Inspired by France’s catcalling law, Maya and Gemma Tutton are determined to make public spaces safe for women with their Our Streets Now campaign
Gemma Tutton was 11 years old when she was first sexually harassed in public. “Ever since then, the terror of wondering when the next incident will be has been on my shoulders,” she tells Dazed. “It’s exhausting.”
Three years later and Gemma and her sister Maya had officially had enough. In 2019, the pair launched Our Streets Now, a campaign to make street harassment a criminal offence in the UK. At the time of writing, their petition has over 200,000 signatures.
“We believe that making it a criminal offence will empower victims of harassment to report incidents, and dissuade harassers,” the young women wrote on Change.org. “Being forced to adapt our routes and clothing, and restrict our behaviour in order to feel safe is not OK. This new law would be a powerful step in tackling inequality and in keeping women safe.”
The young women were inspired to launch their campaign after France outlawed public sexual harassment in August 2018, following uproar after a woman was attacked by a man who catcalled her. In the shocking video, captured on CCTV, 25-year-old Firaz M lashes out at 22-year-old Marie Laguerre after she rebuffed his degrading comments. The man was later fined $2,000 (£1,770), given a six month suspended sentence, and ordered to take a course about gender-based violence.
“When the French very quickly passed a law in response (to the attack), specifically addressing the issue of street harassment, it was a real wake-up call to us,” explains 21-year-old Maya. “Something can, and must be done about public street harassment.”
According to a 2017 YouGov survey, 52 per cent of British women aged 18 to 24 have experienced sexual harassment in public over the last five years, with most of it occuring on the street, in pubs, at festivals, gigs, and sports events, or on public transport. 2016 statistics show that two thirds of all British women have received unwanted sexual attention, while a third have been victim to physical sexual contact.
“My heart tightens and beats faster when cars slow near me,” 15-year-old Gemma tells Dazed, “and I have to cross the road when walking past men. Most of the harassment I get consists of dirty, degrading, and sexual comments, but every so often a man will shout aggressively, making me stop dead in my tracks.”
Maya says this kind of harassment makes her feel “scared, angry, vulnerable, and disappointed”, adding that the one emotion she never feels is “pleased or complimented”. She continues: “When people say, ‘you should take it as a compliment’, I think they have absolutely no idea of how graphically sexual and frightening a lot of these comments are nowadays.”
“When people say, ‘you should take it as a compliment’, I think they have absolutely no idea of how graphically sexual and frightening a lot of these comments are” – Maya Tutton
Gemma agrees, but explains that the comments have another detrimental effect on her. “They make me feel bad about my body,” she explains. “It makes me feel ashamed.” Sexual harassment has been linked to negative body image and low self-esteem, with many women ultimately blaming themsleves for igniting a verbal or physical attack.
Maya and Gemma assert that the only way women and girls will feel safe walking the streets is if there’s a law that protects them from harassment. When asked why she thinks there isn’t currently one, Maya tells Dazed: “Essentially it comes down to the fact that girls and women are not protected adequately in our society, despite the various forms of violence we are subjected to. Public sexual harassment has become normalised; many people I’ve spoken to feel like it’s a horrible but inevitable part of our lives, when the reality is that it’s totally unacceptable. We need specific legislation that the police can enforce.”
In the first year of France’s street harassment law, authorities issued more than 700 fines. While this is a positive step forward, French feminist Anais Bourdet told Reuters that the number was “ridiculous” given the actual scale of the problem. “The law is a dressing on a gaping wound,” she said, “and we cannot be content with a symbol.” Although she believes legal change is key, Maya agrees that the route of the problem is cultural. “We’re hoping to bring about behavioural change through information and education,” she explains, “and not just legal change. Education is crucial, and the earlier the better, so raising this topic in schools is vital.”
A 2018 government report admits that public sexual harassment “helps to keep women and girls unequal by perpetuating a culture in which they are sexualised”, and is “the backdrop to a society in which sexual violence can be normalised or excused”. Street harassment also negatively impacts minorities. Research conducted in 2014 found that 90 per cent of LGBTQ+ men had been harassed in public spaces, while a 2017 study revealed that LGBTQ+ people of colour were twice as likely to experience street harassment as their white counterparts.
Although cis-het men may be subjected to harassment, statistics show they are often the main perpetrators, leading to many not realising the extent of the problem. “Hopefully all the recent coverage around the issue of public sexual harassment will mean that men start talking about this issue amongst themselves, but also with the girls and women in their lives. Most men don’t engage in public sexual harassment, but they must speak out and support our right to be harassment-free in public spaces.”
You can sign Maya and Gemma’s petition here.