Locating sexual harassment : fault lines, hotspots and ambiguous spaces
Updated: Jun 22
Women reporting their experiences of #MeToo show us that sexual harassment does not happened in one place. The problem with focusing on one-off episodes or incidents is that we miss the bigger picture of continuous, normalised and cumulative sexual bullying across the landscapes and lifespan1of women’s experience. However, if we look at the fault lines of where it occurs and who is targeted, we find a map of the causes and the functions it serves.
“at a train station exit, someone came behind me and touched my bottom. I looked around but because there were a lot of people milling around I couldn’t see who had done this to me. The rest of the time I spent waiting with my back to the wall in case it happened again said one victim giving evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee.
Ambiguous spaces provide a level of opportunity for many men and make some forms of harassment harder for women to identify. In a survey of women in London, 31% of women aged 18 to 24 had experienced unwanted sexual attention while on public transport in the previous year3. Further research reports on the everyday nature of wolf whistles, groping and unwanted sexual comments experienced by 61% of women using public transport, a rate which went up to 85% for younger women4. Women report more sexual harassment in places where behaviour is ambiguous or easily disguised as ‘accidental’ such as crowded public transport or night clubs. The British Transport Police report 5that busy carriages enable perpetrators to fain accidental but sexual touching due to overcrowding or bumpy train travel. Also, targeting of women in isolated spaces, away from witnesses is also reported, in order to carry out public masturbation, exposure or sexual assault. This also includes the use of covert cameras for the purposes of image based sexual abuse such as ‘upskirting’.
This ambiguity can also be found in the Night-time economy in which female staff and clients report that many instances of sexual harassment are so commonplace that they are not event thought worth mentioning and certainly not worth reporting.
“a lot will just think, oh I’m on a night out, that’s fine, that’s kind of what comes with the it nowadays, which is really bad, really bad"
Perpetrators may take advantage of ambiguity in crowded places and others have suggested that drinking alcohol plays a role in blurring the boundaries between flirting and harassment for men.
The evolution of social spaces includes virtual spaces such as online communities and we know that women in particular are heavily targeted with misogynistic online abuse, 50 % of young women aged think that sexism is worse online than offline, with a further 23% having had threatening things said about them on social media. This includes public humiliation, on- and offline, in relation to appearance, assumed sexual activity; sexualised name-calling and harassment using pornography .
Want to read the evidence? clink on the hyperlink.