Here's why women don't speak out about sexual harassment

Nov 17 | 157 sharesTegan Hedley

Last week, a man told me he was going to rape me. Queuing at a bar after a girly catch-up dinner, a perfectly innocuous looking middle-aged man approached my friend and I. After hitting on my friend with a cheeky, but ultimately harmless, chat-up line, he turned his attentions to me with one that was even more corny. I rolled my eyes, chuckled, and turned away. Not one to take rejection well, his tone instantly became aggressive. "Fuck it," he snarled. "What I’ll do with you is take you to a woods, fucking chase you through it and fucking rape you."

London on a Friday night, it was a busy pub. People stopped and stared. Even his friend looked horrified. Now, anyone who knows me well will tell you I'll be the first to fight my own corner. I've grown up surrounded by some terrifyingly feisty women, so I always kind of imagined that if anything like this happened I'd come out swinging. But I didn't. Instead of getting angry, I froze; I didn’t hit him, I didn’t tell him to go and die in hole. I just took a deep breath, nodded and moved away. And just like that, life carried on.

Whether from pure shock, fear or even just having become desensitised to disrespectful comments, I got angry about the incident about 20 minutes later than I should have done. By that time, he was gone. However, I’m not alone in my inaction; a 2015 poll showed that 71 per cent of women report having let sexual harassment - which the Citizens Advice Bureau defines as "unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that violates your dignity, makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated, or creates a hostile or offensive environment" - go unchallenged. Just 24 hours later, actress Scarlett Archer attracted support when she took to Twitter to share her own experience.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and ongoing revelations about the conduct of many other public figures, male and female, more people than ever are willing to speak up about their own experiences. With the hashtags #MeToo and #EverydaySexism being used widely across social media to show how widespread this issue is, it is easy to think the tide is turning. Yet the horrifying responses to Archer’s tweet exemplified the very reasons so many women do still say nothing: the disbelief of the victims, the assumption that people were “asking for it” somehow, the blaming of the victims for not doing more.

It literally baffles me that the argument about clothing is still being made. But for the record, @Franklythis, when it happened to me, I was wearing a bobble hat, a long coat and more layers than a Russian doll - yeah, it was real sexy.

It would be only too easy to assume that these kind of opinions were the preserve of online trolls, but a quick look through the internet will show you that when women do speak out it is all too often ill-received. The fact that in the wake of the Weinstein scandal so much of the discussion was focused on the idea that women were somehow responsible for other women’s experiences by not speaking up sooner highlights this. Even prominent public figures, such as British businessman Arron Banks and White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway expressed these kind of attitudes.

Your keyboard is one thing, but say that to her face Arron, I dare you. Somehow, I've got a funny feeling he's never been in that position.

It is this kind of "victim blaming" that is so central to stopping people speaking out about sexual abuse, assault or harassment. It takes guts to speak about something intrusive or distressing that has happened to you, even more so when you don’t know what kind of reaction you’re going to get. It’s easier, emotionally and socially, to say nothing and move on rather than to draw that kind of attention to yourself. Even in the workplace, where sexual harassment is specifically prohibited under the Equality Act 2010, the situation is no better. A September 2017 Opinium poll showed that over half of the women who considered themselves to have been sexually harassed by a colleague did not tell their employer. So here’s a revolutionary idea that I shouldn't have to type: how about we all put the blame at the feet of the person being sexually aggressive, rather than the person having to put up with it?

A lack of clarity around sexual harassment in law - the very thing we use to judge “OK” and “not OK” - doesn't help either. In both the UK and the US, there is no specific law against harassing someone in the street, as exists in other countries such as Belgium and Portugal. This is despite the fact that 90 per cent of British women and up to 85 per cent of American women say that by the time they are aged 17, they have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual attention in public.

I'm not saying that anyone who wolf whistles or tries to chat someone up at a bus stop should be rounded up and arrested, but by refusing to set, acknowledge and enforce boundaries we refuse to address the issue directly. Although I know that it’s morally abhorrent to threaten to rape someone, the fact that I had to Google whether it is legally a crime to do so (it is) speaks volumes about how accustomed women are to just accepting this kind of thing.

A woman holds up a sign that says 'Stop Victim Blaming' at a Me Too rally

I like to think that if I’d already had a pint in my hand, I would have chucked it over that guy. But the truth is, I probably wouldn’t have; I already had a voice, but in this case, for whatever reason, I didn’t use it. Being surrounded by people doesn’t stop the flight or fight response from kicking in and my refusal to draw attention to myself is probably indicative of having grown up against the backdrop of a society that expects women to just brush this kind of thing off. In a September 2017 poll by Drinkaware, almost 80 per cent of women between 18 and 24 said they considered sexual harassment to be part and parcel of a night out. If that stat doesn't suggest a normalisation of this kind of behaviour, I don't know what does.

As much as I hate to admit it, I can also understand that the silence of the other people around me in that bar was, in part, a result of my own inaction. I am sure, in hindsight, that had I kicked up a fuss then any of the people around me would have taken my side. But by being "OK" with it, they felt that they had to be OK with it too. The fact is though, I wasn't OK with it, not at all. So the next time you see someone looking uncomfortable at whatever comment has just been made to them, feel free to step in and speak out, because the chances are, you'll give them the confidence and reassurance to do so too.