Sunday, 6 December 2015

Refusing To Harassent

Dear Reader,

Have you ever been harassed, hounded or catcalled in a public place?

This week at least two of my friends have been courageous enough to talk about their experiences and the effect it has had on them.  One was surrounded on a late train and sexually harassed; the other had to deal with abuse in a park whilst walking her dogs.  I am relieved to see that friends are vocal with their support and condemnation of these acts, but it has made me stop and consider: how best to deal with these incidents?

This is not a gender issue.  Men and women, boys and girls and everyone in between are the perpetrators and the victims.  What make a harassment event hard to deal with is that they often lie somewhere on a continuum between 'ignore and they'll go away' and 'this is a serious crime that needs to be reported immediately' and at the time - frightened, angry and full of adrenaline - you might not be sure of the best response.  Do you want to show them you're not afraid, and risk escalating the situation?  Would you rather call the police sooner than later, and risk being told you are overreacting?  Is it worth asking passers-by for help?  Is the most personally satisfying response the one that ultimately gets you hurt, raped or in trouble yourself?

One thing that has arisen from the discussion this week is that this is a universal issue that has affected everyone I know, and yet no-one - politicians, teachers, police - seems to be tackling it in any meaningful way.    More than three years ago, David Cameron backed a pledge to criminalise 'verbal, non-verbal or physical' harassment, drawn up by the Council of Europe's convention on violence against women (which is discriminatory in itself).  Do you feel safer in public places? I can't say I do.  It still feels commonplace to be touched, looked at, or spoken to in an intimidating manner without knowing exactly what to do about it.

Some ideas:

1. Agree that, as observers,  we will be braver and step in if we see this happening anywhere.  This is a simple application of game theory: if one person does it, they may get pulled into the conflict and picked on; if two or three do, the power shifts and the perpetrator/s feel more pressure to stop or leave.  Harassment implicitly requires the assent of all those present; refusing to 'harassent' means speaking up.  Imagine the victim is your son, daughter, mother or father.  Would you intervene then?

2. If in doubt, call it out.  Say the words "What you're doing is unacceptable.  Stop."  It couldn't be clearer. then, that you are not being 'coy' or 'teasing' or 'unforthcoming' - just that the attention is unwarranted and any more of it constitutes harassment.

3.  If the abuse continues, have the confidence and courage to take serious action.  Call the police. Stop the train.  Ask for help.  You are not helpless and you should not have to put up with being abused, even if that is simply verbal.  Imagine what advice you would give to your children, or your parents.  Ultimately, if we all took public harassment more seriously it would begin to choke and die.

4. Follow it up.  Even if you were too shaky to do anything about it there and then - and that's a natural reaction - report it afterwards.  Go to a police station, or ask for the CCTV footage,or call the employers or school  if you could identify the perpetrators by uniform or signage.

5.  Talk about it.  Use social media or good old fashioned conversation to tell people that this happened, and that you dealt with it, and explore how you might deal with it in future.  Even better, include your children in these conversations - you can blur some details if needed - so that they are aware of their options when this inevitably happens to them.

6.  Put harrassment and abuse on the PSHCE (Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education) curriculum.  We spend time talking to students about bullying; what we don't often explicitly reference is one-off incidences like this.  Explore the way that pupils travelling in groups can be seen as intimidating, and how to mitigate this. Practise intervening in public situations via role-play. This is crucial. Those pupils might save someone's life one day.

7. Discuss the safe use of self-defence weapons.  In the UK it is illegal to carry pepper spray or Mace, and the law can be strict on 'premeditated violence', which leaves very little but the kinds of spray that identify attackers rather than disable them, or everyday objects used as weapons (newspapers, umbrellas, keys).  Talk about the time for defence.  Is it when violence happens?  When any unwanted  physical contact occurs?  Is a torrent of unprovoked abuse enough to justify a swift thwack to the groin or umbrella to the guts?  I don't know the answers, but I do know I'd like to give it some thought well before I need to make a crucial decision under pressure.

If you have suffered this kind of abuse, please share anything you may have learnt about how best to deal with it.  You are not alone, and you don't have to tolerate being prodded, shouted at, threatened or leered at just because it's late, or you look vulnerable, or you're attractive.  You're worth far more than that.

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