This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"I want to spit on your cunt," he bellowed at me, his face contorted into a Punch and Judy grin. He pumped his fist like a frat boy at a spring break beach party, only we were on a dimly-lit street in a part of east London where pigeons pick at discarded cartons of fried chicken and cab drivers pull up to piss in front yards.
He then sped off from the traffic lights in his big van.
I knew the insult was coming. He'd previously been barking at a crusty about his cargo shorts. But the insult lobbed at me was personalized to fit, well, my cunt. He'd reduced me to just one thing, the thing that marks me out as different to him. And by narrating his way into my panties, he'd taken both our minds to the same place—a place I, frankly, wasn't intending on thinking about at a stranger's request.
Sexual harassment happens to countless women every year on streets all over the world. The harassment can be anything from a man with a watch blocking the sidewalk to ask for the time, to groping—or worse—while walking home from work, a night out with friends, or during the middle of the day. Campaigns like Hollaback and Everyday Sexism continue to give women the language to know what harassment actually is—you're not being stupid, a stranger coming up to you in the street and demanding a hug, then calling you a slut if you don't comply is a harasser—but what can we do in real time to address the problem? What can we do there on the street to help ourselves?
I wanted to make sure that this van driver wouldn't shout at anyone else, that no one else would feel like their cunt was his joke. For reasons I'll later explain, I didn't call the police. But the van bore the name, number, and website for an asbestos removal company. So I called their office. Later, a manager called me back. "I've got no reason to think you would make that up," he said, solemnly. "So that driver will be put on his final warning ahead of the next shift." I thanked him, and he replied: "I wouldn't want that on my wife or daughter and I've got to think about the reputation of this company. So, one strike and he's out."
I assured him that I'd get in touch if I ever had an asbestos problem. Some friends said the van driver should've been sacked on the spot. But why should a man lose his job and the income that could be benefitting other, kinder people, like his family and his own community, for something he clearly doesn't understand is wrong? How would that make him change for the better? If he truly knew how upset his comments made me then I'd hope he'd know not to make them in the future.
Feminists may fight about the itty-bitty terminology of oppressions, but this driver happily exists outside of the progressing bubble, and would feel the goalposts have suddenly been moved if he now has to pay for things other men have been saying, unchecked, for years. And besides, this way, doesn't he have a very tangible incentive to be better? Even if I were lying about the violence of what he said, and had exaggerated to his manager to make myself feel better, well, then he's an upstanding guy and that final warning will never be breached.
Where does the incentive lie for harassers to simply stop harassing, though? Underage drinking is a crime, which is why selling it to under-18s (here in the UK the drinking age is 18) comes with a £5,000 [$7,000] fine. A repeat offender could be charged £20,000 [$30,000]. To be extra safe, vendors ID anyone who looks under 21 when they're trying to buy booze. Similarly, sexual harassment is a crime, but the safeguarding remains with the potential victim, not the potential exploiter. This is because crimes involving the sexual desires of the attacker routinely see victims made to feel like they were somehow complicit. I regrettably found myself—for a split second—wondering why the van driver even screamed at me, because, well, I'm not pretty enough for him to fancy me? Maybe if I'd been more feminine I'd have deserved it?
This pervasive attitude—from judges blaming a woman's booze intake for her subsequent rape and murder, to corner-cutting that has seen far fewer prosecutions reaching court, despite rape reports increasing, to the fact the last UK government scrapped Equality Impact Assessments, which analyze how laws will affect minorities—doesn't incentivize people to stop harassing others. There's no threat of a loss of business, no loss of certification, no fining. There is no concrete, preventative measure in place for something which is so workaday that women have to go out of their ways to not feel terrified at worst, uncomfortable at best.
The very same day as the cunt-spitting offer, I'd met with Seema Malhotra, the Shadow Minister for the Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls. I'd asked her about sexual harassment. "What has been really important about Everyday Sexism is that it started to shift a sense of what has almost been acceptable into something that is unacceptable," she told me. In terms of a plan of action against street harassment, though, she thinks we've got "some way to go," and that we "need to be looking at how you work with police and local authorities" in order to create a culture where young women are valued enough for everyone to believe what they say happens to them.
