Let’s talk about it.
When I started writing this post, at the beginning of the Corona-induced lockdown I had my thoughts organised.
I felt calm and concise in what I wanted to say.
Now a fire has been lit within me.
Now it’s time for change.
Recently, I have been sharing my experiences more and more on Instagram, regarding street harassment. I have been overwhelmed with messages of support and solidarity, of well wishes and advice. But what causes a knot of rage in my stomach and has distressed me the most is the accounts of every other female runner on the platform.
I know I’m not alone in this, in the feeling of dread and uncertainty every time I pull my laces tight and cross the threshold of my front door. I knew that before and to have that crushingly confirmed has been the spark that has led me to wanting to take action.
I guess my story is as good a place to start as any.
I’ve spoken to many non-runners in the past about the street harassment of our kind. It often results in the same, age-old, tiresome “but you’re called Cat, wheeey” comment, which I’ve now come to expect so much so that I’ll usually get there first. Saves my eyes rolling, that way.
I’m more than happy to laugh about the serious stuff in life – humour is the buoyant, British way of dealing with most adversity. However, it’s time to lose the smiles, change our grins to war paint and stare this street-born affliction in the face.
The harassment of runners leads to a dangerous precedent for women in most other aspects of life.
I can only speak from my perspective. As a woman who has been pounding the pavements for four years now and, before that, a barely-pubescent teen ambling to the village shop for a Creme Egg, I’ve seen my fair share of heckles, white van whistles and “Smile, love”s.
I’ve been shouted at, sworn at, followed, touched. I’ve chased motorcycles down streets in a blinded fit of rage and I’ve crumbled to my knees after in exasperation. Damning my legs for not being able to keep up with them and my eyes for not being keener.
“Get the registration number, we’ll have a word”
Have a word. That’s what the police officers told me, as I begged them in the street, breathless and bitter for something, anything I could do to stop this.
To not feel safe, to know the law couldn’t protect me, was shattering. In that moment, my confidence in our leaders waned.
Not that my ire is with the police – it’s not. The law doesn’t make their job easy in this matter and, quite frankly, they can do as much as I can with the little information I can maintain in that circumstance.
It always happens so fast. I’m barely able to muster an instinctive “fuck you” before my head is able to spur my body into action. By that point they’re usually just a small, misogynistic dot on an a-road horizon.
There’s a lot to be said for the inclusion of street harassment under the legal umbrella of sexual harassment. In September 2018, France took the steps toward making cat-calling and gender based harassment illegal after a video of a man assaulting a woman went viral, after she confronted his vulgarity towards her.
You’ve probably seen it.
It briefly shook the internet.
Before we all forgot.
Because this aggravating act is so ordinary, such a persistent, accepted element of our existence that we can’t help but sweep it under the rug as soon as it becomes inconvenient.
It did, however, confirm what we’ve been trying to divulge to society our entire lives.
This footage was prime evidence that verbal harassment is a gateway toward other more violent assaults down the line. If you asked any woman this, they could have told you that in an instant.
There is solidarity in the female experience. Not that I don’t have the support from my male peers. But there is a certain amount of nescience in the community. Whenever I’ve posted on social media about the reality of harassment there is always an influx of shock from my male friends and nods of acknowledgement from women.
But how do we expect our male peers to know about these every-day occurrences if there is still a stigma around talking about it. I’m guilty myself of just shrugging these experiences off as “it’s hot out, I’m wearing less, I made eye contact…”. And, whilst I’d never in a million years victim blame another woman with these thoughts, the accountability for my own ‘choices’ does seem to shame me into silence more often than I’d like.
I’m reluctant to say I’ve been fairly ‘lucky’ with street harassment in my running life.
I’ve never been violently attacked.
I’ve never had persistent, unwanted advances for more than a few minutes.
I’ve never had an encounter that’s lead to further repercussions for me.
Is that lucky?
I know plenty of women will be under the impression that, in the same circumstances, they’d feel lucky too.
Because, the horror stories you hear as a little girl seem worse. The terror you read in the media. The influx of warnings to protect yourself, don’t dress like that, carry pepper spray, don’t get too drunk, don’t flirt – he’ll think you’re asking for it, don’t go out after dark, text me when you’re home. The need to carry a wolverine like grip as you walk home from a night out, keys in fist. The stories from friends, from women we love. Who have experienced worse. The feeling that, on any run or night out, that worse, well, that could be me next.
I’m just lucky it hasn’t happened yet.
What a society we live in, to assume that the responsibility of safety relies on our own actions to divert attacks, rather than to prevent attackers being made. That if we only feel slightly threatened that we can count that as a win. That living in a constant state of mild fear is the norm.
So, I want to start talking about it.
I want to quash the stigma of street harassment.
I want us to speak up and the people in power to start noticing.
It’s scary, it’s ambitious and it’s provocative.
Women who have spoken out for their rights in the past have been subject to media abuse, cyber attacks, keyboard warriors criticism. They’ve been threatened with rape and death.
Which is all the more reason to speak out.
Until women are taken seriously, until our experiences are treated with respect this bigotry will thrive.
It’s time to make a change… watch this space.