Stella- Grace Ford ‘23
In January, UN Women UK commissioned a study on sexual harassment, interviewing over 1,000 women in the United Kingdom. It found that 97% of women aged 18-24, and 70% of all women experienced harassment in public spaces. News of the study quickly spread due to the seeming absurdity of such a large number. It prompted a trend on Tiktok where women shared stories of instances of harassment, prompting #NotAllMen to trend on Twitter. However, for many of us, the 97% is surprising but not shocking.
If you’re a woman, you know that sexual harassment is just a fact of life. Assault and harassment are also problems for men, but due to their increased prevalence for women, we learn ways to protect ourselves at a very early age. We know not to wear low-cut shirts in dark alleys at night, to always text our friends when we get into male-driven Ubers, and that our male friends have freedom and safety in a way that we don’t. Before I even knew what sex was, I knew to not play in the yard alone because sometimes people like little girls a little too much. Nonetheless, many remain unconvinced of this reality.
We’re all familiar with the “what happened to innocent until proven guilty?”-s and “she doesn’t even have any proof!”-s that resound when sexual assault cases go public. To some extent, they’re right. It’s important for the accused to have trials, and it’s their right as citizens to due process of law. False accusations are very real and very dangerous, but if there’s anything that the 97% study has shown us, it’s that these types of comments are sloppy coverups of the much bigger epidemic of men systemically discrediting victims of harassment. This study doesn’t have specifics or names, and it’s not a public trial before the Senate, but the same voices are saying those same things about the results’ validity. This isn’t Christine Blasey Ford vs Brett Kavanaugh or Monica Lewinsky vs Bill Clinton, yet people still take it upon themselves to insist that somehow the 97% statistic is inaccurate and overexaggerated.
A common issue with the study is that it includes being stared at and having men walk uncomfortably close as sexual harassment - some people consider those unrelated to sexual dynamics. These people don’t understand that sexual harassment isn’t necessarily about sex, but it’s always about power. Harassment is a purposeful strategy for men to demonstrate how they view women as powerless and sexual. Every catcall or uncomfortably long stare is meant to disturb the recipient. Harassment isn’t about women having some innate sexual allure, it’s about men purposefully demeaning women to lift themselves up. When women call out this blatant abuse of power, men close ranks, and the #NotAllMen movement resurfaces. The only thing that #NotAllMen has accomplished is proving that some men are more afraid of admitting their power in society than of harassing women. Movements like these coupled with the widespread public backlash that sexual harassment victims face creates an environment which actively discourages women from coming forward, serving as a tool to enforce the power that men hold. This culture furthers the lack of trust that women have in authority.
We often wonder why victims of sexual assault don’t speak up until their accuser is well-known, claiming that they only seek publicity. But what incentive do we give these women when our reaction to sexual assault is “hmm, I don’t think so”? We’ve taught women every possible method of avoidance and protection, and it clearly hasn’t worked. If we want to actually discourage sexual harassment, we need to stop blaming the victims and shift our focus to the perpetrators. The 97% proves what many of us have already known: female sexual harassment isn’t women’s issue, it’s men’s.