I Didn't Ask For It - for LeftLion Magazine
When I was looking for a dissemination of my project I Didn't Ask For It, I contacted Nottingham's LeftLion magazine. They got back to me and were interested to do an interview about my project. Here I would like to share the full version of the interview. The LeftLion article is available here: https://www.leftlion.co.uk/read/2022/march/i-didn-t-ask-for-it/ Can you start by telling us about your project I Didn’t Ask for It? What’s the concept of this project?
I Didn’t Ask For It is a project exploring the issue of sexual harassment of women in public areas and a problem related to that; victim blaming. I focused on catcalling, whistling, as well as stalking and groping. My point was to illustrate that these seemingly innocuous encounters can result in something far more sinister. Those situations can escalate and turn into violence.
The other purpose was to demonstrate that experiencing harassment can happen anytime, anywhere and to anybody and that the clothes or appearance of the women are irrelevant. I photographed and interviewed women who experienced sexual harassment in the area of Nottingham. I asked them to wear the same clothes they had worn on the day of the incident and photographed them at the location where it had taken place. By doing so I also wanted them to reclaim that space. I also included my own story in the project as I didn’t want to separate myself from the women and present their stories as though it is their issue. This is our issue. This is what we as women have in common.
What’s the inspiration behind the book? I know in the opening pages you speak about being inspired by personal experiences of harassment. According to statistics 71% British women of any age have been sexually harassed in public. But you don’t have to read statistics to know that sexual harassment is a prevalent issue - just ask any female friend and the answer will in most cases be yes. The first incident I can recollect happened when I was 14. I was inappropriately touched by a strange man and despite feeling violated I was already conditioned to believe that such incidents are a ‘normal’ part of women’s lives and my expected reaction is to brush it off and get used to it because it would likely happen again. And it did. Harassment I experienced later in my life ranged from catcalling and sex offers to groping. Some incidents would be worse than others, yet they usually resulted with the same outcome; I would quietly accept them and never discuss them with anyone. It was very similar with the women I interviewed - in a few cases I was the first person they shared their story with. Sexual harassment is such a normalised issue that women believe that they are supposed to accept it, therefore many women are silent about their experiences. The last time I was ‘just’ catcalled, something switched and I consciously realised that I don’t need to take this - no one should. I felt like I needed to do something about it, tell a story and raise awareness, because I knew there would be many frustrated women like me who are eager to speak up about this issue. That was the moment I decided to do this project.
Your book shows women in clothes they were harassed in, coupled with an interview about the experience. Why did you choose this layout? What were you trying to convey? I came to the conclusion that the best outcome for the project would be a book because the text is as important as the images. I would like the viewers to immerse themselves in the stories, through the images and words. The photographs demonstrate that anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment, regardless of age, appearance, race, religion, lifestyle, etc. The interviews were a really important part of the project because through them I was questioning what impact sexual harassment has on the everyday life of women. But I also wanted to find out why men do it. Women I spoke with mostly admitted that they have to often change their routines when suspecting somebody might comment on them. For example the woman who wouldn’t jog her usual route if she knew that football fans would be there again. The woman who dyed her hair red because her natural blonde colour draws too much unwanted attention. The woman who avoided a certain street on the way home so she didn’t have to bump into the guy who had asked her for sex. The woman who stopped wearing dressy clothes because she didn’t want to be commented on. And the list could continue forever. These moments that lead towards constant scrutiny of ourselves and being endlessly on a look out, tie us up and our lives become limited and uncomfortable. When I asked the women why men do it, the conclusion I drew from the answers was; entitlement. In fact, there are a couple of motives; The guy in a group of friends who is posturing for his mates to gain some respect. Or the guy on his own who might be hoping to get a date. But I’ve never heard of a case when that would work. So it is more than that. The women I interviewed all concluded that making women feel uncomfortable and intimidated, as if to remind them who is the more powerful one, is the main motive. Men comment on women because they simply think that they can.
I think there is something really intimate about the way you take close up photos of the
featured women. Why did you take the photos the way you did? Why those shots?
I wanted to emphasise the plainness and ordinariness of the clothes. Those are clothes any of us would wear without suspecting that we might draw attention. This is not to say that women who wear more revealing clothes deserve unwanted attention. This is to break the stereotype that ONLY women who dress ‘provocatively’ draw attention. We are all in the same boat.
