“I always felt safe before and now I don’t.”
The relatability of Netflix’s Sex Education is a big factor behind its success. Every awkward fumble, every scene of teenage angst brings a collective sigh of: “Yep, I remember something like that.” But it’s Aimee’s comment about sexual harassment in episode seven of the latest season that truly resonates.
The teenager is telling the other girls how she feels after a man masturbated on to her jeans while she was on the bus. Before long, each girl sitting in the circle is sharing her own experience, from being catcalled to being flashed or groped.
Their anecdotes may be fictional, but they reflect the very real experiences of girls and women in the UK. Two-thirds of women aged 14-21 have experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in a public space, according to a new survey by Plan International UK – and 35% said it first happened while they were wearing school uniform.
Abby, 16, from Norfolk, told the charity that, like Sex Education’s Aimee, she’s been harassed on the bus. “You’ll have that one person who’s just sitting at the back of the bus and is staring at you. And occasionally, they’ll make their way and sit right next to you and just start talking to you,” she said. “But I try my best to sit next to the bus driver, as close as I can, so he has me in his eye line and if something happens then I can say, ‘I need help.’”
Young women surveyed said they don’t feel safe moving through the places they live on their own, and constantly have to adapt their behaviours to avoid being physically and verbally harassed. Unfortunately, their experiences are nothing new.
HuffPost UK asked women to recall their first experience of harassment and the anecdotes came flooding in.
“I was about 14 or 15 walking through my town centre in jeans and a baggy jumper. Three men in their twenties started following me asking if I fancied their friend and calling me ‘sexy’. I ran into a shop to escape them,” Eleanor Langford, now 23, from London, said.
“At the time it was incredibly upsetting and confusing. I was a child, and it felt awful being sexualised like that. The way the men acted was intimidating and predatory, and it definitely made me more wary of male attention for the rest of my teens.”
Abbi Connor, now 25, from London, also recalled feeling “confused” when she was first sexually harassed. She was in year 8 at school, meaning she would have been around 13 years old.
“I was walking to the bus stop in my school uniform and a man who was waiting at a traffic light in a car with his friend asked me how much I charged,” she said.
“I remember being confused as, being so young, I initially wasn’t sure what they meant. I knew from the way they were laughing and staring though, that it was a comment about my appearance and that it was intended to make me feel uncomfortable.”
Rachel Egan, now 28, from London, was just 11 the first time she experienced harassment, when a boy in her science class pinched her bum.
“I asked him why and he shrugged and said ‘because I like it,’” she recalled. “It was the first time I realised that my body wasn’t necessarily my own, and men would try to touch it without permission.”
Another woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she’s been called “blow jobs lips” both to her face by male peers and through catcalling since the age of 14. The 24-year-old, from Northamptonshire, said the comments used to make her feel ashamed of her full lips – something she cannot control – but now her main emotion is anger.
“Ultimately I am disgusted that those people felt it was fair to put those thoughts into my head and make me second guess whether I could, for example, wear lip gloss,” she said.
Here are just some of the other stories women shared:
I was a teenager in a school uniform, I went home for dinners and had to walk past a pub to get there. It happened every single day.— emma iannarilli (@fashion_mommyWM) January 20, 2020
Being followed in my school uniform by a guy in a car. I was 10 at the time.— Jessica (@Part_Mermaid) January 20, 2020
Sitting on a tube train at night (I was roughly 17) when some guy started chatting. I glanced down to see he had EVERYTHING out on display. Had to carry on chatting, pretending I hadn't noticed 🙈 I also managed to pick up another guy who wanted to walk me to work everyday 😬— Lucille Whiting (@goldfingerprint) January 20, 2020
Next door neighbor (I was 12 he was 20) used to wait for me to come home then bang on the window & stand sideways masturbating while looking at me as I walked down the garden path— Louise Daniels (@LouiseDaniels_) January 20, 2020
Walking home from school in uniform, walked passed this guy leaning against the wall he stared at me as I walked passed. Started walking behind me, overtook stopped and waited for me to catch up leaning, staring, saying nothing. When I catch him up he started walking next to me 1— Jen Wight (@JenWight) January 20, 2020
Asking me my name etc. He told me he was 30. I was 15. Got to a corner facing my old primary school. Turned to him and said. I don’t want to talk to you. Go away. I remember being angry. He was so flabbergasted he just stood there as I walked off.— Jen Wight (@JenWight) January 20, 2020
In Paris on school trip aged around 14/15 I suppose. Weird hissing to attract your attention, which is not a technique favoured by British men but I’ve often encountered in France!— Lebby Eyres (@LebbyE) January 20, 2020
A common comment by women who got in touch was “in hindsight, I wish I had called it out”, but as many of us who’ve experienced harassment know, at the time, you’re often paralysed in shock. And the onus shouldn’t be on women to call out harassment – it should be on perpetrators to stop doing it.
“As we enter 2020, it’s extremely saddening, but not surprising, that our report finds girls still feel disempowered and unable to realise their rights here in the UK,” says Rose Caldwell, CEO of Plan International. “They are told they can succeed, but they face a threat to their safety in public, online and in schools.”
Plan International UK is calling on the government to do more to end street harassment, but until we have systemic, societal change, women, can take inspiration from the Sex Education characters and help each other through it.
It’s important to remember though, that sexual harassment is never your fault. If an incident of street harassment has impacted you, you can contact Victim Support for free, and confidential help and support.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.