Holly is on a rare childfree night out with her partner Rikki. They’ve just ordered drinks at the bar and before they sit down he decides to go for a smoke outside. She is on her own for less than five minutes.
“It wasn’t just one guy – it was a group of mates. I don’t know which one of them touched me but they were less than a foot away from me. They thought it was hilarious to touch up a woman who had her back turned to them, who was at the bar on her own ordering the drink.”
She is outraged that a man would think it’s ok to grab her backside but what she found more troubling, she says, is the validation his friends gave him.
“I wanted to turn around to them and say, you could have made this so different. You could have held your friend accountable. You could have stopped it from happening again.”
Holly is no stranger to unwanted sexual advances. Some have been defining moments in her life and many others, like this one, have been inconsequential. But every one leaves its mark.
“I felt powerless, I felt angry, and I was so upset.”
Holly speaks of the split-second decision women make in these moments about how to react – knowing that an adverse reaction could prompt an angry response and escalate the situation.
“In this case I felt I could stand up to them because I knew that Rikki would be back soon. I knew even if they were aggressive towards me that he would be back. So I think it kind of gave me the confidence to stand up to them.”
She calls them out, a witty insult directed at one of them. His friends laugh at him. She’s shifted the attention on to him and he’s too embarrassed to say anything else.
“I’d put him in his place. But it is such an invasion and I hate anybody coming near me so it angers me when I see it with other girls.
“Last week again I decided to go out with my next-door neighbour. We were dancing with some girls that we’d met out and some guys were just getting too close. I ask this guy to step back and his immediate reaction was aggression. I just stopped and made eye contact with the bouncer. I just pointed at them and I shook my head and he came over and resolved the situation. They were cursing, calling us names, and that was literally because I stood in the way of him touching this girl up.”
Holly used to be a professional dancer and would perform in stage shows in clubs and at corporate parties. Largely she was protected from the crowds and says she felt very safe and looked after, although “drunk idiots” would occasionally rush the stage.
“We used to do this stupid thing where for one song towards the end, each performer would get somebody out from the audience to dance with. I can’t explain how much I dreaded that part of the show. They were always drunk, handsy men – even once a lad from my year in school, he was smashed and started playing the fool and I just wanted to shove him off the stage. But there was never really any time that I felt unsafe, it’s generally only been on nights out.”
The working men’s club in the rural village her mum and dad live in is one place Holly says she considered a safe place to enjoy a quiet drink. Her dad’s on the committee, and very well respected, so she felt a degree of safety there. Until last year.
“I’d had an argument with one of my brother’s friends and he just started screaming at me. I truly hate that kind of conflict so I just felt like I needed to get out of the way. I went outside and I saw this guy who I sort of knew just to say hello to. And he’s like, ‘Oh, are you okay?’ Super nice.
“The front door locks and you have to press the button to get in and nobody was answering and he said, ‘Oh, I think we could get around the side’. And that’s when he pounced on me. He had my hands as if they were in handcuffs, dragging me towards him.
“It was a genuinely harrowing experience because I think I was in shock and I didn’t fight like I knew that I could do. I was vulnerable, crying alone, all the tick boxes for a predator and the most messed up
thing is his girlfriend was inside.”
Holly got away from the man and while she didn’t report it, she did eventually tell her dad who ensured the village knew of his actions so that it may shame him into thinking twice before doing that again.
She says she would like to do a consultation with bars in Blackpool to find out what processes they have in place to deal with sexual harassment. In the same bar she recalls the confrontation defused by bouncers – a cabaret bar and tourist hotspot – another respondent to Reclaim Blackpool’s map reports seeing a man spike her and her friends’ drinks.
“I called over the staff and doorman. The drinks were taken away and all tested positive for substances with a testing kit they had behind the bar. However, the men still had time to finish their drinks and wink at me before strolling out of the pub,” the respondent wrote of the incident she says left her “absolutely devastated”.
Holly’s 14-year-old daughter isn’t going to bars yet, but has already experienced street harassment. In an incident reported on Reclaim Blackpool’s map, Lucy recalls being followed home from school by a man. She didn’t know he was there but her stepfather spotted and confronted him. As part of the We’re Sew Done project craftivist Charlie Ashton responded with a piece of hooped embroidery depicting a girl walking along a road alongside the well-worn advice ‘Keep to well-lit paths’.
“Every single thing we are told is about how we can alter our behaviour, not how men can just not do that,” says Holly. “But as we know, it’s not our behaviour, not our clothing, not our age, none of that has an impact in terms of preventing somebody from behaving like that – if they’re going to do that they’re going to do that, because they have the validation and think that’s okay.”
When Lucy saw the piece made in response to her story, Holly says she was stunned.
“Seeing her own lived experience there in a piece of art was very powerful. It was so valuable to her to see that. I think that’s the kind of thing you need, especially at that age. That awareness and empowerment is the kind of thing I wish I’d had. If it gets to them younger, hopefully, then they won’t accept as much shit and they might be able to change hearts and minds.”