Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Female protester being manhandled by male security
Photo: Nick Cobbing

Under Cover Of Eviction

Sexual harassment of female protesters is an issue too often ignored or obscured in the battles for justice. Debbie Shaw lifts the lid on those security guards and private stewards who believe that female protesters are ‘asking for it’.

Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pg. 28.

Women involved in direct action have been the focus for acts of violence and sexual harassment that, in other circumstances, would have resulted in prosecution. But, due to lack of witnesses and the problems of identifying which of any number of security guards (most visibly, Group 4 and Reliance Security personnel) have actually been involved, requests for legal aid have been denied on the basis that a successful prosecution is unlikely.

Rebecca Lush, herself the victim of a violent assault, cites cases at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill, and the M11 and M3 construction sites: ‘This is something that happens daily on every single site where women take direct action. Some of the guards take a great deal of pleasure in trying to degrade you.”

Women have been the victims of everything from sexist language and gestures to actual violent assaults. Pob, who was evicted from a bender site on the route of the M11 in Leytonstone, describes being separated from her friends, thrown into a bed of stinging nettles and held down while her dungarees were ripped in an attempt to pull them down. “One of the men started to put his hands down my trousers. My friends were up a tree and couldn’t see me. They shouted to ask if I was OK and the guards shouted back that they would ‘take care of me’. Their manner was insidiously horrible.”

Sexual harassment, Pob says, takes a lot of forms and while violent assaults are difficult to prosecute, humiliating comments and gestures offer even less possibility of redress. As Rebecca points out: "Quite often women are embarrassed to talk about it."

A society which sanctions the criminalisation of lifestyles gives implicit licence to this sort of activity by creating situations in which thugs and bullies can come to be seen as representing the forces of law and order, fighting a border war against dangerous dissidents. For centuries, the violation of women’s bodies has been implicitly condoned in times of war (witness the recent mass rape of women in former Yugoslavia). It doesn’t take too great a leap of the imagination to understand these assaults to be ‘perks of the job’ for security guards playing at soldiers, with protesters identified as the enemy. While male protesters have also been victims of violence, it is the particular sexual nature of the assaults on women which makes such a comparison relevant.

The Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) cites numerous cases where women have been specifically targeted, including one incident in which a six-strong gang tried to drag a woman into a woodland boasting loudly that they were going to gang rape her. The HSA publication ‘Thugs, Wreckers and Bullies’ also details cases where women, like Pob, have been sexually molested while pinned to the ground on the pretext that they are being searched for weapons. This appears to be a common tactic, even though, as the HSA points out in their report to a Home Affairs Select Committee looking into the case for Government controls on the private security industry, searching a person without prior authority is an offence, even for a police officer.

The humiliating nature of these assaults, verbal as well as physical, ensures that the victims are reluctant to come forward and report what has happened. This has the unfortunate effect of confirming women’s bodies as legitimate targets. If no-one complains, then it is assumed that women who take part in direct action are somehow ‘asking for it’ and those who do complain can be singled out as isolated incidents.

Since complaints against them, Group 4 and Reliance have supplied their guards with identity badges but this does not alleviate the problem of needing corroboration to secure a prosecution. Rebecca’s case, for example, was taken up by the police but dropped due to lack of evidence. The reason given for the refusal of legal aid, in all these cases, is that, without witnesses, the case has little chance of success. Pob was suddenly released by her captors when one of her friends appeared at the entrance to the site and Rebecca concurs that such assaults “usually happen when women are alone and there is no-one around to witness it”.

Both Liberty and the HSA, in their reports to the Home Affairs Select Committee, have described cases of sexual assault as examples of the type of violence meted out to peaceful protesters by employees of private security firms. Both make recommendations for the regulation of the industry and the implementation of procedures to ensure the accountability of all individuals used in the policing of protest sites.

Women who are prepared to talk about their experiences give examples such as their shirts being lifted and their breasts exposed when being hauled off the top of diggers. Group 4 are unsurprisingly cagey about revealing whether their employees are issued with any guidelines with regard to how women specifically should be handled in these situations. The fact also remains that, even were security firms made to be answerable to a governing body or, as Liberty suggests, banned from policing sites where their accountability cannot be regulated, this does not prevent the Hunts, for instance, employing unaccountable individuals as unofficial stewards who they can then deny knowledge of. The problem again becomes one of finding corroborating witnesses to any attack. If even violent assaults cannot be proved, then what possibility do women have of effectively complaining against insidious sexual harassment?

Although reports in the national press have given some coverage to attacks on women, these less visible assaults tend to be obscured behind more sensational broken bones and bloody noses. As Rebecca emphasises: “This is really a major problem that is not talked about enough.” It is a problem that needs to be separated from the wider debate about state regulation of the private security industry and discussed on the basis of women’s rights to take part in peaceful protest without feeling that they are liable to the type of attacks which leave them embarrassed into silence. In a climate in which Universities, for example, are becoming increasingly sensitive to the implications of sexual gestures and suggestive language, it is an outrage that women who are exercising their lawful right to protest should be made to feel powerless to act in their own defence.

However, as Rebecca makes clear, this will never stop women from taking part in action. The insecurity which compels some men to prove their masculinity by attacking women can be used against them. Women in numbers are a force to be reckoned with. As Rebecca concludes: “We just have to look after each other and stick together.”

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