Reclaiming Our Streets and Opening the Dialogue around Sexual Harassment

Reports of women being sexually harassed while exercising outdoors have increased during the latest lockdown. With tracks being closed and running groups unable to run under the current restrictions, female athletes and amateur runners have no choice but to take to the streets where they feel unsafe and unable to exercise freely without experiencing catcalling, harassment, and verbal abuse. According to England Athletics, a third of female runners have experienced harassment while exercising alone, demonstrating how unsafe women feel in society. 

Initial reports of female runners facing increased levels of harassment were recorded in early February, a clear warning that women were becoming increasingly anxious about their safety. Women’s worst fears were soon made a reality with the murder of Sarah Everard in March. The 33-year-old marketing executive walked home around 9 pm from her friend’s house in South London, changing her route home to a longer, well-lit path and talking on the phone to her boyfriend. She did everything in her power to keep herself safe, and yet she was still at risk. What is most shocking about Sarah’s death is that she was killed by a police officer, someone in a position of trust and in charge of public safety. Women’s mistrust of policemen was increased during protests where women were manhandled and violently arrested. This is evidence of the importance of addressing the attitudes and actions of all men - no matter their occupation, social background, ethnicity, or class - towards women. 

Sarah Everard’s death has opened the dialogue around sexual assault and sexual crimes, with many women coming forward to share their own experiences of unwanted sexual advances, intimidation, and exploitation. 97% of women aged 18-24 say they have been sexually harassed, which is an unacceptable statistic. The universality of the issue is clear, as thousands of women (and men) attended protests and vigils in Sarah's memory across the UK and abroad, showing their support and raising awareness for sexual crimes and harassment. Many women hope that Sarah’s death will be a wake-up call to our society, our governments, and our institutions - enough is enough. How many more women have to die before we take notice of the misogyny and sexism that exists in the UK? 

The trending hashtag ‘reclaimthesestreets’ has inspired Twitter users to get on board with the issue, whilst the ‘Our Bodies, Our Streets’ campaign logs public places where women have been harassed or assaulted whilst exercising, so they can avoid these areas for their own protection. With lockdown easing and people being allowed to meet up with others outside their household, women can now run with a friend or in a group to feel less vulnerable. However, women are sick and tired of having to be careful and cautious of what they say, what they do, what they wear. The onus is always put on women to prevent sexual crimes when it is in fact men who should bear responsibility for their actions.

All too often women hear the excuse ‘but it’s not all men.’ Women recognize that not all men will cause them harm, but we cannot possibly identify which man is a threat to our safety and which man is not. Women’s mistrust of men is a rational fear, based on realities that cannot be eradicated without changing the narrative around sexual crimes. Sarah Everard’s murder calls not for the protection of women, but to open an ongoing conversation around sexual harassment and to hold those who make inappropriate comments or actions accountable. Men also need to play an active role in these discussions by educating themselves on how to respect women, as well as having uncomfortable conversations with their male friends, colleagues, and family. Men need to learn to always correct other men who make sexist remarks or harass women. Being an ally and activist for women’s rights is a great first step, but change cannot come about without scrutinizing and standing up to sexist behavior and learning not to be a bystander. Challenging the patriarchal, male-dominated society we live in will contribute to a safer, more equal world where women can walk home alone at night, or exercise in public spaces without fear of being harassed, assaulted, or killed.

 Women don’t need to be protected, they need equality and respect.