY LIFE’
After the Tutton sisters appeared on her BBC Radio 5 Live show, Emma Barnett asked men who catcalled women to get in touch. A 40-year-old builder who said his name was George phoned in. This is their conversation…
GEORGE: To this one girl I said, ‘Your bottom looks good.’
EMMA BARNETT: You shouted it out of your car. Why do you do that?
GEORGE: I’ve done it all my life to any girl that looks nice. Some of them like it – they smile, sometimes I get phone numbers. If a girl looks mature and they’re wearing revealing clothes – why do they do it? I don’t understand.
EMMA BARNETT: They can wear what they want. They don’t have to think about what they’re wearing in light of you, do they?
GEORGE: Why do some women complain? If people are saying they look good in their clothes?
EMMA BARNETT: What are you taking as their ‘liking to it’? They might be smiling because they just want to get through the experience and don’t want to aggravate you.
GEORGE Sometimes they do like it. I know they do. I can tell they’re pleased with the comment. It makes their day.
EMMA BARNETT: Let’s say I accept that, and I’m sure there will be women who do like it. I’m just trying to understand, what do you feel when I tell you that some women definitely don’t?
GEORGE: It’s just life, isn’t it? There are things that happen to us that we don’t like and that are unpleasant, but you just have to get on with your life.
EMMA BARNETT: I would try to understand a bit more around when you say, ‘It’s women’s fault, they dress this way’, because the idea that they’re asking for this sort of comment is something that people take issue with.
GEORGE: The next time a woman’s walking down the street wearing a short skirt, then maybe she should not wear that if she doesn’t want the comments.
HOW TO RESPOND TO STREET HARASSMENT
By Rose Caldwell, CEO of the charity Plan UK
- Do not retaliate – try to leave the situation safely. Things can escalate very quickly so it’s important to make sure you are physically safe. If you are in immediate danger, call 999. If you experience behaviour that makes you feel uncomfortable on public transport, report it to the British Transport Police by texting what, when and where to 61016.
- You can also report harassment after the event: always write down the time, location and a description of what has happened. Do not suffer in silence: write to your local MP and if you are under 19 you can call Childline (0800 1111) or tell someone that you trust.
- Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. You are not to blame: only the harasser is at fault and only their behaviour should change.