Over the past 24 hours, tweets using the hashtag #wheniwas flooded Twitter, as people, mostly women and girls, shared their earliest experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, revealing just how early the problem starts and how prevalent it is.
As part of my work with the Everyday Sexism Project, I originally started the #wheniwas hashtag in 2016, partly in defiance of those who claim that street harassment is a “compliment” that women should simply accept gratefully. It makes me deeply angry to hear street harassment dismissed as “harmless banter”, when I know from the thousands of girls who have contacted me that it often starts at the age of seven or eight, intensifies when girls are in their school uniform and can make them feel terrified, threatened and violated.
The hashtag was revived in the wake of a new report from Plan International UK, which, this week, revealed that one in three girls in the UK has been sexually harassed in public when wearing a school uniform, and that two-thirds have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public. Particularly shocking was the survey’s revelation that 35% of girls reported receiving unwanted sexual contact, such as being touched, groped or grabbed. In other words, we live in a society where more than a third of girls experience what could be defined as sexual assault under UK law in public spaces.
Yet still, people reacted to the survey by suggesting that it sounded like an exaggeration. Still, people tell us we need to stop making a fuss. Still, those who dare to object to various forms of harassment find themselves splashed across the front pages, branded "feminazis" or accused of overreacting. Still, we are told, by no less a man than the president of the United States, that “women are doing great” and it is young men who are facing “a very scary time”, as those women who have been hurt, damaged or abused tentatively start to come forward and tell their stories.
People who flippantly dismiss sexual harassment as ‘harmless’ often have no idea that it is so severe, or starts so early
In the wake of Trump’s comments, the backlash against survivors who dare to speak out, and the mockery and death threats targeted at Christine Blasey Ford, it is unsurprising that many people said that they felt unable to share their own stories. For some, the pain of revisiting past experiences is too great. Others are understandably silenced by the fear of backlash and abuse. For still more, the idea that women should endlessly bare their trauma in order to prove their right to equal treatment is deeply problematic. All those women deserve our respect, belief and support. But so, too, do those who have chosen to speak out, for their own reasons, breaking the seal of stigma and shame and allowing others to feel that they, too, have the choice not to stay silent. It is a choice that has been withheld from millions of women for too long.
This was also about adult women speaking out on behalf of younger girls. Girls are often forced, shamed or scared into silence. People who flippantly dismiss sexual harassment as “harmless” often have no idea that it is so severe, or starts so early. By speaking out now, about earlier experiences, we hoped to support and protect those who might not be able to voice what they are going through today.
Focusing on early experiences reveals the deeply ingrained, insidious nature of the problem. When something happens at a very young age, it breeds normalisation and acceptance. Many of those who shared their stories described them as formative learning experiences. They learned never to take certain routes, not to wear certain items of clothing or simply to accept that their bodies would be treated as public property in future. In short, they learned to blame themselves. Many said that they had tried to speak out, only to be told that they should expect such behaviour or that they themselves had somehow caused it.
Is it any wonder that women later struggle to speak out about sexual violence? This is a deadly cycle – and it starts earlier than many people know.