The photobook has a really overt message, that clothing doesn’t equate consent to be
harassed. Can you tell us more about what you’re hoping this book will do? I would like people to start questioning the assumption that when women dress well, do their hair and make up, they do it to attract others - men. How about they do it because they simply want to? This is not to say that there is something wrong about wanting to look attractive and appeal to others, it is natural. The presumption suggests that attracting men is the sole reason for women when they dress up - that they do it to please them. In my opinion this is why men feel entitled to comment on women, because there is this assumption that her existence and her looks exist to please him. Based on the interviews and my own experience, the situation usually escalates when you reject the guy. He gets angry because he feels that he is being stripped of something he has a right for. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, walk anywhere and anytime they want without being worried they might find themselves in an unpleasant and possibly dangerous situation. When I talk about sexual harassment with men, their typical reaction is: not all men are like this. That is true, but the point is that those guys who don’t get involved in harassing women also lack awareness of how serious this problem is. They don’t educate themselves on this topic and don’t contribute towards resolving the problem. So it just carries on. We need more positive male role models - guys who speak up about the issue and correct other guys when they witness harassment, guys who speak up in a group of friends when their mates might have sexist comments, guys who educate other guys. Most women know that sexual harassment is a serious issue, now we need more men on our side.
As I mentioned to you before, the magazine’s theme this month is fashion. Do you have any comments on the politics of clothing? Particularly the victim blaming that takes place surrounding clothing and sexual harassment? There has always been this pressure on women to look attractive. As John Berger said in Ways of Seeing in 1972: “Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at”. But today a new important aspect of female lives has been added up - their sexuality. Nowadays there’s a pressure to look hot and sexy and women who don’t fit into this category are viewed as ‘less valued’ as women and get shamed. We can see this phenomenon in advertisements, magazines, movies and so on. We are bombarded by the media with perfectly slim women with flawless skin who are now also hot and sexy, and present them as something young women should aspire to be like. We live in a culture that teaches men and women that the primary currency of women is their appearance. However, the same culture shames and victim blames women who looked ‘sexy’ when they were assaulted. There is this strange ‘virgin and slut’ paradox going on. If a girl is not sexy enough, she is boring and uninteresting. If a girl is too sexy, she is a slut who deserves whatever she gets. A while ago there were two stories in the news that I found very contradicting. The first story was about two girls who were asked to leave Wetherspoons as their tops were considered too revealing and hence inappropriate (it was in summer and it was 28 degrees). The girls shared their story with the UK news and got shamed on social media. The common reaction of people was that they should be ashamed of themselves. This is not to make a conclusion whether their choice of clothing was right or wrong. I’m only questioning the people’s reaction to two women wearing clothes that’s purchasable in many clothing stores. Does anybody question the brand and designers for making and selling these clothes? The second story was about a Norwegian handball team that was fined £1300 for wearing shorts and not bikini bottoms at a European Championship match. The women were protesting against the official handball rules that state that women must wear bikinis and men tops and shorts. Here we have two different stories, however they are both touching the same issue. In the first story the women were punished for wearing clothes that made them a target of ogling. And in the second story the women were punished for refusing to wear clothes that would make them a target of ogling. These are two contradicting stories, but they share the same message about the female body that is constantly scrutinised and policed by others. The culture tells us that women have only as much value as humans based on how much skin they do or don’t show. The issue is not about being hot and sexy or modest and reserved, the issue is that these things are all that is supposed to matter in women’s lives. But women are more than just bodies.
I really enjoyed that you included women of different ages, different looks, different times of day. Were you trying to break some assumptions about when and to whom sexual assaults happen? Yes, I did. Questioning women's looks is the same like questioning their clothes. As you mentioned, the photographed women are of unique looks and aged between 27 and 56. The assumption usually is that women who get harassed are either dressed ‘provocatively’ or fit into the conventional ‘young and beautiful’ category. In fact, sexual harassment claims made by women who are by society’s standards considered attractive are more likely to be believed. This gets me onto another problem of sexual harassment. Some people still believe it is a compliment. When I was looking for participants for this project I sparked a conversation in one of Nottingham’s groups on Facebook. A lady commented under my post saying that she has never been harassed and therefore something must be wrong with her - she’s not attractive enough. This was one of the best examples of how much this misconception of seeing harassment as a compliment is embedded in our society. In regards to the different times of the day; women who get harassed at night tend to be questioned about what they were doing out at night on their own. It’s the same stereotype again - a young woman wearing a miniskirt who is going home from a night out and gets harassed will be very likely questioned; what did she expect? That she asked for it. Victim blaming is very dangerous because it focuses on questioning the morality, character and personal lives of women, and completely steers away from the fact that somebody took advantage of them. It’s like if a woman has some responsibility for what happened to her (being drunk, flirting, going somewhere with the guy, etc.) it’s as though she has 100% of responsibility and he bears none.
