I've been harassed by men in the street twice in the last 2 weeks

‘Slow down, darling!’ someone to my left shouted.

It wasn’t a family member or my husband attempting to stop me in my tracks – the only people who would dare risk calling me ‘darling’ – but a burly, older man dressed in work overalls. 

A stranger. Someone much bigger than me.

I ignored him, laden with bags on my way to the train station, and he actually jogged to catch up.

My breath caught in my throat: I’d been here before, and it never ended well.

‘OK, you’ve got me running now,’ he laughed, thinking it was both hilarious and entirely reasonable to attempt to talk to a random, smaller, younger woman in the street. 

He was getting closer, within an arm’s reach – and I had no hands free to protect myself, or reach for my phone if I needed to. Fury bubbled up.

Furious at having my day interrupted by someone I didn’t know – regardless of whether I was busy or not – I snapped. I looked over my shoulder, directly at him, and gave what I can only describe as a death stare. 

I immediately regretted it, not entirely sure what his reaction would be.

Women don’t owe men, strangers, a conversation – or even politeness. We are not your friends, or a source of entertainment

Thankfully this man, who looked older than my dad, was so shocked from looking at my contorted, grimacing face that he mumbled ‘sorry’.

Turning my back to him, I didn’t feel any relief. Though it was the middle of the day, I tried to memorise his face, repeating any distinguishing details to myself in case he decided he was hurt by my rejection – and wanted to hurt me in return.

It’s been less than two weeks since International Women’s Day – an annual global holiday that campaigns for gender equality and raises awareness of violence against women and girls – and this is one of two times since that I’ve been hassled in the street by men.

It needs to stop. Women don’t owe men, strangers, a conversation – or even politeness. We are not your friends, or a source of entertainment, and you are not entitled to interrupt us just because you feel like it.

The second time was in the dark, while waiting for a friend. I’d wrapped up in a long coat, hat and scarf – covering my face and body like I usually did to attract the least attention possible. 

Looking at my phone to check the bus times, I felt a presence close by – but it wasn’t my friend. ‘Stop looking at your phone,’ an older man spat at me.

Gripping my phone, I hesitated over calling someone – but who? Certainly not the police. 

Anyway, what would I say? That a man talked to me? He’d likely tell the police that he had ‘no intent’ to hurt me. I worried I’d be laughed at. 

Should I scream? I wasn’t being attacked, but who’s to say that I wouldn’t be if I didn’t entertain this stranger? 

I fake laughed for his benefit, but he walked closer – slurring his words, he was drunk. My heart rate quickened.

Thankfully, my friend arrived and linked arms with me to pull me away. The man slinked off in the direction of the route I walked home – one I won’t be using again. 

Men have been interrupting me in the street for as long as I can remember. 

Some ask for my number, some ‘just want a chat’ or to comment on my appearance. 

Every time it shakes me to my very core, because there’s no ‘right’ way to respond.

If I’ve ignored them, reacted with a polite rebuttal, or even an expletive – which I’m within my rights to use in times of fear and anger – and then walked away, I’ve found myself followed. 

Sometimes on a train, sometimes close to home – on both crowded and empty streets. Called a ‘c**t’, ‘sl*t’ or a ‘bitch’ for not talking to them. 

It’s not normal, or ‘harmless fun’: it’s harassment. 

Being interrupted by a stranger can ruin a woman’s day. Survival instincts kick in. Adrenaline pumps around our bodies as we plan escape routes. Afraid, anxious, frustrated – does that sound like fun?

It’s a statement of power. Of control. Of entitlement to our time, presence and bodies. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve smiled and entertained random, strange men with polite conversation, even when I’m in a hurry, simply because I’m afraid of being hurt. 

Afraid of turning my back.

Because men think they hold a position of power over us, and want to put us in our place. 

It perpetuates gender inequality. Women have been objectified for years, decades even, to become sources of entertainment for men at a moment’s notice.

It makes women’s lives a misery – and learning to be afraid becomes a part of life for us.

Because, when do stares become leers? When does so-called polite conversation become catcalls? When do catcalls become gropes? When do gropes become sexual violence? 

When does sexual violence become murder?

Misogyny and street harassment need to become hate crimes – punishable with hefty fines, and jail time.

And it works, too – as demonstrated by a successful pilot scheme in Nottingham, which began in 2016. Since then, there’s been a 25% increase in reporting street harassment, with it being treated as a hate crime. Of those who reported these incidents of abuse, 75% had a positive experience.

Despite this, the Home Office have rejected making misogyny a hate crime – claiming it would be ‘more harmful than helpful’. It suggests that women’s safety and equality is the very last thing on minister’s minds – which is worrying, and wrong.

From a young age, boys need to be taught in school about gender equality and the importance of consent – and that goes for consent to approach or talk to women. 

And other men need to act as bystanders, offering support for women who look uncomfortable.

Until then, we will continue to suffer in silence – with a forced smile – without help from those who are supposed to protect us.

Misogyny drives violence against women and girls – and we all have a responsibility not to turn a blind eye.

Men, for the last time: women don’t owe you anything. 

Not a quick chat, a ‘thank you’ for your supposed compliment, or a slow in their step. We shouldn’t have to be accountable for your actions or behaviour.

If anything, you owe it to us to be quiet. With or without a polite smile.

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