Leeds School of Social Sciences

Being Safe and Feeling Safe: Discussion of Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Violence

BA (Hons) Sociology student Hannah Crossley talks about her experience speaking at the event Women’s Safety: Sexual Harassment, Violence, Unwanted Behaviour and Attention.

On 15 March 2021, I and over a hundred others lay down in Millennium Square, Leeds at the vigil for Sarah Everard. As the speaker read out the names of the 184 women who were murdered by police over the past 30 years I was overwhelmed with a feeling of hopelessness and immense grief. This and other vigils for Sarah Everard have inspired many conversations regarding women’s safety and raised awareness about violence against women. After much contemplation, I decided to contact the university where I am enrolled as a sociology student.  As an established institution, Leeds Beckett could look at ways to help prevent these crimes and address the severity of gender-based violence. 

After a discussion with Course Director for Sociology Dr Natalia Gerodetti, Dr Chris Till organised the event Women’s Safety: Sexual Harassment, Violence, Unwanted Behaviour and Attention. Myself along with four other women came together on a video call in front of an online audience. We spoke at length on what had to be done to create a safer environment for women. In turn, we discussed our own thoughts and experiences. What is preventing women from being and feeling safe? 

A common theme that arose was the strong emphasis placed on women and how they are often positioned as individually responsible for keeping themselves safe. But it is problematic to place the blame on women instead of addressing the fact that men are the primary perpetrators of these violent crimes. Although Sarah Everard took all the correct precautions, she was still murdered. 

Dr Jess Simpson from London School of Economics (and a Leeds Beckett alumna) crystalised a central problem: we see men as predators and women as prey. There is a focus on protecting women, rather than preventing men’s violence. During the talk, we discussed the issue of victim blaming and it was agreed that we must change the way we approach the discourse surrounding sexual assault. Instead of speaking on violence against women, we need to shift the emphasis to men committing violence against women. This of course includes women of colour, non-binary people, trans, working class and disabled women, who experience the highest levels of risk of sexual violence. 

The topic of the police as a patriarchal institution was highlighted by Em Hubberstey of Reclaim the Streets Leeds. She recognised how the police can often worsen situations for women and make them feel less safe. It is a privilege to see the police as an institution that will protect you. Dr Natalia Gerodetti also mentioned how safety and respect have historically only been attributed to a certain small group of women, especially reflecting on the police’s mishandling of the Yorkshire Ripper case in the 1980s.  

From a student’s perspective, it was also promising to witness a discussion around young people and the sexual harassment they face, especially women working in hospitality (a significant employer of female students). Often these smaller, lower-level forms of sexual harassment and violence are ignored. The culture of partying and promiscuity that is linked with university often overtakes important discussions on the normalisation of sexual violence on campus.

Several questions from the audience provided great topics of discussion, including the “not all men” argument and how men should, instead of taking a defensive approach, contemplate how we are all complicit in the continuation of sexism and misogyny. Emily Turner from Women’s Lives Leeds suggested we should take a whole societal approach and allow more opportunities for men to get involved in this movement. 

Although the event only lasted one and a half hours, it was clear that we could have spoken on these topics for much longer. Touching upon social media, incels, risk society and the UK sex education curriculum, the conversation highlighted the plethora of issues that contribute to an environment where women are and feel unsafe. Women’s safety is a vast subject which was near impossible to fully explore in just over an hour, but I hope that this discussion can be the first of many for Leeds Beckett moving forward.

On reflection, this event has given me a sense of optimism that things will change, and this is not the end of such an imperative movement. All genders and backgrounds can come together and end sexism and gender-based violence through looking at women’s safety through an intersectional lens; networking with women's charities and above all, listening and amplifying women’s voices.

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