After spending the majority of our days cooped up inside, venturing into the great outdoors isn’t just a necessity for millions of women anymore, it’s a lifeline.
These days, a run around the block or a socially-distanced catch-up with friends is something of a sacred experience, and a trip to Sainsbury’s feels like a pilgrimage to the promised land.
But the grim reality is that street harassment has become more prevalent than ever during lockdown – new research from Plan UK states a fifth of women have fallen victim – and, in a world where social boundaries have never been important, many of us have had ours violated, leaving us feeling more vulnerable than ever.
Having lived in London for the last two years, being heckled and jeered at in the street by strange men is nothing new to me. But even after moving back to my small, friendly hometown for the duration of the pandemic, I’ve been struck by the increase in lewd remarks and offensive comments thrown my way.
I’ve faced middle aged men dribbling at me as I walk to the shops, builders bellowing obscenities from a rooftop and a group of boys honking a car horn at me incessantly when we were the only ones on a quiet road.
And sadly, I’m not the only one.
Plan UK’s new study shows that, staggeringly, over one quarter of us actually feel less safe outside during the lockdown period, despite streets being proportionally emptier than ever.
A quarter would rather not exercise outside alone, and – worst of all – a third have even reached a point where they have stopped leaving the house altogether, because the harassment became too much.
These findings are no surprise to Farah Benis, founder of Instagram account ‘Catcalls of London’.
Farah runs a page where women anonymously submit the catcalls they’ve been subjected to in the capital. And, as a means of activism, she chalks them on the pavement for all to see.
Since the start of lockdown, she has seen a “36 per cent rise in daytime incidents being reported,” proving that “perpetrators [are] emboldened with no witnesses, or potential recourse”.
“I would say roughly half the reports I received about lockdown incidents happened when women or girls were out running,” she says. “Others were key workers trying to get to or from work, and others, running necessary errands.”
Not only have street harassers become braver as a result of lockdown, but, thanks to Covid-19, their abuse has also taken on a sinister new form.
Of the anecdotes she received, Farah tells me there were “multiple Covid related” catcalls being shouted at women on the street, and even coronavirus centred racist abuse, too.
A 17-year-old Japanese American woman recently told how she’d suffered a string of vile remarks while casually out for a walk.
One was: “Hey Ch*nky Ch*nky, this sh*t is all your people’s fucking fault”, another: “Do you eat bats? It’s your lot eating bats that got us here”.
And as for the typical Covid-19 ‘chat up lines’? Examples sent to Farah include: “I would love to quarantine with you baby,” “Take that mask off, I want to see the rest of you” and “I would get corona for just one kiss from you”. Grim.
Reporting this harassment, reactions range from unease to “disgust” to “upset,” Farah explains. Never – literally, ever – do these comments elicit a positive response.
Being the subject of such gross and derogatory comments is bad enough, but what’s worse is the anxiety that they could be acted on – especially at a time where our health literally depends on maintaining a physical distance.
“With the streets being so empty throughout the lockdown, fear for individual safety and the possibility of escalation [come] across much higher than usual,” she adds.
According to psychologist Emma Kenny, this increased level of isolation is the exact reason we’re seeing an upsurge in street harassment, leering and intimidation.
“There are so few people outside right now that behaviour isn’t moderated by those around you,” she explains.
“Men desire to be noticed sexually, and whilst catcalling is the last place to achieve any kind of meaningful exchange…essentially they can get away with bad behaviour because other adults are not there to counter, or challenge it.”
Emma adds that the experience of living through a global pandemic may also have triggered perpetrators to act with a greater disregard for women’s feelings.
“When faced with immediate physical danger, your prefrontal cortex shuts down to make way for the more primitive parts of your brain – the parts that can respond quickly and basically in order to protect you,” she explains.
“Because Covid has put us under an unusually sustained period of stress, this area of the brain has been adversely affected, and as the prefrontal cortex is responsible for critical thinking, when it is diminished you are less likely to think about the impact you may have on others.
“You see a pretty girl and the instinct area of the brain reacts before the more sophisticated area has a chance to step in.”
Of course, whatever the reason that some men are making us feel unsafe, it simply has to stop. And one of the things enabling the perpetrators is the fact that, in the UK, we’re still taught to shrug off this kind abuse as if it ‘s no more than a bad joke.
“Society does not take street harassment seriously at all,” says Gemma Tutton, co-founder of movement Our Streets Now – a national campaign to end the abuse of women on our streets once and for all.
“We have had girls telling us their first experience was when they were eight years old. There is no education around this issue and when women and girls do speak up they are told they are overreacting or even boasting – that is why 42 per cent of girls don’t tell anyone about their experiences.”
Gemma, 15, started the initiative alongside her sister Maya, 21, after having both experienced street harassment from a young age themselves, and the pair are passionate that one powerful way to tackle the issue is through breaking the stigma around speaking out.
“Talking about street harassment is key,” she says. “It needs to be in our education curriculum now.
“We need to teach young boys that street harassment is unacceptable and hurtful, we need to teach young girls that street harassment is never their fault and they should not be embarrassed or ashamed of their experiences.”
As for grown men? Well, Gemma rightly points out that some of them still need to learn about it, too.
As well as calling each other out when necessary, “men need to listen to women and [not] belittle their experiences,” she adds. “You will never understand what it feels like to be a marginalised gender unless you are one.”
While cultural change is pivotal, we also need stricter street harassment laws to ensure that, as a country, we are holding perpetrators to account.
After all, street harassment is illegal in Belgium, France and Portugal. So, why not here?
With this in mind, Gemma and Maya are currently drafting a bill which they hope to put forward to the government, and have created a Change.org petition – which has already amassed over 200,000 signatures – urging such behaviour to be outlawed.
“Our laws reflect our values as a society and right now women and girls are on their own when it goes to street harassment,” Gemma concludes. “Women need to know the law supports them and that they can report this abuse without having their experience belittled.”
You can support Our Streets Now by signing their petition here.