The Vocal Local: Blackpool puts a price on women’s safety

Organisers and volunteers for Reclaim Blackpool, a project to physically map instances of harassment towards women and girls, know that the Young Farmers DIY AGM will be one of the worst weekends of the year for women. The only justification for allowing it isn’t good enough, they argue. Main photo: Claire Griffiths

Would you rather be stuck in Blackpool with a Young Farmer or a bear?

That’s the question that Reclaim Blackpool, the grassroots project challenging sexual harassment, posed on social media last week.

Bear! Women replied without hesitation. “Having worked in a bar when Young Farmers was on back in the day, I’d take the bear every time,” said one woman.

“Bears don’t harass women on the street and they don’t piss on the carpets in pubs either,” commented another.

The question plays on a viral video currently doing the rounds which highlights the absurdity of the fact that many women would feel less safe with a lone man in the woods than they would a bear. Some of the responses are truly disturbing. The bear sees me as a human being, women have pointed out. No one will say that I liked the bear attack. No one will talk about the bear’s bright future. The worst thing the bear can do is kill me.

If one in four women were attacked by bears we’d have to admit that we have a bear problem.

There’s a reason we drew this comparison with Young Farmers, who arrived in Blackpool en masse this May bank holiday weekend for their DIY AGM. In 2018 the National Federation of Young Farmers cancelled the long-standing annual event after videos of their members’ drunken antics in the town sparked local outrage. But the DIY event, hosted by a limited company that calls itself the Young Farmers’ Community, means they still arrive each year and display behaviour so feral that many women, other locals and families, steer well clear.

“As a local with children we will be staying home until they have all left Blackpool,” one person commented on Reclaim’s post. Another pointed out that he was hoping to bring his children to see Elmer’s Big Parade – a display of painted elephants currently throughout the town. “No chance this weekend.”

The organisers behind the parade were clearly worried too. They put out a post as the young farmers arrived pleading with people to “protect our herd”. By the evening photographs were circulating of young farmers riding them. But there was far worse behaviour to come.

Over the course of the weekend footage and posts circulated about the young farmers’ alleged vile behaviour. From public urination, indecent exposure and public sex, to vandalism in venues like swinging from lighting fixtures and open drug dealing in the streets.

For women, the Young Farmers present a particular problem too. They openly display their misogyny on polo shirts printed by the organisers. At best the slogans they brandish objectify women but more frequently they dehumanise them – likening them to the animals they farm. They usually describe lewd sexual acts – unpleasant and extremely off putting to families at best.

“I went to town early today hoping to avoid the shirts,” one woman told us on Sunday. “My 13-year-old thankfully did not understand some of the vile things on their backs at 10am.”

Another said she was grateful her daughter couldn’t read yet.

I don’t want my daughter exposed to explicit sexual violence on what should be a nice family day out.

“I saw one yesterday that said ‘digging ditches and fingering bitches’,” she said. “I was actually shocked at the violence of it and I got sad because they were on the prom just walking which was full of families too. I feel bad that some families might have come to Blackpool for the day and seen all this horrendous stuff. Will they want to come back here? I wouldn’t.

“I don’t want my daughter exposed to explicit sexual violence on what should be a nice family day out. She can’t read at the minute, but it’s besides the point.”

A Plan International UK study in 2020 found that Blackpool is the “toughest” place to be a girl in the UK and when you consider events like the young farmers’ AGM it’s not difficult to understand why. Girls growing up in this town can be treated like fair game by men who come here to visit and behave in ways they never would at home. Reclaim Blackpool’s map of instances of public sexual harassment and assault proves just how much of a problem this is. It contains 300 reports from women in the town who describe everything from low level harassment like catcalling to spiking and rape.

In the worst cases this weekend the Young Farmers’ polo shirts contained threats of sexual violence.

‘For the sporting birds I can tighten the choke,’ one read. ‘I can run faster horny than you can scared,’ was another.

Sharing photographs of these on Reclaim Blackpool’s social media the majority of people were outraged and dumbfounded as to how this can be allowed. It’s a good question. Many bars in Blackpool have dress codes, with door staff refusing to allow entry to people in tracksuits for example. So why not ban slogans of overt misogyny?

Others on social media argued that women who take offence are being over sensitive.
“It’s a harmless t-shirt, get a life ffs!” said one man replying to a photograph of the shirt threatening rape. “Never laughed at naughty jokes before, no?”

