By Lily Scott
As a shy, easily embarrassed child, I used to hate it when my parents got involved with situations in public. Whether it was an argument on the street or a shopkeeper facing an abusive customer, they would surely step forward and speak their mind, often trying to help the victim. My brother and I would step back, mortified as they raised their voices and onlookers stared.
My attitude changed when I was on a bus home with both parents and we witnessed a young woman being harassed a few seats in front of us. Sat next to my Dad, I could feel him tense. Quickly, he got up and walked towards the woman, asking her in a loud voice if she’d like to move seats and sit near us. The man, who was distressing her, turned around with a sharp look and asked my Dad to go away as it was none of his business and he wanted to talk to her. He was trying to touch the woman’s leg and was trapping her in the window seat, by leaning in very close. My Dad claimed that the woman was his friend and asked the man politely to move out of the way so she could get out. This clearly made the man angry as he stood up and tried to intimidate my Dad into moving away. The woman quickly climbed out and was able to get off the bus, with a smile of gratitude towards us. Although the woman had managed to escape, the man was angrier than ever and gestured to his friend to stand with him and face my Dad. He started shouting abuse – ‘Why would you ruin that for me?’, ‘What is your problem?’ By this point, my mum and I had got up and were trying to pull my Dad back to sit with us as we felt scared for his safety. The friend of the man fumbled around in his pocket and threatened that he had a knife. By this time, I was in tears. Other passengers were watching the incident, with puzzled expressions as if wondering why my Dad would go to such an effort to protect a stranger on a bus. Many shuffled away awkwardly, not daring to get involved. Thankfully, the two men jumped off the bus moments after their threat of violence and ran away, shouting abuse.
As a teenager, who has been catcalled, pestered and worse, I look back on this event and realise how proud I am that my dad stood up to that man when every other person on the bus looked away in embarrassment. Too often, women are ashamed, scared or too shaken up to report street harassment or stand up to the harasser and sadly, bystanders don’t often feel comfortable to intervene. Many women have said that harassers becoming aggressive upon rejection is very common. ‘Why can’t you take a compliment? You’re fat anyway’, ‘I’ll rape you…’, ‘Don’t be so frigid’ are just some of the responses that women have had when standing up for themselves. One woman writing on Everyday Sexism, described being ‘followed by a car of teenage boys who then tried to reverse into me when I wouldn’t talk to them’. Street harassment makes the victim feel paranoid, vulnerable and objectified. Instead of confronting it, many choose to keep walking, look at the floor and end the situation as quickly as possible. What is often forgotten, is that street harassment is a form of sexual assault. It is easy for a catcall to escalate to violence and rape – allowing this misogynistic culture to exist normalises sexual assault and makes a victim think twice about reporting it.
Having support from passers-by, knowing somebody is there who witnessed the harassment or even just an ‘are you okay?’ can help someone to feel safer and less alone. If you notice someone feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable, don’t walk past and pretend you haven’t seen it. Sometimes it is too dangerous to directly confront the harasser but it is always possible to notify others nearby or even call the police – sexual harassment is assault and no one should have to face it alone. You can make sure they don’t.