Sexual harassment the undetected epidemic

By Nelli Naukkarinen

“This happened in The Hague, a night 3 years ago around 3 am. I was coming back from clubbing with my roommate and we had to pick up our bikes from this dark street, as there was no where else to leave them for the night. We noticed a group of older guys sitting outside of a car, smoking and enjoying their time. It is something about female instinct. We both felt that something was going to be wrong when we walked past them to get our bikes. A second later, they started talking to us, and we just tried to walk really fast without looking at them. As they saw that we were not reacting, they tried once again in English. “Girls, come have fun with us!”; “I’ll fuck you in the ass”. We were now more scared than ever as we could hear them walking behind us. Getting closer to my bike, one of them shouted “We will rape you!”. Out of a sudden, I was so panicked that I could not even unlock my bike because of my shaking hands. I also don’t remember much of how I managed to unlock that bike, probably because of the enormous amount of stress I’ve then experienced. What I remember next is my roommate and I biking really fast with the devilish laughter of these monsters resonating in the street. Instances of sexual harassment in The Hague are something all girls can relate to. Catcalling, weird noises, insinuating looks, cars driving really slow toward you.. These are things that happen on a daily basis”. Female, 21. 

In 2017, the #Metoo campaign discussing sexual harassment went viral. Women and men on social media were sharing their stories of being sexually harassed or even assaulted in workplaces, public areas or in private. While the #Metoo campaign has not been the first time the prevalence of sexual harassment was being discussed, it did show people the sheer magnitude of the issue. When it went viral, the phrase #Metoo was tweeted over 500 thousand times, and it is now estimated the hashtag has been used around 19 million times on Twitter alone.

The estimates of how often harassment happens are complicated. Data is often scarce, as women and men are hesitant to report harassment. Reporting something like sexual harassment comes with a lot of stigmas. People are scared of not being taken seriously, for being questioned about what happened to them… and if the harassment happens at their workplaces, then there is an even higher likelihood of the incident not being reported. This is due to fears concerning job security and the economic impact this would have, or being so-called “blacklisted” in the industry, which makes seeking employment elsewhere tricky or even impossible. When data is available, it is to a varying degree of prevalence. Studies like the one from stop street harassment estimate that 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment and around 43% of men, while others specifically measuring rates of sexual harassment in workplaces state that 38% of women experience sexual harassment and around 14% men at their place of employment.

“When I worked in a bar, one of the bartenders always made me super uncomfortable. He always used to make weird comments, I’d do something really easy like putting a glass away, and he would stop, make a huge deal about it and be like, “omg gorgeous, amazing, you’re just such a gorgeous worker look how you are doing your job, so amazing.” In the beginning, I didn’t think much of this, it made me uncomfortable and weirded out, but I thought maybe he was just a weird dude. As time passed, I realized the guy at work never talked to anyone. I never heard him speak to the other co-workers; I never heard him call other girls gorgeous, stunning or amazing for the work they do; I never really saw him talk to any other girls other than the one who was his friend. He only said those things to me. This made me even more weirded out, and I thought, okay he’s hitting on me. I kept trying to make it clear I wasn’t interested, but this seemed to just motivate him. He moved from saying the work I did was gorgeous to saying I was gorgeous; he would openly hit on me, say things that made me visibly really uncomfortable, which seemed to excite him even more.

“One evening when I was the only bar waitress at shift, he and the other bartender hit on me constantly for the entire shift. The only time they would speak to me was to hit on me. Saying things about my looks, my mannerism, asking what guys I liked, which one of them I preferred, talking about their genitals, etc. I was uncomfortable, tired and mad. I felt so objectified and belittled. I knew if I would say something I’d excite them even more, or they would say it’s not harassment as they didn’t touch me. Or that it was just a joke. I never told management, even though I felt very comfortable around them, I didn’t feel comfortable telling them this. I felt like I was making a big deal out of nothing, and should just ignore it and move on”. Female, 21. 

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual advantages, requests, comments and gestures made towards a person or a group. Sexual harassment is not something that always looks the same or occurs to only specific groups of people; it can happen to anyone, in any circumstance, and differ per occurrence. Sexual harassment is not just physical, like unwanted physical contact such as touching or groping. It can also be verbal, like asking for sexual favours, innuendoes, verbal pressure to engage in sexual acts, or discussing sexual acts, fantasies and stories in an inappropriate context.

