TW: Violence against Women, PSH, Sexual Violence and Rape
When I first saw Rishi Sunak had done an interview about his concerns over his daughter’s safety on the streets of London, you probably would have been able to see my eyebrows shoot up so fast they disappeared into my hairline. Finally! A major political player- the prime minister of the UK, no less- realizing, and publicising the severity of public sexual harassment and lack of street safety in this country. But once I was a few paragraphs into the Guardian article I could feel my shoulders drop and my eyes droop with disappointment: after establishing that he ‘want[s] to make sure that [his] kids and everyone else can walk around safely’ he goes on to explain how he wants to ‘tackle’ this issue by reducing neighbourhood crime and ‘putting more police officers on the street’.
At a first glance it might not look like there’s really an issue here- after all, we want the streets to be safer, right? But where public sexual harassment is concerned the reality is that more police officers wandering up and down the UK’s high streets is like putting a plaster on a broken leg and expecting it to heal. Not only is public sexual harassment perfectly legal (i.e. something the police can’t enforce against) but women’s trust in the police is at an all-time low following the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by an off-duty police officer, as well as the violent handling of her vigil in March 2021.
Something that Rishi didn’t seem to get was that for us it’s not all about ‘street safety’. In fact, most of the time it’s quite unlikely that you’re in serious danger when you feel anxious in public spaces- but instead it’s the psychological aftermath of being sexually harassed when going about your day to day life, over years and decades, which instils the idea that you don’t belong in this world as much as the next person. Are we putting limits on women’s ability to fearlessly take up space in the world because girls as young as 10 get told they have sexy legs when they’re walking home from school?
The heart of the matter is almost always completely ignored- and that isn’t the shortage of protection, but it’s the acts of sexual violence and harassment happening in the first place. When Rishi places the emphasis on increasing police protection, he’s implicitly assuming that some men’s behaviour will just carry on, when really the responsibility lies with perpetrators, and it would be more logical for us all to focus on tackling that instead of shielding women for something that is considered inevitable.
It goes without saying that safety is important. But what is being done to stop PSH being perpetrated, when some people still think the street, gym, club, or bus is a man-owned space that other people just live in; and therefore that they have the right to behave however they please or comment on whoever enters their space.
So why is PSH not taken seriously, despite how universal being cat-called is? Suzanna Fish, a former chief police constable spoke on Women’s hour and explained how many of the police officers she worked with would ‘point at data and all sorts of things’ to show PSH was not as prevalent an issue as it is made out to be. She went on to emphasise that ‘this is the lived experience of women every day. It has been for years.’ And she’s right. Just because women are heading companies, can vote and enjoy some hard-earned equality doesn’t mean this demeaning and disrespectful treatment isn’t continuing to happen on regular basis.
Societal change is an infamously much harder thing to achieve- but if we’re still going with the broken leg analogy, maybe what we need is a different attitude to policing altogether, an approach that prioritizes paying more attention to the root of these issues. Because that is what it will take to make us feel not just safer, but equally worthy of being in the world.
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Cover image courtesy of writer - 'A sign from one of the follow-up vigils, which was displayed in an exhibition 'Vigil Art' by Clap Back club X Emma Down X AFLO the poet
Annika Basu (she/her)
Hi! I’m a staunch advocate for making the world a safer space for people to be in. By day I’m also a stressed student currently doing an international baccalaureate diploma, but by night (or 7pm, because I’m an old woman at heart) I like to write stuff about things that interest me and I care about, usually while listening to Platform B.