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Women in Blackpool have been sharing their experiences of street harassment
as part of the movement showing the threats they face in public spaces.
Antonia Charlesworth Stack shares the story so far

Last week a woman in her thirties, who chose to be identified only as LG, generously shared a story from when she was 11 year old. It had such an impact that it’s stayed with her for nearly three decades.

LG described those first steps of freedom taken in summer 1995, when she and her friend enjoyed playing tennis at Stanley Park. But a frightening experience with a man robbed the girls of that sense of freedom and stopped them returning to the courts.

“About half an hour into the game my friend stopped dead and said to me: ‘Don’t look behind you, just keep playing.’ Of course I stopped and looked behind me. There was a middle-aged man in the bushes looking at us. His pants were around his ankles and he was masturbating.

“I turned back to my friend and she said: ‘Just ignore him, he will go away.’ We kept playing and eventually my friend said: ‘He’s gone.’ I didn’t really understand what he had been doing, I just knew he shouldn’t have been doing it and it felt scary.”

Sexism in its many forms is so often an obstacle to women and girls accessing sport and exercise. Women are sexualised when exercising, female athletes’ bodies are scrutinised and women’s games are seen as second rate. Some 1.5 million fewer women participate in sports than men in the UK. This story of indecent exposure and public masturbation is an extreme example of why.

But the most shocking thing about this story is of course the age of the girls who were targeted. It’s terrifying to think, as parents, as we tentatively allow our girls that first taste of freedom, that these are the things they could face.

Have things improved since this incident in 1995? Reclaim Blackpool has recorded cases of public masturbation in 2000, 2004 and 2020, and several other cases of indecent exposure to girls under the age of 16. With the option to remain anonymous, women have been filling in a simple online questionnaire, including details of where they endured sexual harassment, and we’ve been plotting them on a map – a powerful visual reminder of the harassment and violence they face every day.

This project is for all the girls like LG, who have the right to step out on their own for the first time without being sexually harassed.

What came next added to the sadness of this story. LG wrote: “Me and my friend didn’t speak about it. We didn’t tell our parents in case we got in trouble and they stopped us from going out.”

This was a criminal offence. Girls and women need to have confidence in the authorities around them to share their stories without feeling they will be blamed. Every story is valid and our silence won’t help put a stop to it.

Reclaim Blackpool came about in April 2021, following the brutal murder of Sarah Everard and the subsequent cry from women across the country to Reclaim These Streets.

The next thing I remember I was on the floor of a taxi with this male outside my house, having had no recollection of how I got there.

At the same time a new survey by UN Women revealed that 97% of women have been sexually harassed in public spaces and 96% do not report those situations because they believe it will not change anything. We wanted to challenge that.

In another article on Blackpool Social Club in April 2021 we first asked Blackpool women to share their experiences of sexual harassment in public spaces in the town. Around 50 women and girls came forward.

Some of their stories were historical including B, who recalled how, aged 11: “On the way home from school, a man used to watch my friends and I.”

Some of them were recent, such as one anonymous woman who, while working at the Slug and Lettuce in 2021, said: “I was clearing glasses off a table when a man grabbed my bum.”

Some were more serious, such as a 41-year-old woman’s experience of being spiked in Revolution. She wrote: “He showed me some pictures of his son on Facebook. The next thing I remember I was on the floor of a taxi with this male outside my house, having had no recollection of how I got there.”

And many were the kind we deem ordinary. “When entering work a taxi driver drove past ogling with his head out of the window.”

By plotting these stories on our interactive map others could click and read them. Doing so encouraged others to act. Twenty participants from craftivist group Knittaz With Attitude came together to create a range of powerful artworks under the banner We’re Sew Done.

Our interactive map has over 80 cases of sexual harassment recorded. Click the image to explore it on our website

Their textile works of art were then strategically placed in the locations plotted on the map before later being exhibited in Blackpool Central Library and brought together in a book, which also features in-depth interviews with some of the women who recorded their experiences and others who took part in We’re Sew Done.

Meanwhile, in response to the ongoing national campaign for women’s safety, the government announced its £23.5m Safer Streets Fund to tackle violence against women and girls. Blackpool Council asked if it could submit our map as evidence in its bid for a share of the money. It was subsequently awarded £550,000, which the council said was in no small part thanks to the testimonies gathered on the map.

A portion of the money is funding the Green Dot bystander programme, which involves training on sexual abuse, domestic abuse and harassment and will be delivered in schools and colleges as well as to door staff, bar staff and taxi drivers around the town. And local charity Empowerment received a portion to roll out a campaign entitled It Stops Here.

But we felt it was important that the mapping project didn’t stop here. When we began this project it was a way for us to voice our frustrations while women in major cities gathered at landmarks to protest. Nothing that followed was planned – it’s been an organic evolution from a conversation about what we could do to add Blackpool women’s voices to the national outcry for change.

Now the charity Empowerment is supporting and promoting Reclaim Blackpool’s map as one of the main pillars of the It Stops Here campaign. With its support, nearly 18 months from first asking women to share their stories, we have launched the website reclaimblackpoolmap.co.uk.

Since the website was launched a few days ago, more women, including LG, have come forward with their stories of street harassment and there are now over 80 recorded incidents. On our new Instagram and Facebook pages we are talking about the issues of sexism, misogyny and violence raised in them.

Like those raised by C, who aged 14 was walking past Bispham Police Station when a fire engine drove past and the firemen inside shouted lewd comments at her. They drove around the roundabout twice to really get their message across.

This post highlights the particularly frightening aspect of sexual harassment that has sparked this project: the treatment of women by men in positions of power. Such as police officer Wayne Couzens, who murdered Everard, and the misogynistic WhatsApp groups between officers known to Couzens. These high-profile cases, like the #MeToo campaign that exposed widespread abuse in the entertainment industry, have gone some way to exposing the extent of the problem. But the problem extends down every corridor of power.

Reclaim Blackpool can try to hold people and places to account, and put pressure on people in positions of power to do something.

Last year there were protests across France after a high court ruled firefighters should not face charges of rape against a woman known as Julie. Julie claimed she was raped by a group of firefighters over a period of two years when she was aged between 13 and 15. Three accused men admitted to having sex with her but claimed it was consensual (the age of consent is 15 in France) and 17 others were not charged.

These are the people who are supposed to keep us safe. Is it any wonder that women don’t report sexual harassment and abuse?

Lancashire Constabulary challenges this and, in a message to women and girls on reclaimblackpoolmap.co.uk, says: “Sometimes people are afraid to speak to us for a wide range of reasons. However, no matter who you are, how long ago the incident happened or what took place, our prime concern is to give you the support you need.“

However, in October last year we were asked if we could connect police with a woman who had plotted a spiking incident in Blackpool on the map. We were able to do this but after being put in touch directly with a sergeant via email, the victim never heard back.

By gathering our stories in one place and identifying hotspots, Reclaim Blackpool can try to hold people and places to account, and put pressure on people in positions of power to do something about it. We also hope the map will be used as an educational tool – most vitally for boys and men who ultimately hold the power to end street harassment.

And we hope that women are empowered and draw strength from plotting their stories. Adding your voice to this project is a recognition that the personal is political and that we are not alone in our experiences. Many of the women who have come forward have never told these stories before, either because they felt ashamed or they believed it was inconsequential. But this project has proven that tangible change can happen when we come together and raise our voices.

Plot your story at reclaimblackpoolmap.co.uk

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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