“This is not necessarily a story on its own, but more of an anecdote. I remember speaking to my mum in the kitchen a few months ago, right after the ‘viral’ study came out that concluded that around 97% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed. In my own experience, the word sexual harassment has such a hefty meaning, that I never included myself in the 97%. This might be because, in Dutch media, they often opt for the use of ‘misbruik’, which translates to abuse rather than harassment. So, back to the conversation with my mother. While discussing the research, my mum pointed out the actual meaning of sexual harassment, and specifically how it is so normalised in today’s world. Because sexual harassment is not always as severe as abuse, it can be something as ‘small’ as getting catcalled. Nevertheless, that does not take away the impact it can make on people. This observation made me backtrack, and re-analyse things I had not even looked twice at before. I realised I had never gone to a nightclub without being pinched in my ass. There is not one person in my friend group that has never been catcalled. Yet, when discussing these things with most of these same friends, few would actually consider it sexual harassment. It has become far too normal to be objectified by a stranger on the streets, or to be groped by someone in a club”. Female, 19.

“Because of my physical appearance, I was numerously asked by landlords whether I was a going to organize ‘sex parties’ in the house, or they wondered whether I worked a sex worker” Female, 20.

Sexual harassment is not just something existing in specific industries, it is a systematic issue, affecting numerous people every day. The emotional and mental impacts sexual harassment and assault have on people are enormous. Many victims suffer from mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety and depression during or after the experience of sexual harassment or assault. Symptoms of sexual harassment are also not just mental; many victims experience physical symptoms such as muscle aches or chronic health issues such as issues with their blood pressure. 

“I was out at a bar, celebrating someone‘s birthday (pre-corona) and it was supposed to be a closed event, but, like always, some people just find their way in. I was alone at the bar getting a drink for me and some friends, when a man approached me. I was 19 or 20 at the time, and he must have been at least 35. He started talking to me, asked me where I lived (creepiest first question ever) and then proceeded to tell me that I have “amazing tits”, whilst stroking my bare arm (without consent). I was too shocked to say anything, and luckily my friend noticed and dragged me away. I’m recovering from rape and associated PTSD, and that hit me so hard back into a deep depression (I’ve since sought help, no worries)” Unsure/questioning, but female as of right now, 22. 

Often victims of sexual harassment or assault do not come forward with allegations, due to fears and stigma relating to reporting. When victims do come forward, many feel unsupported, unheard and not believed by the criminal justice system or by their peers. According to criminological research, many victims feel let down by the justice system. They don’t feel heard and that they’re not being taken seriously, and when cases go to court, many victims feel excluded from the criminal justice process. Many also report feeling they never received justice. It is no wonder they feel so; victims often do not have the chance to speak in court, or when they do, there is no guarantee the jury will react to them favourably. Studies have shown that if a victim is not emotional enough or too emotional to the liking of the jury, their credibility goes down, especially in the eyes of male jurors. 

“In middle school, I was pressured into sharing intimate pictures with a boy. Some time after the event, he tried to blackmail me. That night, I took a knife and I was ready to do something dramatic. However, I went to my parents, and they contacted his parents, and that was the end of that. 3 months later, another boy in school got hold of my pictures, showed it to his friends and tried to blackmail me. I went to the school principal, and he was stopped. Him and his friends continued to bully me for it though, calling me “nudes” in the corridors of the school. 3 months after that, during summer holidays, one of these boys tried to blackmail me. At that point, I knew what to do, I told him that I was going to the police and that I was going to put him on trial. That dissuaded him from doing anything. I would like to say that I felt empowered by this moment, where I was able to fight and win for myself, but I will not. I did not deserve this, and all I ever think about is how these people were not punished”, Female, 19.

“Last summer, I took the train from Utrecht to The Hague in the evening. It was hot outside, so I was wearing a skirt. There was also a man there, who was maybe in his 50s or 60s. I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t look up for a long time. When I did, I made direct eye contact with him. He was looking at me as he was masturbating. I froze. There were people with children on the other side of the compartment, but I was scared he would do something if I stood up. Even after he left, I was terrified he would somehow follow me home. I called the police a couple days later. After they took note of the details, I was told “Next time, you should call us sooner”. I never told my mom”. Female, 22.

We need to say it as it is: when it comes to sexual harassment, it is a crime and should be treated accordingly. No one owns anyone else their time, attention and, especially, not their sexuality. For far too long, people have taken it for granted that they can touch other people without their consent, that it is okay to comment on someone’s physique or make inappropriate sexual jokes, and saying, “it’s just a joke!” or “this is just how lads act.” We have created an environment where people feel comfortable harassing others, where they feel untouched and that there are no consequences for their actions. This attitude is, unfortunately, not unfounded. Sexual assault cases have a low likelihood leading to charges or the offender to be incarcerated.

Victims of sexual harassment need to be believed and heard. The traumatic and tolling experience of being violated is not something to be taken lightly. We as a society need to realize that to be a victim of sexual assault does not mean you need to be recognized by a court of law, or that you do not need to go to court to be able to say you were the victim of sexual harassment. It is not just through the eyes of the law that harassment can be recognized. 

