Comment: Sexual harassment is part of daily life in Brixton

This article prompted a huge debate before it was even written – showing what an important issue this is to Brixton residents. Here, S. Villarino writes that street-harassment remains a big problem in Lambeth and beyond…

Flirt / Harass: part of Lambeth Council's Know the Difference campaign
Flirt / Harass: part of Lambeth Council’s Know the Difference campaign

In 2012 Lambeth Council ran a campaign: Know the Difference. Part of the aim was to educate men about the boundary between harassment and flirtation. And for good reason.

According to Stop Street Harassment, 80% of women and LGBTQ people in Europe have experienced sexual harassment and a YouGov poll revealed 41% of young women under 34 received unwanted sexual attention in 2012. In public places, streets and transport, harassment intrudes upon many women’s lives from all walks of life.

Unfortunately, like everywhere else, Brixton is no exception. For many young women walking down the road or travelling on the tube sexual harassment is the norm. When I leave the house, I will often receive cat calls, men shouting at me from across the street, be occasionally followed, and, when I refuse to respond in a subserviently feminine fashion, receive an earful of nasty, verbal abuse.

My experience is not unique. Sarah says, “2 out of 5 times I leave my house I get comments like ‘sexy’ or ‘hey princess’ or whistles or cat noises made at me or men leaning out of car windows to wolf whistle or comment on my legs… Once a man coming out the supermarket said ‘yum yum’ at me (definitely ‘at’ me rather than ‘to’ me) which was particularly ridiculous – but then it isn’t just ridiculous it’s actually a bit upsetting to be made to feel suddenly like a sexual object when you’re just trying to buy milk.”

How men can help stop street harassment
White Ribbon Campaign: How men can help stop street harassment

Other women have been approached by men asking them to perform oral sex on them, followed to their doorstep and blocked on their way home while propositioning them. It raises the question, “What did we do to deserve this?”

The experience of street-based harassment varies significantly amongst women who live in Brixton. Some have not received any harassment despite living in Brixton for decades while others come across it daily. Indeed, many contend that Brixton is better than other places. But this is little comfort when this is mostly down to experiencing worse elsewhere.

Part of this is because Brixton’s bustle makes several women feel safer when faced with harassment than in quieter, residential areas. Furthermore, many regard the tone of low level street harassment more annoying than intimidating.

While Lambeth has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual violence in London, there are notoriously few statistics on street-based harassment as these kinds of offences rarely get reported.

However, with current and former Brixtonians citing Islington, The City, Shepherd’s Bush, Seven Sisters, Bethnal Green, Clapham, Tooting, central London as worse places, no part of London is immune. This doesn’t even begin to touch on cases outside of the Capital…

But it doesn’t matter where street harassment takes place: it needs to be stopped. Whether subjected to low level frequent leering or shocking one-off abuse, many women change their behaviour to mitigate street harassment. Dressing down, avoiding certain places, shunning eye contact, donning headphones, refusing to wear skirts are just a few (often futile) ways many women try to cope.

The widespread normalisation and acceptance of street harassment makes it difficult for women to speak out without being accused of “being oversensitive”, in spite of the emotional distress, and can cast its shadow over simple journeys.

No cat caller or kerb crawler (or straight man in general) has ever had to change the way they dress or their route to work because they fear being sexually harassed. Faced with this incredible asymmetry it’s vital for straight men to learn to understand the significantly damaging effects it has on women’s lives. Believe it or not, as a woman I have never once had the impulse to comment on a man’s crotch size as he walked by or to make idiotic animal noises to get his attention. A bit of common courtesy (with a touch of common sense) would be nice, thank you.

But as that hasn’t got us very far, there need to be more legal protections against street harassment. Unlike the workplace, a woman has few safeguards against passing strangers who feel entitled to comment on their bodies.

Through progress is slow, street harassment is increasingly being recognised as a serious problem. With organisations such as Stop Street Harassment, the Everyday Sexism Project and hollaback! leading the charge, women can share their stories without being told to “toughen up” or “take it as a compliment”. Greeted with mixed reviews, The British Transport Police are encouraging women to report incidents of sexual harassment on public transport as part of Project Guardian.

Regardless of whether they are drunken lads, City slickers or pubescent pipsqueaks, many men do not know the difference between harassment and flirting. But even if they did, that wouldn’t go far enough. We need to end street harassment, not just recognise it.


