It would be ignorant to deny the progressive legislation regarding gender equality passed in the last few decades to protect women – and their rights – haven’t correlated with societal attitudes towards women. From a simple catcall to sexual assault in broad daylight, it is clear there is still an issue that must be addressed.
A figure the British media have become accustomed to recently is that found by the UN that stated 97% of all British women had been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Sexual assault is defined as the act of forcing a non-consenting person to engage in sexual activity, which will obviously be interpreted differently between the perpetrator and the victim. The UN defined this as anything from objectification in the streets to forced sexual favours, making this a tough figure to digest.
Among the perpetrator, a simple catcall may be seen as a compliment, which is not the case. It should come as no surprise that any unwanted attention from a stranger that has the potential to harm you is a terrifying experience. Disguising this as a “compliment” does not mask the fear a victim may feel, nor does it make a victim feel confident in themselves.
Seeing somebody as merely a sexual object rather than the person they are is dehumanising and should never be commented on in such a derogatory way, such as wolf-whistling. It is almost as if someone is beckoning you, as if you are their pet, and it can cause a wave of panic and insecurity to hit you like a tonne of bricks, which I, for one, wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
Nobody denies the fact that sexual assault can and does happen to men. In March 2017, the Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 4% of men have experienced some form of sexual assault since the age of 16. Whilst it is disgusting this percentage is any higher than 0%, it is very clearly disproportionate against the population of women who could and have said the same. And yet, there is no legislation or direct police protection that ensures women’s safety, nor is there any direct path of support made readily available to women at an institutional level, which opens itself as a significant gap in public welfare.
The truth is that many young women are subject to sexual assault and derogatory comments from a very young age, even in the supposed safety of their schools. A lot of this harmful behaviour gets brushed off as playful teasing by authoritative figures, and girls are taught to believe that it’s because the boys “like them”, when that is far from the truth; the boys like to exploit the vulnerability of young girls, and they can get away with it.
In June 2020, Soma Sara established a website named ‘Everyone’s Invited’ where girls and young women can share their stories of sexual assault. They would serve as a reminder of the institutional problem of frequent sexual assault in school. Sara aimed to “continue this essential conversation by giving these stories a more permanent platform.” Since its establishment, ‘Everyone’s Invited’ has received over 15,000 testimonies and continues to be a safe space for young girls to share their stories in confidence.
A common theme between several testimonies on ‘Everyone’s Invited’ is the fear young girls feel of boys and men. Many of these girls also feel they have to shy away and hide as if their existence is the problem. In reality, it is a lack of punishment and education for young boys that teaches them this behaviour is acceptable. It is the likelihood that teachers and supervisors disregard this behaviour that makes it so common, only reinforcing the idea that the danger of sexual assault against women is not an individual problem.
This issue needs to be recognised for what it is; an endemic threat to the safety of women that has, time and time again, failed to be recognised as an institutional concern. Even with education and acknowledgement, there is no protection at a high legislative level that fully ensures women’s safety.
There was no mention of women’s safety in the 2021 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill despite being proposed just six days after an innocent woman was sexually assaulted and subsequently murdered by an authority figure. The apparent ignorance of those able to make society safer for women is blinding. Still, this issue will soon be hard to ignore as more mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends are becoming victim to the prevalent crime of sexual assault.