Throughout the book, you ask each interviewee the same question ‘What can we do to
resolve this?’ What are your thoughts on this? Sexual assault is one of the most unreported crimes. As I mentioned earlier, women don’t report the assault because of the common concern that they wouldn’t be believed or/and would be shamed. Those assaults that get reported rarely end up with prosecution of the perpetrator. There is too much focus on questioning the women; Who was she? Where was she? Who was she with? What was she wearing? And too little focus on behaviour of the perpetrator. These stereotypes concerned with victim blaming and attitudes towards women are strongly embedded in our culture. There was another misconception that I encountered when looking for participants. One lady commented below my post that it’s always the youngsters who harass women. From my and other women’s experience this is not true. It is men of all ages and here is why; if a young man grows up in an environment that values women based on their looks, learns to disrespect them and never unlearns or changes his attitudes, he will turn into an old man with the same values and perspectives. I’ve been mostly harassed by men who were at least 50+. Men don’t wake up in the morning suddenly realising: Oh, I think I’m entitled to women! They have been programmed to have these attitudes since early childhood. Also these children then grow up and start professions of all kinds, including the police forces, lawyers, judges, etc. To change people’s attitudes the system would need to change. The women I interviewed mostly mentioned a better education in schools. In my opinion we need a better education in general, not just in schools. Our ideas, opinions and desires are mostly influenced and shaped by the culture and media - these influenced the parents of our parents, then our parents, then us and then generations that will come after us. It’s a perpetuating system of faulty values. Let’s become more critical about the media around us. Let’s stop supporting stuff that disrespects women and normalises violence against them. Let’s teach kids (but adults as well) to treat each other with respect. Let’s teach them about sex and consent. We need to normalise having a conversation about sex - normal sex, not what we see in porn. Let’s talk about equal opportunities for everyone - women are not just pretty shells who are not as capable as men. We can be pretty smart, pretty creative, pretty hard working, etc; acknowledging this and acting accordingly needs to be the new norm.
How has this project moved or affected you? This project really opened my eyes, I realised and learned things that I cannot unsee now. I became more critical about the world around us and began questioning everything we encounter in everyday life, ranging from beauty standards, gender stereotypes and double standards and so on. One of the most positive side effects of the project is that it made me more confident to speak up about this issue and discuss it with others. The negative flip side of the coin is that the awareness I have acquired also makes me feel less comfortable; when going home from a night out, going for a walk on my own or talking to strangers. I don’t want to feel this way, but as long as the misogynistic culture persists women won’t feel much safer in the streets. On the other hand, my fear and frustration fuel my motivation to keep raising awareness and create more future projects on the same topic.
Any final thoughts for LeftLion readers?
Speaking of beauty standards, I think we really need to redefine what beauty is; what it means to us individually. Let’s all be beautiful in our own unique ways instead of trying to fit into society’s defined expectations and standards. Make-up and sexy clothing are a choice not a must. It is fun to look sexy but it is not necessary to be a valuable part of society. If you want to look sexy on a Friday night - good for you! If you don’t want to - good for you! Women should feel valued regardless of which one of these decisions they make.
In the past, when I talked to men about violence against women and sexual harassment, they didn’t want to be involved in the conversation because they felt like this is not their issue; it’s rather a women’s issue. This is another bad misconception. Violence against women is male violence and male violence doesn’t explode on women only. The same system that produces men who abuse women, produces men who abuse other men. It is all linked together.
But even for women there is this dissociative element; when we look at the statistic of sexual violence we tend to see numbers, not people. But those numbers are someone’s sister, mum, wife, daughter, etc. It is all people’s issue and everybody should get involved in improving the system.
Everybody can start by taking a small step; UK charity Refuge now launched a petition to make misogyny a hate crime which would result in tougher measures for those who commit this crime and give better protection to girls and women. Join in and sign the petition.
There are charities revolved around violence against women in Nottingham that are looking for volunteers. Why not give a few hours of your time to help out those charities? The more people help, the more support women can get. These include: Nottingham Women’s Centre, Juno Women’s Aid, Consent Coalition, Nottinghamshire Victim Care, and more.
Read my book, share it with others and have a conversation with your friends and family on this topic. Let’s talk more about why sexual harassment shouldn’t be tolarated.