A couple of days ago I’d popped round to a friend’s house to watch a film – it’s the Easter holidays, and since my dissertation deadline is looming ever closer, I decided to stay at uni and endure an extra week of boredom and frustration whilst my housemates went home.
The film finished, I said goodbye to my friend and prepared myself to brave the harsh Lancaster climate. At least the walk home would only take around five minutes, that’s not too bad, right?
I’ve never liked walking alone in the dark and it had been dark for a good couple of hours by the time that I left. When I have to walk around on my own at night, my imagination goes into overdrive and I end up visualising the most ridiculous of scenarios; what if I get mugged? What if someone’s broken into my house? What if Slender Man is following me? – You get the picture.
I didn’t bump into Slender Man, but the obstacle I did face was a different kind of horror; a group of men drinking in the park close to my house.
I felt instantly uneasy but told myself I was being ridiculous and decided just keep my head down and hurry home. I was almost passed the park, inwardly scolding myself for being so judgemental, when I heard it.
“Hey up, Blondie! What’s the rush?”
Just ignore them. I’d thought to myself. They’re just drunk and bit rowdy, it’s nothing.
“Don’t go ignoring me, Blondie!”
His tone changed slightly the second time he shouted after me. It made me feel nervous. I quickened my pace.
I heard a thud and, despite myself, I turned around. One of the men had jumped over the park’s fence and was staring right at me.
I felt physically sick.
In 2011, out of 25 towns and cities outside of London with two or more universities, Lancaster was ranked the third safest in the UK. I remember quoting a similar statistic to my mum who’d been worried about me moving back to the UK when I’d been accepted into university. It was true, I’d often let my guard down maybe a little too much in Lancaster, like when we’d go out drinking or when I’d happily leave my bag and purse unattended in the library when I went to grab lunch.
But in that moment I was genuinely scared.
“I was speaking to you,” the man said. His friends laughed.
My first instinct was to ignore him and carry on walking but I didn’t want to anger him further.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. I was apologising to this man who was harassing me in the street.
He laughed at this point. “You carry on, darlin’, just remember your manners in future,” he grinned.
I practically sprinted back to my house. I was shaking as I tried to place the key in the keyhole, looking over my shoulder to make sure they hadn’t followed me home.
After I got inside and double checked that all the doors were locked I went up to bed. That’s when the gravity of the situation hit me.
Why did these men target me? Frighten me? Almost threaten me?
Was it because they were drunk and I was the only person there? I thought back, he’d called me ‘Blondie’. ‘Blondie’ is a term I’ve always loathed. Yes, I have blonde hair. No, I’m not ecstatic that you’ve chosen to characterise me based on a minor feature of my physicality. What was it with seedy men shouting ‘Blondie’ at me and my other blonde friends? Then it hit me; those men probably didn’t approach me because I was the only person around, no, it was most probably because I’m a woman. I thought about all the stories friends had told me and of other encounters I had experienced myself; being beeped at and jeered at through a car window, being called a variety of disgusting sexually-orientated slurs, being physically groped in nightclubs, being drugged in nightclubs – only a month ago a woman had been raped in Lancaster when she’d asked a man for directions.
I was stupid to walk home alone, I should have gotten a taxi – but then again, why should I have had to pay for a taxi to drive me five minutes down the road at ten o’clock in the evening? Why should any of us have to worry about being targeted or harassed in these kind of situations at all?
I’m not trying to say that all men are evil harassers or that men don’t suffer equally horrible forms of harassment themselves; it is a well-known and unfortunate fact that many men will be victims of violent assault, after all.
What I am trying to say is that this is still such a massive problem, and I challenge anyone who claims that it isn’t; it’s happened to me before, it’s happened to my friends, my family, women all over the country. Hell, it happened to me again two days ago. We have a fundamental right as human beings to go about our daily lives without fearing aggressive, vulgar and downright unacceptable forms of harassment.
It’s great that organisations such as Anti-Street Harassment UK are working towards making the streets a safer and less daunting place for women, but the problem is still ever-present for most of us. I’ve overheard people stating that it’s ‘no big deal, feminists just love to over-exaggerate’ and that ‘we’re lucky to be in the UK because in India loads of women get full-on groped in the street’, and of course this is barbaric, but verbal harassment is notokay either. Just because it’s a lesser form of a horrific problem it doesn’t mean that what a vast majority of women in the UK experience should be dismissed.
Hopefully more bystanders will start calling harassers out on their actions and a day will come when street harassment is no longer loosely considered as a cultural norm. But until that time comes all I can say is that I won’t be walking home on my own in the dark next time.
Maybe I’m mistaken and they didn’t target me based on my gender. Maybe I’m just being paranoid and I’ve got it all wrong, but based on numerous similar experiences I guess I’ve just become a bit cynical.