Aishley is nine years old. She and her five-year-old cousin Georgia are playing out on her street, a quiet residential road on the newly built Heron’s Reach housing estate. They venture off their road towards the local shop, a safe distance their parents are happy for them to go in daylight, but Aishley takes her little cousin’s hand all the same.
A man approaches them – tall, skinny, late fifties or early sixties – and asks them if they can point him to a public toilet. Aishley knows there’s one in nearby Layton so points him to it. He tells them he’s desperate – do they know if there’s an alley nearer by he can go in? Aishley points to the closest alley. Can she show him where it is? She knows to say no. Gripping on to Georgia’s hand they run, as fast as their legs will carry them, back towards home.
“It’s just absolutely harrowing when I think about us as little girls, running off down the street. At the time, I was a bit scared and I knew it wasn’t right but it’s terrifying when I think about it as an adult – what could have happened and how scarring that could have been and traumatic. It’s horrific. It really is.”
Aishley is 15. She is leaving school in her uniform to walk the short distance home when she realises she is being followed. She quickens her step. He quickens his. She is halfway home when he catches up to her and grabs her arm to stop her. He asks if she would like to go for a drink with him. She tells him her parents are waiting for her. She tries to walk by him. He blocks her path and becomes irritable and pushy. By a stroke of fate her mum drives past on the way to collect her little sister from school and spots her, pulls over and shouts at her to get in the car.
“I got in hysterical, like, oh my God, oh my God! She took me straight home and my dad flew out in the car looking for this guy. He was driving all over – they both remember it really clearly. It was really scary. I think it was the isolation of it because it was by the school field, there weren’t any houses near enough where I could go or anything like that. And even though there were cars passing by, I just felt really like, God, there’s nobody here. There is nobody here.”
Aishley is 16. She is in town one afternoon after school, still wearing her uniform. It’s winter and suddenly dark, the shops have closed, she is waiting to be picked up by her mum. A man begins to follow her. She starts to take strange routes to lose him but he follows her everywhere. She sees a phone box and decides to pretend to call home but she doesn’t actually have any money. He waits outside. She doesn’t know what to do. She panics, leaves the phone box and runs. He chases her. She bangs on the the window of a shop. She’s lucky, a woman is inside and lets her in to call her mum.
“I was genuinely terrified. It was horrific. I remember just the panic. The woman in the shop, I still remember her now – I remember how she smelled, because she hugged me, she was so lovely. She’d always worked in there, it was called Etam and I’d shopped there so I knew who she was. I needed the safety of another woman, and she was there, thank God, I don’t know what I would have done. Now, there’s that safety net of having a mobile phone, whereas back then you didn’t even have that. It was like, run!”
It was only after recording the two incidents in school uniform on Reclaim Blackpool’s map that the one when she was nine came back to Aishley. There have been countless other less severe incidents. Since recording them she has had lots of conversations – with her wife, her friends and family – about their respective experiences of harassment. It’s been a revelation.
“I’ve never considered really chatting to anyone about it before, just because you try and forget about it, but I think, as a female, the majority of us have experienced those situations. What I find really shocking is when I’ve been talking to that older generation about it they don’t even really consider it to be harassment, they just think it’s just normal.”
The incidents in school uniform are two she could never forget, however, and she says they were formative experiences.
“I think they were a really big part of shaping my confidence in how I dressed later on, because I became frightened to walk home in my school uniform. So then I got a longer coat that covered up my legs and I started wearing flat shoes where before I’d worn ones with a heel on.
“I started wearing my hair scrunched up on top of my head rather than down, I stopped being bothered to wear makeup as much because I was really conscious of people.
I even remember, when I was walking home from school, trying to walk a bit butch and that’s something that’s really stayed with me because I do that now if I feel threatened on the street. If I see a guy walking towards me in the street, I will kind of butch up my walk a little bit – I don’t know whether I think it makes me look harder or something like that.”
As part of the We’re Sew Done project inspired by Reclaim Blackpool’s map, craftivist Linda Copeland was inspired by Aishley’s report of being chased through town. Embroidering her words: ‘I started to take strange routes. He followed me everywhere’ alongside a needle felted map of Blackpool with the location marked. Pertinently, the work is stitched to the back of a utilitarian denim jumpsuit.
“I think that those things happening when I was young did make me a little bit more mindful about how I dress. I was like, okay, it affects more than just how you look or how you feel, it affects other factors. You hear a lot of girls talking about how it’s not fair that you have to think about the male gaze but I do think it’s been helpful in some situations, like if I’m going to a certain place I won’t wear certain things. Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s the way it is, it helps you to avoid situations and the sooner you
learn that the better.”
But sometimes harassment comes to your door.
Aishley is 33 years old. She and her wife, Sam, run a hotel on the promenade and have opened their bar to locals and residents. It’s a sunny day and there are a few friendly faces enjoying a few cocktails. A drunk passerby tries to come in and someone politely tells him the bar is reserved for residents. He claims he’s staying there and pushes past them, trying to walk upstairs. Aishley stops him. She asks him to leave. She tries to escort him out.
“Why are you being so hostile? Come on, I know you just want to fuck me,” he says. Sam comes to see what the commotion is.
“Actually I don’t. This is my wife and we’d like you to leave our property now.”
“Fuck off, you’re not a lesbian,” he says.
They manage to get him out of the door and down the path. He stumbles away shouting:
“Keep on wishing love, keep on wishing.”
“I wasn’t upset or anything but I just thought, I can’t believe that’s even happened,” says Aishley, remembering this most recent incident. These days, she realises, she’s unconsciously distanced herself from straight men in social situations.
“It never fails to be shocking that men can’t grasp that women who are gay are so far away from their reach that the first thing they go to is to use sexual language towards you. You could just be talking about the weather. It goes straight to that the instant that they know you’re not interested in them – that you’re gay or you’re married – you’re an unobtainable thing. A challenge. It’s just disgusting.”