The Reality of Being a Woman Part 1: The fear of walking alone at night

Natalia Vasnier is from France. She is a second year History student at King’s and has a strong passion for journalism and obviously history. Her interests are gender, politics and foreign policymaking in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

[The image features the words #MeToo over a grey background. Source.]

As women, we have all felt those intense looks and unsolicited remarks when walking down the street. Is it normal that we are told not to go out alone at night? Or not to wear revealing clothes when you go out? Women are even advised to have pepper spray in their bag or hold their keys in their hands. 

This article focuses on women experiences of sexual harassment in the United Kingdom and the solutions to prevent harassment. 

Night life as a Woman  

In the UK, a study conducted before Covid-19 found that 74% of women aged 16 to 24 years feel unsafe walking alone at night in their neighbourhood.1 This percentage has increased by 16 percentage points compared to the results in 2015. Despite this survey the reality seems rather different. 

A post on social media went viral in September 2020, which raised the hypothetical question. ‘What would you do if the world had no men for 24 hours?’. Think about this for a moment. The most popular answers have been to be able to walk around freely at night, or for example to “ride bikes at night without any guy friends having to be there for safety wearing whatever I want”.  It is unfortunate that such small things can be the most important wishes if one gender is completely erased from earth. The second comment also raises the need for having a male around for protection, revealing that this is a gender-based problem. 

Similarly, the UK parliament website contains a report on sexual harassment of women and girls in public places. It states that there is evidence demonstrating that sexual harassment is the ‘norm’ in the night-time economy. It is based on a study with the University of Kent, in which the students’ Union recognises that harassment is a cultural norm. Victims no longer bother to report harassment and see it as just part of a night out.2 This ‘norm’ may seem shocking, but it is the reality. A woman’s freedom at night is affected by a fear of sexual harassment on her way home after a night out, at the end of a working day, or even at the party or at work.

I had a conversation about his with my flatmate last year, who is also a KCL student. We were talking about going out at night, and the precautions we took to make sure we reached home safely. Then she told me that one of her friends, a few weeks ago in London, was grabbed by a man and was forced into a car. Luckily one of her other friends called for help, got her out of the situation and reported it. I was shocked by this revelation, and she said that ever since then, the girl rarely goes out and if she does always with a guy friend. This is one of the extreme situations that can happen to a woman at night. 

Catcalling: a day in the life

“Every day, girls across the UK are being harassed in public places. Join us as we stand with them and say it’s not ok” says a Plan International campaign.3 In 2018, 66% of girls aged 14 to 21 had been subjected to unwanted sexual attention or harassment in a public place.  An additional survey by ‘Stop Street Harassment’ revealed that 77% of women have been verbally harassed in their lifetime compared to 34% of men.4

This primarily takes form with catcalling, which involves shouting harassing and often sexually suggestive comments to someone walking by. Comments may include “give us a smile”, a whistle or intense car honking. In most cases, these encounters are never reported. If victims do express themselves, they are often confronted with comments such as “you should be happy, it’s a compliment” or “you provoked it, look at how you are dressed”. This social phenomenon has discredited and blamed the victims. 

In a Ted Talk, a young 18-year-old student, Jess Leigh, rightly said, “Why do adults think that it is my responsibility to protect boys from their impulses? “.5 What women wear is not the problem in the case of a sexual assault, but the action that is taken is. Moreover, it is hard to respond in these situations, as study shows that 68% of women fear that catcalling will escalate into a more violent actions, like groping, stalking or even rape. 

The actions of boys, of men, is fuelled by the cultural messages in our society today. May it be through films that show the pursuit of women by men, or in the political sphere with the 45th President of the United States of America who is notoriously misogynistic. The influence and pressures of masculinity are overwhelmingly embedded in people’s minds, and change will only come about if the representation of women changes. Women should no longer be sexualized; they should not be portrayed as unequal but equal. Not weak but strong and respected.  

Solutions 

Today, despite this call for change, immediate solutions must be developed to address the insecurity women feel. The British government has said that it is committed to challenge the deep-rooted social norms, attitudes and behaviours that discriminate against women and girls across all communities.6 But is this statement enough? 

  1. Precautions 

A survey showed that one in three women feel the need to take regular steps to protect themselves from sexual assaults. Solutions to enable women to feel safe at night remain rather limited. There are three main ones: asking a male friend to bring you home, taking measures to avoid being sexually harassed or in the extreme, not to go out at night. During the survey, women were asked what steps they took to feel safer. The most common responses were to avoid being alone, avoid certain areas and avoid being out at certain times.7 Other than that, more simple solutions consist in, crossing the road to avoid someone, pretend to be on the phone or take a longer route to avoid a danger spot. All women have done one of these things at least once. 

  1. Self-defence classes 

In recent years there has been an increase in the creation of self-defence classes, mainly in London. They teach a range of skills and concepts that enable an individual to physically protect themselves from attack.8

  1. Declaring sexual harassment, a crime

Finally, ‘Plan International’ started a campaign in 2020 called Crime not Compliment to make sexual harassment a crime.9 This would be the most effective way to combat this phenomenon. 


Bibliography: 

 More young women feel safer walking alone at night | Understanding Society

2 Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places – Women and Equalities Committee – House of Commons (parliament.uk)

3 Street harassment | Plan International UK (plan-uk.org)

4 A New Survey Finds 81 Percent Of Women Have Experienced Sexual Harassment : The Two-Way : NPR 

5 https://youtu.be/bGZbyUGm3vs

6 VAWG_Strategy_FINAL_PUBLICATION_MASTER_vRB.PDF (publishing.service.gov.uk) 

7One in three women consciously take steps to avoid being sexually assaulted | YouGov

8 Combat Academy – Combat Academy (combat-academy.co.uk) 

9 Crime not Compliment | Plan International UK (plan-uk.org)

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