Harrogate Feminists

Summary and Discussion

68 people were surveyed anonymously about their experience of harassment in public places in the town or city nearest where they lived. Almost all respondents came from Harrogate and surrounding towns or cities in Yorkshire, and the majority were female. The age of respondents ranged from under 16 to over 80.

Almost all female respondents felt “quite safe” or “very safe” when they were out in the daytime. Notably, however, a limitation of this survey is that it was conducted in a public place during the daytime so it would be less likely to capture those who did not feel safe when out in the daytime. In contrast, half of all female respondents did not feel safe while they were out at night, compared to one-quarter of males surveyed. This is broadly in line with the results of the 2008/9 British Crime Survey (figures quoted in the EHRC report “How Fair is Britain?”, 2010) in which 2-3 times more women than men in England and  Wales, across all age ranges, reported high levels of worry about violent crime. According to the same report, 45% of women and 17% of men in England and Wales reported feeling unsafe alone at home after dark or walking alone in the local area during the day or after dark. Despite the relatively small size of our survey, therefore, our figures are thus remarkably close to national figures and suggest that this is not a phenomenon unique to Harrogate or Yorkshire.

 39% of women surveyed (more than twice the proportion of men) reported some change in their behaviour to avoid feeling threatened or uncomfortable. 10% of women avoided going out alone, 21% avoided going out at night, and 10% avoided pubs or clubs. Strikingly, none of the male respondents said they avoided going out at night. The commonest recurring theme in the free-text responses was a declaration that they “never went out at night alone”. In contrast, male respondents never said this. Some women reported in the free-text section of the survey that when they did go out at night, they would walk quickly and avoid eye contact with groups of young people. Again, males did not report this type of behaviour. This highly gendered, self-imposed “curfew” has obvious implications for gender equality. If women feel they cannot go out alone at night, and particularly if they feel unsafe using public transport, this clearly restricts their lives both in terms of work/career opportunities and general quality of life, especially if they do not drive. For example, it could affect the decision of students whether to attend after-school or evening activities, and it could also restrict the employment available to women, for example whether to take shift work. In many careers the work does not stop after 5pm or after it gets dark. Further studies would be needed to determine whether women feel that their career advancement has been restricted by their feelings of being less safe at night. The idea that women should not go out unaccompanied after dark is one that is often alluded to as if it is generally accepted; for example, a recent statement from a police officer with regard to a recent unsolved murder in Bristol said: “We ask the public to take the usual safety precautions. Women should avoid walking home alone after dark, householders should try to keep their premises secure and just take care when answering the door to strangers.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-12105327, accessed 16th January 2011). Thus avoiding going out alone after dark, if you are a woman, is seen as on a par with common-sense universal precautions like keeping your front door locked.

These findings also have implications for the local night-time economy if certain areas become “no-go areas” for many women. These “no-go areas” tend to be those most dependent on night-time trade: streets with restaurants, theatres, cinemas, pubs and clubs, or places where alcohol tends to be consumed. If streets at night become woman-free zones this would not necessarily decrease crime figures overall, and arguably make it more dangerous for those who do go out. It is interesting also that types of entertainment with images of violence (cinemas) and sexual objectification (cinemas and lap-dancing clubs) are specifically mentioned in our survey; it has been speculated that consuming particular types of entertainment might contribute to a “desensitisation” to violence, or to sex used as currency. People who had ever been physically harassed were significantly more likely to avoid pubs and clubs.

People who felt less safe when out at night were also likely to feel less safe when out in the day. The feeling of being less safe when out at night was significantly associated with experiences of both verbal and physical harassment during the past year.

Approximate rates of harassment for the respondent’s local town were estimated as 0.3-0.9, and at least 0.1 incidents/women/year for verbal and physical harassment respectively. The majority of women (62%) had prior experience of ever being verbally harassed in public places and 31% had prior experience of ever being physically harassed.

The contrast between the relatively low incidence of reported incidents of harassment and the widespread feeling of being less safe at night is interesting. Recall bias is clearly one factor here; relevant incidents may not be remembered while completing a quick survey. The behaviours adopted to avoid such encounters in response to feelings of being unsafe (such as never going out alone at night) may also contribute to the relatively low incidence of reported incidents. One of the free-text responses, taken together with more in-depth, informal conversations on the day of our survey, suggest that sexual harassment in public places is almost routine for young women but tends to diminish as women attain the “invisible” status of the older woman. Nevertheless, even one or a few incidents in the past (such as the experience of being followed, or experiences from “living in London”) may change a person’s attitude to public places forever. Experiences of physical harassment at any time in a person’s past, while less prevalent than verbal harassment, seem particularly important: this was significantly associated with feeling less safe even when out in the daytime, with any change in behaviour to avoid feeling threatened or uncomfortable, and with avoiding pubs and clubs.

Also, despite their sexual “invisibility”, older people in Harrogate reported feeling less safe, particularly at night. This may relate to self-perceived vulnerability due to age-related changes in hearing, vision or mobility. However, within Harrogate, changes in behaviour to avoid feeling threatened or uncomfortable were commonest amongst women in their forties, when it would be expected that age-related health issues are uncommon. This suggests that perceptions of being unsafe appear likely to be mostly due to gender rather than due to location or to age-related health issues.

Some positive comments were received. A male stated that “it is important not to let fear ruin your life” and another respondent (gender not disclosed) stated that “Harrogate is the perfect town”. Again the gender bias of these comments is interesting. Even “perfect” towns like Harrogate do not exist in a vacuum from the rest of our society and the gender inequality pervasive in our society continues to keep women feeling vulnerable, particularly when out alone after dark. It is indeed important “not to let fear ruin your life”; fear can restrict one’s choices as an autonomous human being, ultimately reducing one to a child-like, dependent status. Paradoxically, reluctance to walk or take public transport unaccompanied can lead to behaviour such as hailing mini-cabs on the street or being “walked home” by male acquaintances, with their associated risks; and by a reluctance to go out of their own homes, which can play into the hands of domestic abusers. Women are overwhelmingly more likely to be killed by their partner than by anyone else, whereas males are more likely to be killed at the hands of strangers, friends or acquaintances (Home Office figures; quoted in EHRC review “How Fair is Britain?”, 2010).

Thus harassment on the streets is not something we should ignore, or a psychological problem to be overcome on one’s own by an effort of will (“don’t let fear ruin your life”); such experiences may affect people’s behaviour in complex ways that can have adverse effects both on the local economy and on violent crime itself.

© Harrogate Feminists

January, 2011


We are grateful to the members of Harrogate Soroptimists who kindly allowed us to attend their 2010 End Violence Against Women awareness-raising event in the Victoria Shopping Centre, Harrogate, where the majority of responses to this survey were collected.


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