“I should be able to feel safe walking home”: Sexual Harassment and Finding Your Voice / Serena Hendry

woman standing on a dock during sunset
Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva on Pexels.com

Life as a young woman living overseas is not easy. When I moved to London at 18 years old, I don’t think I was fully prepared for all the challenges that would come my way. Trying to find your place in a world that is still so dominated by men can be frustrating and very scary at times.

There wasn’t one night that I would walk home and feel completely safe. Unfortunately, all my dance classes were in the evening, which meant I spent many nights coming home in the dark on my own. I always had to be on high alert, with the lingering fear in the back of my mind that something terrible could happen to me.

Some like to argue that women only have this fear of being abused because society has heightened our fears by having this behaviour in movies or books. There may be some truth to that, but whether the fears come from a movie you have watched or a book you have read, that doesn’t change the fact that the fear is still there and very real. It’s not as if these crimes would suddenly stop if nobody read books or watched movies depicting violence against women. No, these crimes would still happen every day, but we just wouldn’t be as aware of it. And maybe we’d have less fear, but the instinct to always be alert and ready to protect yourself would also be gone, which would have the potential to leave us even more vulnerable.

There were many days and nights I would walk home and have cars honk their horns at me, or cars would slow down and men would say things to me as they drove past. Sometimes I would have men walk up to me in the tube just to make a comment on my appearance. It’s the look behind their eyes that is scary.

One evening I was walking home I had a guy pull up in his car beside me. He kept calling out to me and asking me my name and when I didn’t answer he actually got out of his car and started following me halfway down the street.  At that moment I thought my worst nightmare was going to come true! He eventually gave up and hopped back in his car and drove off. In that moment there was so much going through my mind, so much I wanted to say to him but it was like my voice had disappeared. I so wish I could have been stronger and stood up to him. I wish I could have stopped the fear from paralyzing me like it did. But at the same time, if I had reacted, I could possibly have made the situation a whole lot worse.

There were other times when I would get dressed up nicely either to perform at a function or just to go out with friends. It was like as soon as I took off my track pants I would start getting even more unwanted attention. Usually it would be very uncomfortable comments or it would be just how some men would look at you. It was like you weren’t a human anymore, but an object to be used for someone’s enjoyment.  I love to feel pretty and get all dressed up when I am going out and wear a little make-up. But whenever this happened it would make me so self-conscious about what I wearing, like I was the one in the wrong. I don’t dress up for anyone else. I do it because it makes me feel good about myself.  Every woman should have the right to dress up and wear something pretty. That doesn’t mean we should dress immodestly but it does mean when we choose to put on a dress or skirt or wear a nice blouse we aren’t being viewed as some guy’s possession.

In London I also did a lot of busking to help cover my living costs. There are hundreds and hundreds of musicians doing it as their full time job and it is seen as a profession. London has written a full guide and etiquette code for buskers to follow. In most spots you are only allowed to busk for 45 minutes and then you have to let the next busker waiting in the queue have their turn. Unfortunately, there was a period of time when I was treated very badly by a male busker. He acted as if he owned the busking pitch and was continually rude to me. I would often catch him talking behind my back to the other buskers that were waiting in the queue. He eventually got so bad, that if there weren’t any other buskers waiting in the queue, he just wouldn’t let me busk at all. Whenever I tried to talk to him or ask when he was finishing, he would either just ignore me and act like I wasn’t there, or he would swear at me and tell me to go away. The frustrating thing was, as soon as there was another male around, he would suddenly act all friendly and adhere by the rules, but he would still hardly look at me. It felt like I was continually trying to fight a losing battle. No matter what I did or said, he refused to show me the same respect he showed to all the other male buskers.

Sometimes I feel so trapped in a society that has normalized this sort of behavior from our men. Every woman should be given and shown the same respect that any guy would show to another guy. We have a problem with respect towards woman in this culture. If a woman stands up for herself and tells a man that what he did or said was inappropriate, she is laughed at and her comments are viewed as irrelevant. But as soon as a man steps into that space and backs her up, people treat what he has to say with respect. They don’t just laugh it off, they take it seriously. Why is it that in our society the respect we inherently give someone is so often tied to their gender?

I am someone that often gets a lot of backlash from some men because my personality is not one that can just sit back and let someone disrespect or belittle me because I am a woman. Unfortunately, my personality alone is not enough to change anything, because all too often in the world we live in, a woman’s voice goes unheard. What we need is other men willing to stand beside us and tell these guys that their behavior isn’t right. We need men to stand up and tell these guys it’s not okay to talk or act that way. We need men to stand up to their mates and not laugh at the sexist jokes that they know deep down aren’t actually funny. We need men to say, “you know what? That isn’t funny, and we shouldn’t make jokes like that”. Only when we start to do these small things will we start to see change.

“Speechless” is a song that resonates with me deeply on so many levels.

In a society and culture that is so male-dominated I feel this song really captures the essence of what I’m trying to say. In the world we live there are so many waves and voices that try to drown out our voices as women. We try so hard to not go speechless, we want to stand up and speak, but so often we are drowned out by the waves of this world. This song gives me courage that even in the world we live, where there are so many voices drowning out our voices, we don’t have to go speechless.  My hope for you as you read this is that it will encourage you to not go speechless: I hope that you’ll stand up and speak against the abuse and sexism that exist in this world. We don’t have to accept the waves that come our way. We have the power to change them.

It’s not easy, it starts small with a word here and a word there, it may even only be a whisper. but the more it grows the louder we will become. So next time the waves seek to drown out your voice or the voices of people you know, don’t go silent. Stand up for yourself, stand up for the people around you. We especially need men to stand with us and show the world we are not alone.

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