I’m tired of hearing I’m not attractive enough to be sexually harassed
By Katy Ward
Five years ago, I was standing on a train station platform after a 12-hour stint at a job I despised. Feeling and looking frazzled, I was desperate to get home, open a bottle of pinot grigio and put The Good Place on Netflix.
Suddenly, a man approached me reeking of beer and asked if he could come back to my flat. When I declined, he kissed me on the cheek and grabbed my bum. Sadly, I’m pretty sure almost every woman has a similar story to tell – and many are far worse.
The following day I described the encounter to my colleagues. While many expressed sympathy, a few were visibly shocked. The source of their surprise was not, however, that such an incident (technically an assault) could occur in public, but that I’d been the chosen victim. ‘Really? That happened to you?’ one said; the emphasis most definitely on the ‘you’.
Since my primary school days, it’s been apparent that I’m far from the conventional definition of a great beauty, sporting crooked teeth and slightly chubby. I’m not indulging in self-pity here but stating a fact that I stopped obsessing over the year I turned 25.
What stunned me was my colleagues’ narrow view of sexual harassment. In their minds, the victim could only be young, slim and glamorous. Something tells me the perv on the platform wasn’t that choosy.
Half a decade on and despite the #metoo movement, the pandemic has proven how little has changed. With gyms closed in lockdown, many women complain of feeling unsafe during their night-time jogs and others report unwelcome flirtations even with their faces hidden by masks.
It’s perhaps no surprise these predators feel free to behave in this way given the ambiguous legal status of sexual harassment. Unlike some other countries, the UK doesn’t have a specific law preventing this type of conduct. Many prosecutions rely on legislation relating to sexual assault and voyeurism under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
Just three years ago, MP Christopher Chope deliberately attempted to block the criminalisation of upskirting when he objected to the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill during a parliamentary reading. Exactly why he objected to punishment for those who point mobile phones up people’s skirts without their consent remains difficult to fathom.
The incident on the platform is far from my only experience of unwanted attention. During the summer, a man followed me from the cash point at night and asked me to go for a drink with him. Alone in a back street with a stranger in the dark, this felt very unnerving. When I recounted this meeting to a friend, she shrugged and said: ‘You think you’d be beyond all that at your age’. I’m only 38 – not that age is relevant to sex pests.
It seems that, as women age, the less likely we are to be regarded as targets for sexual attention. When the Office of National Statistics publishes headline data on sexual assault (the figures you see on the news), it breaks this information down according to ‘adults aged 16 to 59’. The silence surrounding attacks against individuals (of all genders) aged over 59 says it all. Although the ONS began collecting statistics for those aged 16 to 74 in 2017, these are rarely reported.
The problem, of course, is not specific to the UK. In 2016, Donald Trump created controversy by suggesting a journalist wasn’t sufficiently attractive to be the subject of his advances. ‘Look at her, I don’t think so,’ he allegedly said. A man about to become the most powerful politician in the world apparently believed sexual harassment is a privilege bestowed on the beautiful, or at least his definition of the beautiful.
What this incident proves is that sexual harassment says far more about the perpetrator than the victim. Regardless of a person’s appearance, age or gender, this behaviour is as much about intimidation as a perverse claim to admire a person’s attractiveness.
And it goes without saying any generalisations about so-called attractiveness are, of course, laughable. We all have our own quirky little turn-ons and concepts of what makes another person desirable. Another thing is certain: if a stranger ever grabs my bum again, I’d like to think I’d have the courage to ring the police… or, at least, say something that couldn’t be repeated here.