By being on the road, women seem to be transgressing a boundary that some men find intolerable
A 2015 report found female cyclists are twice as likely to be abused or harassed on the roads than men.
I commute in London by bike. Run-ins with aggressive drivers are as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth. Recently though, I’ve started to wonder whether there is a distinctly gendered dimension to the frequency and intensity with which I am shouted, sworn and honked at.
When I talk to friends who cycle, I’m struck by the instant recognition of this phenomenon by fellow women, who are quick to share their stories. Sometimes the abuse is explicitly sexual, more often it’s simply aggressive and unpleasant, or merely patronising. Almost without exception, it’s perpetrated by men.
It all adds up to a shocking and depressing pattern. We’ve been called “cow”, “bitch” and “stupid woman”, sworn and shouted at for no discernible offence, aimed at by speeding cars, and received unsolicited advice about how to cycle. Suggestive honking and comments on our clothing, especially when it includes Lycra, are commonplace.
One friend told me about a man so aggrieved she’d overtaken him that he stopped, blocking a junction, and got out of his car to scream abuse at her. Another recalled the man who slowed down next to her, opened his windows and started to masturbate. One was punched by a pedestrian after she remonstrated with him for crossing on a red light.
Men, on the other hand, seem surprised at the frequency and aggression with which female cyclists are targeted. It’s not that they are never on the receiving end of abuse, but the aggression levelled at them is less common, and of a different nature, than that experienced by women.
It’s as though female cyclists are transgressing an invisible boundary in a way that some men find intolerable.
My anecdotal evidence is backed up by a 2015 report that found female cyclists were twice as likely to be abused or harassed on the roads than men. According to recent research from the University of Minnesota, drivers are also significantly more likely to pass dangerously close to women than men. This makes women feel less safe, and consequently less likely to cycle, fitting into a long pattern of women being driven – literally, in this case – out of public space whenever they assert some claim upon it.
For me and many of my female friends who cycle in London, our bikes are more than a means of getting from A to B. London can be an oppressive city. It’s grey, crowded, expensive and unequal. Cycling through its streets makes me feel I’m somehow beating the system – navigating a sprawling, frenzied metropolis on my own terms. My bike affords me freedom, solitude and escape in a city where they can be hard to find. It’s possible, when cycling, to feel less weighed down by the patriarchal forces that constrain other areas of life, however temporary or illusory this feeling may be.
Consider also that for many women, cycling can be the safest way to get around (reckless drivers aside). I feel much more comfortable whizzing down a dark street in the early hours on my bike than walking, or contending with leery comments on a deserted night tube platform. Women are told they must take responsibility for their own safety, and then challenged by the same forces when they try to do just that. We can’t win.
Abuse of female cyclists feels all the more pointed given the bicycle’s long history as a symbol of liberation for women.
At the turn of the 20th century, progressive women sensed with delight that the popularisation of the bicycle signalled an opportunity for a new kind of freedom and mobility. It was hard to be chaperoned on a bicycle and near-impossible to ride side-saddle or in the long, restrictive dresses that characterised women’s fashion for much of the 19th century.
Cartoons from this time reflect the moral panic that accompanied women’s liberation by bicycle – with female cyclists depicted smoking, protesting, donning masculine clothes and abandoning their domestic duties. As an 1896 editorial proclaimed: “To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”
Sadly, my experiences and those of others demonstrate that this new world is still some way off. From catcalling to manspreading, a host of everyday interactions assert men’s entitlement to public spaces, and simultaneously question women’s right to exist in them. Men’s aggression towards female cyclists is part of this system.
This plays out on a level that is at least partly subconscious. The men who direct such vitriol at us are acting instinctively. But their reactions are made inevitable by a society that conditions men to see women moving freely through it as a threat and a subversion.
• Kate Jelly is a human rights researcher with a focus on gender, and an environmental activist.