But this type of language is an entry point behaviour to sexual violence. In Reclaim Blackpool’s women’s group we have been working on our own version of the pyramid of rape culture – marking our own experiences on a scale that demonstrates the harmful impact of misogynistic culture. From the normalisation of rape culture with things like misogynistic slogans on polo shirts, the pyramid shows an escalation of the severity of misogyny – from attitudes and beliefs, to verbal and eventually physical expression.

We were only a few hours into the weekend when an 18-year-old girl reported an incident of catcalling on our map.

“I was followed around a shop by male farmers who made comments about my hair and my body asking if I’d like ‘a go’,” she wrote.

And it was hardly surprising on Saturday when another woman informed us that she had been sexually assaulted by another.

“I was outside a shop in the town centre and a farmer walked past me and grabbed my ass before squeezing the tummy of another woman behind me as he passed her,” she wrote.

“I feel angry. As a 25-year-old woman who has been sexually assaulted eight times in the past I am now struggling to find the right support.”

Reclaim Blackpool was able to signpost this woman to support services and we hope she found the help she needed. This week she will join us in our women’s group where she can choose to plot her own experience on our pyramid of rape culture in Blackpool while also drawing strength from other women who all too intimately understand her experience.

Others argued that the women in the Young Farmer’s Community are “as bad as the men”. They also wear the shirts and their behaviour is just as wild. It’s true and it’s incredibly concerning. These women display a type of internalised misogyny that many women who have found themselves outnumbered by men can relate to.

Last month a report by the Scottish government found that women in agriculture still face regular sexism, gender bias and tokenism. Findings showed that these women often use humour as a way of coping with what was described as a “corrosive” culture. In January Farmer’s Weekly released the results of its survey on women in agriculture. It revealed that 60% of women believe “industry attitude” is preventing them from achieving their career goals. They are given fewer opportunities than men and they are not listened to in a male-dominated industry.

A photograph of a young female farmer at the organisation’s Winter Shindig in January shows just how much these young women buy into their own objectification. ‘Free head’ someone had written on her forehead. ‘Slut’ it said across one of her forearms. ‘Slag’ her other arm read.

They wrote on me and pushed me up against walls. I now look back on it with disgust and disbelief.

One member of our women’s group, Tamzin, is a former young farmer who used to regularly attend the AGM in Blackpool before moving here. The community she has found in Blackpool is a far cry from her previous experiences of the town. Today she attends our weekly women’s-only dog walks and says the support she has found in our women’s group has been far more valuable to her than counselling she’s received in the past for her experiences of sexual assault.

At Reaseheath agricultural college in Cheshire, she recalls joining in with a chant that young farmers would recite at every social event they attended. It describes having sex with a woman until she dies before digging up her body and carrying out necrophiliac acts.

“Looking back I allowed myself to be used as a play thing to these men,” she says. “They wrote on me and pushed me up against walls. I now look back on it with disgust and disbelief.”

But there is one overriding defence for Young Farmers’ presence in Blackpool. Money. The event is a huge earner for Blackpool venues who willingly accept this abuse in exchange for cash. What’s the price of our degradation, we wonder?

The main venue for the DIY AGM is the council-owned Winter Gardens where one farmer wore a polo shirt that read: ‘Blackpool is a shit hole. Show us yours!’ Clearly it’s not just young female farmers that need a lesson in self-respect.

Reclaim Blackpool is calling on Blackpool Council and other venue operators to get tough on young farmers who create an unsafe environment and alienate local women and families from their own hometown. Bank holiday May weekend marks the beginning of the tourist season. Is this the tone we want to set for the rest of the year?

For a start, introduce a dress code that bans polo shirts. Impose a code of conduct. Use some of the extensive profits the events generate to increase security and have an army of stewards to keep them in line.

Now is the time to prioritise people over profits. Blackpool locals often express their dissatisfaction that tourism is treated with more importance than the people who live here. Young Farmers’ weekend is the embodiment of that.

And since it likens us to animals, our message to Young Farmers is an analogy that they might understand – when it comes to women in Blackpool, you have truly awoken the bear.

To learn more about Reclaim Blackpool or to record a story of public sexual harassment visit reclaimblackpool.co.uk

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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