97%: It’s Time We Change the Narrative

Sexual harassment isn’t inevitable, but passive reporting makes it seem so. Amelia Elson argues that in order to fix this, more pressure needs to be put on the men who sexually harass women.

TW: Sexual assault and harassment.

There is no doubt that the world, and especially the UK, are reeling after the recent Sarah Everard news. In light of the Guardian’s recent study that revealed that 97% of all women had experienced sexual harassment of some kind, this news is deeply shocking and hugely disturbing. And not just for Sarah Everard and what happened to her, but for what it means for women.

As a sexual assault survivor, I feel a bit lost. This weekend, I felt bombarded with news headlines, Instagram stories, articles and opinions and I don’t quite feel like I’ve been able to escape it. Even Tiktok, usually my safe haven of funny distraction, is full of videos of women venting their anger and sadness or offering safety advice. Honestly, everything is triggering.

The Guardian’s study, while useful, is not shocking. We all know this. We all know women who have experienced sexual harassment. In fact, I don’t know a woman who hasn’t experienced it. What it does tell us though, or at least, what I get from this, is that it’s expected. The narrative has very much been passive and blameless. 97% of women have experienced sexual harassment, and thus 97% of women should expect this. Combine this with the tragic death of Sarah Everard and you see, across every news headline and Instagram story, the real-life worst nightmare of women.

It drives home the sad fact that it doesn’t matter how many precautions you take; if you called your boyfriend, wore trainers you could run in, walked along a brightly lit road or left at a good (early) time, what happens to you is purely luck. I certainly feel that I had become complicit in the idea that if I did all the right things and texted all the right people that I was leaving, and walked down all the right roads, I would be safe. But Sarah Everard’s shocking death has stripped back that safety net and made it blaringly obvious that no matter how careful I’m being, whether I get home or not is purely down to chance.

I was sexually assaulted in the street, in broad daylight in 2019. While it was deeply traumatic, I managed to make my peace with the experience by telling myself that I was lucky that only that happened and that next time, I would know what to do to not let it happen again. But now, a year and a half later, suddenly I feel almost the same as I did after it happened. I feel scared and upset and frustrated, and helpless and above all, so fucking angry. At the weekend, everywhere I turned, Instagram posts and new headlines have told me that yes, I was lucky to get away – very lucky – and even worse, absolutely nothing I can do will help prevent this from happening again, or worse.

Beyond how upsetting I found the events of this weekend, I find the whole narrative sickening. The news that 97% of women have experienced sexual harassment is not shocking. What is shocking is that the conversation seems to have stopped there. There is no blame in this statement; it is passive in every way it can be. Where do men come into this conversation? Because as we know and have learnt, nothing that women are doing to keep ourselves safe is working. If our safety is down to chance, then it sure feels like men roll the dice. There has been very little pressure or blame put onto the men who sexually harass women. Most conversations I’ve had with men about how I feel has been met with something very similar to, ‘That’s horrible, I don’t know anyone that would ever do anything like that, though’. This feels uncomfortably close to ‘not all men’ and also feels like they’re avoiding the real issue. If you didn’t know the statistics then, you know them now. It is not the time to be talking about who would do such a thing, but recognising that this is happening to women, right now. Beyond this, it is clear that women can’t do anything more, so the onus is on you, men, to step up, educate yourselves, and hold your friends accountable.

I was debating whether to write this or not. Aside from the fact that I am white, cis and have the privilege to attend a good university, I felt that my own experience with sexual assault wasn’t that important given what countless other women, especially trans women experience. A prime example is shown in our news headlines right now. But feeling lucky doesn’t mean I should be silent. I guess, what I mean to say is, change the message. For sexual assault survivors, fearmongering and telling women that their fate is inevitable is unhelpful and reinforces blame and helplessness. We need to start talking about how to fix this, not how broken it is.  

Art by Amelia Elson.

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