There is no concrete, preventative measure in place for something which is so workaday that women have to go out of their ways to not feel terrified at worst, uncomfortable at best.
Could companies potentially be fined, at some point, for allowing (or not stopping) their employees from making the areas they're working no-go zones for women?
"That's all got to be part of how you're building a network and infrastructure of support that has to be cross-government and not just one department," said Malhotra. But good ideas in this area are desperately needed. One technique I've seen employed by the Metropolitan Police relies on the supposed renewable energy of a hen-pecking wife. In 2012, the night of the Olympic Closing Ceremony, I was curb-crawled outside my flat as I waddled home from Tesco with a shopping bag of milk. The guy slowed to a stop and asked me into his car. I took a photo of his number plate as his tires screeched and then informed the police. I had more faith in them back then.
Within a few days, they sent an officer to talk to me. He'd checked the CCTV and they had footage of the incident. "I went over to his house and told his wife," the officer said to me. "I'm sure she'll give him an earful."
I was stunned. Was that it? Relying on the man's wife to give him a good talking to? I asked the Met's PR department about what their standard response was to this. They responded: "The Metropolitan Police takes all forms of harassment seriously and encourages all victims to come forward and report to the police as soon as possible. Crime prevention and personal safety advice is available from the Metropolitan Police website."
Sarah Green, of End Violence Against Women and Girls, wasn't impressed with this scripted response when I spoke to her. "While most incidents of street harassment go unreported, it is vital that police deliver the best possible response to all reports to deter perpetrators and ensure women's safety," she says. "We need long-term measures to prevent and stop abusive behavior, including compulsory SRE in all schools to teach equality and respect. We also need community bystander interventions that empower people in the non-abusive but perhaps silent majority to step in and challenge abusive behavior when safe to do so."
I get this. But most of the catcalls I've had have been where opportunists have taken advantage of the quiet street we were sharing, or that they can speed off in their car at any point. Or, because there were loads of them and just one of me.
When news broke that Poppy Smart, a 23-year-old who'd endured a month's worth of whistling and unwanted advances had complained to police, my only surprise was that she was, apparently, the first to do so. "I eventually contacted the building company and the police on the same day when it got so bad," she said. "I even considered changing my route to work but thought, 'Why should I do that?'"
The wolf-whistling debate is ongoing. Many men—and women—just don't see a wolf-whistle or a catcall as something threatening. But some do. Many do.
I agree. Why should she change her behavior to accommodate the misbehavior of others? One of the whistlers, 28-year-old Ian Merrett, told the Mirror that "it's part and parcel of working on a site." He said that wolf-whistling is "complimenting a girl." That's funny, because there are plenty of builders who manage to go about their days without making women feel uncomfortable. There's no "How to Intimidate Women" manual that comes with the papers for a cement-mixing course. Telling a girl she's fit doesn't lay bricks quicker.
The wolf-whistling debate is ongoing. Many men—and women—just don't see a wolf-whistle or a catcall as something threatening. But some do. Many do. And while it doesn't happen all the time, the fear that it could happen, for some women, persists. And that fear is harmful, even if not every woman is afraid.
Merrett also insisted that it's not worth getting into trouble over some "silly little girl." But if it's such a tiny, throwaway gesture to whistle loudly at a girl on her way to work, then surely it shouldn't be hard to just not do it?
Daytime wolf-whistling might be a different thing to nocturnal catcalling, but both can leave people—women, and especially minority women, who bear a double brunt—wondering what could happen next. That is the root of all this. It means we walk around—sometimes the long way around—having to forfeit other, more interesting thoughts because our minds are occupied with mapping out escape routes just in case the man two paces behind us doesn't back off.
"I don't know why she complained, she must be thinking things above her station," Merrett continued. But what is her "station"? What is mine, when someone tells me they want to spit on my cunt?
As far as I can see, it all seems pretty simple: women deserve to get to where they're going without having our time wasted, without someone declaring—through a whistle, a goad, a hug, or a grope—that we're there for someone's entertainment. On our tiny island, we bump and collide into each other all the time. But it shouldn't be so hard to get the message out that women deserve space, and deserve contented use of that space.
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