  1. Thanks to S A Villarino for putting the Urban thread up on the article. This article has taken into account the comments on the Urban thread ( started by Villarino ) . It is a good piece of writing.

  2. The advert says challenge and intervene, ask for help. In London! Is it (the ad) being serious? During August 2012 someone tried to pull my cash out of the HSBC ATM on Brixton Road and there was a struggle. It was 8am in the morning. Not one person passing helped so I doubt calling names and sexual insults will gather much response. What makes this Londoner annoyed is that you do not see a police office on foot for weeks and weeks in Brixton town centre and then all of a sudden there are loads of them for one evening or so. Perhaps a more even police presence especially at night and in the evenings might address some issues instead of relying on the public to act as a upholder of the law without the backup and protection a police officer has.

  3. Firstly the article states in first paragraph that this is a problem for LGBTQ people – so it does highlight that men are victims too.

    Almost every single woman I know has experienced sexual street harassment. Tell me that every single straight man you know has experienced sexual street harassment and then tell me it’s not a gendered problem. Same for gay/trans mates compared to your straight male mates. Also, tell me how many straight men you know who have harassed by straight men and then we can start talking about how this is a major problem for straight men.

    But this is a problem for many straight men. Many may genuinely think they’re flirting or being funny or trying to entertain themselves and their mates – possibly without realising how intimidating, intrusive, hurtful and downright irritating their actions are for women. And for the guys that DO know how intimidating and irritating they are, do you know what that makes them? Bullies who enjoy making women feel intimidated, intruded upon and annoyed.

    Many straight men who *don’t* harass women may not even realise how much it effects their girlfriends, wives, relatives or friends. And you know what, those straight men may genuinely want to help and understand that it *is* a problem for those they know. They may genuinely want to make the world a better place for their daughters, girlfriends, sisters etc. and be less tolerant towards harmful behaviour of their mates if they see them harass someone. I’m sure many straight men would be surprised to see how big a problem it is and want to make the streets a better place for their female/LGBTQ mates. MAYBE when ordinary straight men with a we can have a chance at actually changing this – we don’t get that by being silent or by denying it is a gendered/LGBTQ problem.

    Anyone who says, “Let’s not address sexual harassment because 99% of it happens to women & LGBTQ people instead of 1% that MAY have happened to straight men and that fictional 1% doesn’t get attention.” Anyone who decides to become an “enemy” of fighting sexual harassment because of THAT is a cantankerous coward. And no cause needs feeble allies like that anyway.

    Straight men have a key role to play in stopping this problem and realise this is a major problem for women. We don’t get that awareness if we’re constantly trying to say, “This is a big issue for straight men”, when it isn’t.

    I feel it’s a shame that your comment is the only one on this article and I cannot let be the only one. Maybe some straight men will read your comment and go, “Pfft, dumb feminists warmongering against men, why bother help?” or some women will feel intimidated to speak up because they’re frightened of shit-stirring and not “down with the lads”. But the evidence on everyday sexism, hollaback, stopstreetharassment is a massive problem for women and LGBTQ people. Let’s stop making excuses for this and start getting serious about tackling it.

    If you want varied opinions on the topic, please read the Urban 75 thread:

  4. “No cat caller or kerb crawler (or straight man in general) has ever had to change the way they dress or their route to work because they fear being sexually harassed.” — Ever? Really? Not one straight man in the entire world has had to do this? I doubt that. This isn’t just a women’s issue.

    “Believe it or not, as a woman I have never once had the impulse to comment on a man’s crotch size as he walked by or to make idiotic animal noises to get his attention.” — That’s good, but don’t extrapolate from your own experience to include everyone on earth, as above. I worked as a policewoman, and I can tell you that this definitely does happen.

    “Whether subjected to low level frequent leering or shocking one-off abuse, many women change their behaviour to mitigate street harassment.” — As do many men. Where I currently am in Manchester, for example, men and women will avoid certain houses or certain areas during certain times, because they are aware the people in those areas will harass them, verbally, physically, and yes, sexually.

    This isn’t just a women’s issue. Trying to paint that no man ever shares the experience, and no woman ever has ever done it herself, is what creates enemies of these campaigns.

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