It’s May in London. The sun is burning on my shoulders while I’m carrying my camera, mic and tripod. A van is passing as I fish my phone out of my pocket and stop at the traffic light. It slows down and I can feel the man staring at me before I can hear him whistle and shout, “Hey sexy!” I roll my eyes and put my headphones on.
Finding a story about sexual harassment in London isn’t difficult. Neither is finding someone willing to talk about what has happened to them. It took no more than a text to my friends asking to help out with a project to gather an extensive catalogue documenting the average experience of a female in the city.
As I sit down with them to speak, I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: the obscenity of what men have done to them, or their equanimity when speaking about being followed, grabbed and raped.
Maybe it’s because they weren’t telling their story to a stranger, but a friend. Maybe enough time has passed for them to come to terms with what happened to them. But maybe, just maybe, sexual harassment has become such a normal part of everyday life that it can be talked about almost as casually as the weekly grocery shop amongst other women.
“I don’t think that I have any female friends who have not been raped.”
When growing up, women are constantly taught how to behave, how to react, how to dress to avoid damaging situations. Don’t walk through the dark park on your way home. Keep a friend on speed dial. Make sure your skirt isn’t too short. You don’t want to trigger a man, right? Maybe take some self-defence classes. Cross the street if there’s a stranger coming towards you. Oh you didn’t do that? You wore a crop top and a skirt? You stupid girl, you were asking for it.
We are taught that rape is caused by a woman’s failure to choose the right environment to be in. That sexual harassment is invited by the way a woman chooses to look and behave.
Only an estimated 17 per cent of sexual assault cases are reported to the police. While the comfort of female friends sharing similar experiences on a daily basis encourages the conversation, the idea of blaming the victim and validating men’s inability to keep their pants up keeps most women from speaking out in public and reporting it to the police.
After one long evening with friends sharing innumerable stories of their past, I had the initial idea for ‘Women of London’. When a friend texted me a few months later, I knew it was time to pick up my camera and start speaking to women about what has happened to them to hopefully prevent what my friend had experienced: while at a party on a holiday, a man who she was speaking to sat her down on a couch.
“He told me to turn over and when I did, he pushed his cock in me. When I told him that I didn’t want to do this, he told me not to be such a fucking pussy and kept going… There was a room full of people, so I just let it happen. And I did let him touch me in the beginning, so I’m not entirely not to blame, right?”
On the morning of shooting this video, a stranger grabbed my hair and started pulling it. He was shouting, “Fuck you, fuck you bitch.” The day after, a man followed me for half an hour on my way home after a night out. I have moved to London 647 days ago and not a single day has passed on which I have not experienced any kind of sexual harassment.
‘Women of London’ is a collection of experiences, a tiny fragment showing what is happening not only in London on a daily basis. All the women I have spoken to come from different cultural backgrounds, speak different languages, live different lives. What they all have in common is how they are being treated by men.
It’s time to stop teaching our daughters how to avoid sexual harassment. It’s time to teach our sons how to fucking behave.