“My first time encountering sexual harassment/social misconduct was when I was 12. I was in the train alone, traveling to school in the morning, and this man had been watching me the entire ride. He looked about 35/40-ish and mind you I definitely looked 12 or younger, as I was very small in height as well. Just before I got off at my stop, he handed me a paper with his phone number. I was so scared I threw away the paper at the nearest trash can and got to my bike as soon as I could. I was deadly afraid he’d follow me, so I nearly tripped as I ran. Seriously still one of the most scary encounters I have ever had”. Female, 21.

“During spring 2021, I was meeting some friends in a bar. I was running a bit late, and I did not have a bike, so I decided instead of waiting for the tram and being more late I’d just walk fast and be less late. When I was rushing through the streets of The Hague passing people, I noticed a group of maybe 4-6 guys I’d have to pass. Once I started to pass the guys, they saw me and started talking to me. They were saying the usual ‘hey girl, how ya doing’. They start hollering at me as I passed them, and while I started walking in front of them, they began to get increasingly inappropriate. The basic hey how you doing changed to yelling, whistling, kissing noises to them commenting about how fast I was walking. They started screaming, ‘run girl, get away from him, he is going to catch you’, which made me scared, as I thought one of them was going to sneak up on me and try to grab me or something, but I kept looking forward, as I did not want to give them the attention they were seeking. While others kept screaming, ‘he’s going to catch you,’ others started to loudly bark at me, which led to them all loudly yelling and barking behind me. But I just kept walking, as I was scared; what could I do against a group of guys. I kept walking trying to pretend as if there was not a group of men barking at me while I was walking on the street”. Female, 22

Sexual assault or harassment is never the victim’s fault. They do not carry any responsibility for the crime that occurred to them. It does not matter what they were wearing, if they drank or walked home alone at night. Sexual harassment can happen regardless of any background variables. When we as community or society victim blame, we avoid discussing the actual matter at hand — that someone was just a victim of a crime. We often question victims on why did they not come forward earlier, or we question if what happened to them was truly so bad. Even when we believe victims, people often say it was an educational experience. “Now you know not to walk home alone at night!” It is exactly these attitudes and the language we use when we discuss sexual harassment why victims do not come forward and why there is such a gap between official reporting and actual instances of sexual harassment.

“During my first year at University, I was at a beach party with friends. I was completely sober as I was on some medication, sitting down as my feet were hurting with a friend of mine. We were scrolling through tinder, as she had never used the app before until a guy sat next to me and stared at my phone. He commented about us being on tinder, and we didn’t think much of it; we kept just chatting to each other in our native language, but the guy didn’t stop. He kept talking to us, clearly extremely drunk based on the slurring, telling us where he was from, what he was studying and incoherently mumbling; he had even lost his shoes cos he was so drunk. To us, it was evident he was drunk, and I told him maybe he should stop drinking. He objected, saying he was fine and came to sit closer to look at what we’re we looking at on tinder. While my friend was on my phone, he reached closer and dove headfirst into my chest. He had been kind of leaning on me before, and I had always scooted away, but now this huge dude was laying on top of me, face in my tits. I tried to push him away, but he was really heavy and pushing back. I couldn’t get him away, and, obviously, I did not particularly appreciate having a grown-ass man’s face in my tits, so I kept telling him to get off me and trying to push him. As soon as my friend realized, she jumped up and pulled him away from me. I don’t remember what he did or said after; I was pretty shocked about what just happened. My friend ended up taking me home, as she didn’t think it was wise to stay.” Female 22

“I was at a music festival and it was one of the last performances. I was with one of my (also female) friends just dancing and having fun, when a man came up and put his arm around my hip, grabbed, and smirked. He moved past me before I could even react, and did the same thing to my friend. I looked at her in disbelief and confirmed what had just happened. It was the entitlement this random man felt to my body that frankly, scared me and frustrated me. I had to leave the venue. He probably doesn’t even remember it, but it was a violation of my boundaries that stayed with me. I haven’t really talked to anyone about it because I feel like it won’t be taken seriously, or maybe it wasn’t “severe” enough”. Female, 18.

Many people do not feel comfortable coming forward. They do not want to go through the experience of being scrutinized by others, having to defend themselves in what someone else did to them, or that the impact is as they describe. We helped foster an environment which overlooks and allows an attitude of “boys will be boys,” or that when men (“individuals” maybe, rather than “men”?) are being harassed, they should take it as a compliment. As long as such a hostile environment exists around discussions of sexual harassment and assault, we cannot expect people to be comfortable in coming forward with their experiences. The prevalence of sexual harassment will stay unclear, as long as people are not comfortable coming forward with their stories and allegations. It will remain an undetected epidemic.

Edited by Karolina Hajna, artwork by Teresa Valle