Drawing a line to stamp out sexual harassment at last in Sheffield

Dr Alan Billings, Maureen Storey, Candice Mtwazi, Michelle Webster, Alison Higgins, Supt Paul McCurry, Sue Fish and Nottingham Women's Centre's Andrea Bushell at the Know The Line launch
Dr Alan Billings, Maureen Storey, Candice Mtwazi, Michelle Webster, Alison Higgins, Supt Paul McCurry, Sue Fish and Nottingham Women's Centre's Andrea Bushell at the Know The Line launch

A new campaign is urging people in Sheffield to ‘know the line’ by understanding exactly what sexual harassment means – and why traumatic incidents must no longer be brushed under the carpet.

The awareness drive, run by the Safer Streets South Yorkshire group, is a timely one, given the recent controversies around entertainment figures accused of making unwanted advances, such as actor Kevin Spacey and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the furore around misogyny in Parliament and, closer to home, the offensive comments about women posted online by the suspended Sheffield Hallam MP Jared O’Mara years before he was elected.

Know the line public awareness campaign on the sexual harassment of women & girls launch event. Pictured are Ann Butler, Women's Equality Party, Maureen Storey, Vida, Christine Rose and Liz Robinson from Women's Equality Party.

Know the line public awareness campaign on the sexual harassment of women & girls launch event. Pictured are Ann Butler, Women's Equality Party, Maureen Storey, Vida, Christine Rose and Liz Robinson from Women's Equality Party.

But, as co-organiser Ann Butler, of the Women’s Equality Party, told a launch event yesterday, the Know The Line campaign – backed by South Yorkshire Police, the council, transport firms, universities and schools, among others – has been many months in the making.

“The seeds were sown well over a year ago,” she said, explaining how the party’s Sheffield branch had asked local women about the issues most important to them.

“Sexual harassment was at the top of that list. Armed with that information we decided to do something to address the problem.”

Street harassment is a particular area of focus – a spectrum campaign leaders say starts with cat-calling from vehicles and can end in rape and serious sexual assaults.

A successful Australian crusade set an instructive template. The Sheffield initiative was also spurred on by national data from the UK’s first street harassment study, in which 64 per cent of women of all ages said they had experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places. In the younger age group of 16- to 24-year-olds, the number rose to 85 per cent, while 45 per cent had experienced unwanted sexual touching. Local research is understood to mirror the national picture.

A push to raise awareness has begun, using a poster bearing a simple, bold slogan – ‘see it, call it, stop it’ – as well as activity on social media. Funding has come from the Sheffield city centre Business Improvement District, as well as donations.

The overall message is intended to be universal, but three specific groups are being targeted – men and boys with misguided views about how to treat females; women and girls affected by abuse; and bystanders who can ‘call out’ unacceptable behaviour and find ways to show their support.

Maureen Storey, director of Vida Sheffield, which supports victims of domestic and sexual abuse, said she herself had been singled out as a schoolgirl walking home from hockey practice. A man took hold of her and said ‘horrible things’ in her ear – she shook him off and he fled, but despite her bravery she felt unable to report it.

“I didn’t tell my dad because I would have got into trouble,” she said. Instead Maureen simply changed her route home.

She said she despaired at the prevalence, and normalisation, of ‘casual misogyny that goes on constantly’.

“It creates a culture that enables the forms of abuse that we are supporting people to recover from, and accepts it as inevitable. We’re led to believe this is what life is like if you’re female – you’re expected to cope with it, or not.”

Nevertheless, Maureen said she felt lasting change was in the air.

“We’ve had the spark by the Harvey Weinstein story but it’s a groundswell of women having the courage to come forward. I would like to think we’re at a watershed and a tipping point.”

Louise Haigh, the Sheffield Heeley MP and Labour’s shadow minister for policing, said she felt ‘thoroughly ashamed’ following the scandals that have taken hold in her workplace at Westminster.

“The idea that a young woman could come forward and report to a party official that she’d been raped and be told that she should cover it up to save her own career is absolutely devastating for me. I’ve had not dissimilar conversations when I’ve tried to report things in the past – ‘Do you really want to be known as the girl who caused trouble?’ It’s not just in workplaces. It’s in those grey areas where activists and volunteers are involved.”

The MP added: “We’ve heard a lot of talk in the last few weeks about how this is conflating rape with hands on knees. It’s nonsense and everyone knows it. We do all know the line. It’s where consent exists or not.”

She criticised, again, the decision by an almost exclusively male Sheffield Council panel not to cap the number of sex venues in the city, a verdict that prompted cries of ‘shame’ from those gathered for the campaign launch at the Quaker Meeting House.

“It belies a lack of joined-up thinking,” she said.

Supt Paul McCurry, partnerships lead at South Yorkshire Police, said he was left ‘upset and angry’ after a gas fitter made inappropriate comments to his wife when called to carry out repairs at their house.

“This was happening in our own home,” he said.

The police officer said he thought reports should be treated in the same way by forces across the country.

“We all know what’s acceptable and unacceptable. ”

Dr Alan Billings, the South Yorkshire police and crime and commissioner, said he felt there was a huge cultural shift occurring across the Western world.

“If that’s true that really is something we need to understand and capitalise upon. For 3,000 years we’ve had a patriarchal society with sexual hierarchy.”

He said the county’s police and crime plan was about to be refreshed, and Know The Line’s message would be kept in mind.

“The overall aim is to make South Yorkshire a safe place for people to be.”

Michelle Webster, of the Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, said the number of clients approaching them for counselling had more than doubled in a year.

“This increase is certainly to do with people being brave enough to come forward to report these crimes. We’re pleased to be able to help more people but it saddens me at the same time that we’re needing to keep providing this.

“We’re seeing far more cases of 13- and 14-year-old girls reporting to us that they’re being asked to send explicit photos to older boys or men on social media. This is happening every day.”

Alison Higgins, strategic commissioning manager for domestic and sexual abuse at the council, spoke about the success of Ask for Angela, a scheme where women can discreetly ask staff in bars for help.

“We know people are using it. We’re confident it’s doing a good job in Sheffield.”

Candice Mtwazi, of Ashiana Sheffield, said there was a need to educate women too about the seriousness of sexual harassment. “While we might see it as something illegal, people that are going through it often don’t recognise it as such.”

Tonight the annual Reclaim the Night event – a march that ‘takes a stand against sexism’ – is happening from 6.30pm, starting at Sheffield Cathedral. Celeste Jones, women’s officer at Sheffield University’s students union, said the march began in the late 1970s at the height of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, when police advice ‘effectively imposed a curfew upon women’.

Last year, Nottinghamshire Police became the first force in the UK to class misogyny as a hate crime. Three others have followed suit and four more forces – but not South Yorkshire – have made a commitment to do so.

“It’s really important to keep plugging away,” said Sue Fish, Nottinghamshire’s former chief constable.

Visit www.knowtheline.org.uk for details. Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which marks the start of 16 days of activism.