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Any trip outside at the moment feels sacred, whether it’s for a restorative exercise session or an essential supermarket shop. But those outings can take a dark turn, as some women have reported increasing experiences of street harassment since the UK lockdown began.
Journalist Micha Frazer-Carroll, 25, based in Hackney, London, has endured this and says it’s “especially jarring” in the current climate, considering going outside can already feel intimidating.
“I spend a lot of my day alone, and when I do go outside, I’m already on red alert about the danger of germs,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Throw being heckled, catcalled or followed by men into the mix, and it makes me feel that bit more scared about going outside at all.”
Sarah Giblin, 35, based in Manchester, has also been catcalled several times while enjoying her daily jog. She hasn’t experienced this “in years” and wonders whether the emptier streets mean the risk of getting singled out is higher.
“Usually I do everything I can to blend in and not be noticed,” she says. “But since I’m the only one running, I get the usual range of comments: ‘smile love’, ‘no make up today’, ‘beautiful runner!’ It’s all pretty meaningless, but being the only one on the street means the vibe has changed.”
Giblin, who’s a backpack designer, has spent the last 42 days alone in her studio flat, which makes harassment even harder to deal with.
“On days when I’m fine, I can brush [the comments] off with ease,” she says. “On other days when I’m not ok, they have a greater impact. I’m looking forward to being one of many in the city centre again, so I disappear into the crowd and people leave me alone to think, be, live and walk freely.”
And Kate Oliver, 28, based in north London tells HuffPost UK she was catcalled by a man who shouted “give us a twirl” at her as she walked past, wearing a dress and carrying heavy shopping. She hadn’t been out the house for three days at that point.
“I was really annoyed,” she says. “As if it isn’t hard enough to move through spaces as women anyway, now it’s happening on our one chance a day to be outside.”
Comments and casual sexism can have a real impact on mental health, even if women brush them off. But some say they have also experienced more threatening behaviour during lockdown.
“I’ve only been out twice as I’m asthmatic,” says Julie McGuigan, 42, from Birmingham. “I was clearly nervous and a man lunged towards me while I was trying to keep my distance from people, then laughed. He was trying to intimidate me and get a reaction. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done the same if I had been male.”
Maya Tutton, who runs the Our Streets Now campaign to end street harassment alongside her sister, Gemma, believes this behaviour may have amplified in some areas because the pandemic has made inequalities within our society “more stark”.
“The fact that we don’t all enjoy our time in public space equally, without fearing harassment, is unjust – and makes calls of us being ‘all in it together’ ring false,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Tutton believes public sexual harassment continues because there’s not enough awareness about the problem, and insufficient legislation to stop it. “Coronavirus can’t stop this from happening, and in some ways can make it worse because of the fewer number of people around to witness it,” she adds.
This week is International Anti-Street Harassment Week, so the Tutton sisters are renewing their calls for better awareness and legislation around it. You can sign their online petition to make street harassment a criminal offence in the UK, as it is elsewhere in the world.
“Help us fight against public sexual harassment, and create a world where women and girls are safe,” they say.