• marthaestevens

Listen to women when they speak

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

(TW sexual assault/ harassment)

I can’t go for a run after dark. When walking anywhere late at night, I always have to be cautious and definitely no earphones in. I also won’t wear my hair in a pony tail in public when it's dark out, just in case someone could grab it, helping them to hurt me. I wouldn’t even consider exercising in public after 6pm, and even in the daytime before going for a run, I feel anxious about the looks I will inevitably get; the muted car honks I’ll ignore over the music blasting in my ears.

I get cat called, shouted at and called names probably on a weekly basis. I am approached by men when I’m out in public on my own. In the park, in Tesco’s, when exercising, waiting for a friend or an Uber - and even when I am polite and quiet and tell them sorry, I’m not interested, most of the time they do not leave me alone until I move elsewhere. Telling them I have a boyfriend is usually a good way to get rid of them, but that's only because when another man is concerned, it’s important to be respectful.

I’ve had men touch me and grab my bum on the tube. Uber drivers have asked for kisses. When I've worked behind a bar, men have asked me to "turn around" or "do a twirl" for them. Strange men have grabbed me on the street when they want to talk to me.

One time, a man actually stood with his trousers around his ankles, wanking himself off, only 5 feet away from me and a female colleague as we had an after-work drink. This last incident in particular, shook me to my core. As an 18 year old girl working in a pub in Brixton and only a few months into living in London at this point, I was scared for my life as I walked to the bus stop afterwards at around 1am that morning.

I was so shocked when it happened, I asked my colleague who was a few years older than me, “has that happened to you before?” She told me the same thing had happened to her just a week before. It was her and a friend, and it happened at a bus stop, and by a man stood directly next to them.

I’m sure most women reading this will be able to relate to the situations mentioned in a personal way, or have loved ones pop into their heads as they remember the endless stories shared.

But as a man reading this, how does it make you feel? Would any of your male friends do something like this? Your male family members? Would you? No. Probably and hopefully not. Because, “not all men.” And women know that “not all men” think it’s acceptable to assault and attack and degrade women. But honestly, can you blame us for being wary of all men? How are we supposed to know which ones are good and which are bad when walking down the street, at work, at a bar, even talking to one? We don’t. That’s why, for us, the safest thing to do around men we do not know is to be cautious. But the truth is, it’s not only the men we don’t know that choose to put us in danger. Even some men we once saw as friends and family choose to abuse us and our bodies, choose to take advantage of their position and privilege. And according to research, approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence.

Please think about that, and how that must make us feel. How it makes us feel about our self worth, our place in society. And don’t think of us only because we are your girlfriends, sisters, mothers - think of us because we are human beings.

My first experience of I guess what I thought was flirting (with boys), was at school when I was around 12/13. This so called ‘flirting’, involved the boys in the year above creeping up behind me and my female friends in the cloak room, and seeing how many of our bums they could smack before we ran away, giggling. This happened most lunchtimes, most days, for a very long time. The saddest thing about it when I look back at that time, is that my friends and I enjoyed it. We just didn’t see the harm. We thought it meant the boys thought we were sexy, cute, attractive - worth bothering, and that was a good thing. Even when afterwards, my eyes would sting and well up because I was in pain, it was worth it.

What does this tell you about the way girls, women are brought up in this world? And what does it tell you about how boys, men are brought up? That as young girls, we don’t even blink when boys touch us inappropriately and hurt us at their own expense?

I’ve not even had it ‘that bad’ compared to some women and their experiences. But the fact that just out of sheer luck, I have not been terribly assaulted in my life (so far), I should be grateful? That my personal experiences mean less because these things just happen to everyone? But these things don’t happen to everyone.

We make up 50% of the population, but women are undoubtedly treated as, and viewed as second class citizens.

And now, women are being told not to go out at all late at night in London, just in case we are assaulted or even worse, killed? Really, when will this end? It is exhausting.

When Sarah Everard’s disappearance hit the news, I was instantly drawn in. Something about it felt so personal - it resonated with me for some reason and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. With who is suspected to be Sarah’s kidnapper and murderer now public, there is a deep, deep sadness to be felt as this story progresses.

Because this isn’t a rarity, an anomaly. This is very sadly, not at all uncommon. This is reality for life as women, as girls. This has happened countless times before, and this will happen again in future. Think of the endless women who have been the victims of assault and murder, whose stories weren’t reported like Sarah’s. And the fact that the man who did what he did to Sarah was a Metropolitan police officer, is it surprising that only 15% of those who experience sexual violence report to the police?

I have two eight year old sisters, twins. I remember when they were growing in my mum’s belly, and I can remember just about every major milestone in their life as they have grown up into unique, beautiful little people. As an older sister, I feel a particular connection to them - more so than with my younger brothers. I wonder, and I worry, how will it be when they grow up? Will they be scared to walk down a street at night alone? Will they have the same default as I do, where being polite and sweet to strange men is the only and safest option? Will they blame themselves if a man assaults or harasses them?

According to a recent study, 97% of young women aged 18-24 in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public places. For women, reading that statistic is sadly, no surprise. But it is even more INFURIATING to see men on the internet in the last few days discussing this statement (as if their opinion here matters whatsoever) because they simply “don’t believe it.” Because there is “no way” that likely every woman they know has been sexually harassed or assaulted by a man in their lifetime.

I just want to know, what is so difficult about listening to us, hearing what we have to say? Why is it, that anything a woman says they have experienced is scrutinised, questioned, debated and disparaged? What is it going to take to make you listen to what we have to say for once, and actually believe us?

I am so grateful for my male friends - the ones who always walk me to the bus stop, or make sure I get in the Uber safely. The ones who say, "text me when you get home." But unfortunately, this is not enough.

Men need to start talking about these inequalities and not only when there are women around to lead the discussion. As women, we need men to really try to understand that our lives are not lived in the same way, and that is not alright. We cannot do the same things as you in life and not worry for our safety, and that needs to change.

Challenge other men when they catcall, make inappropriate comments or degrade women. Help women if you can see that they are distressed or being made uncomfortable by a man. Ask your female friends how they are, how you can make them feel safer. And most importantly, listen to us when we speak, when we trust and confide in you. Just please, men, start caring about this, because it affects you too.

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