A couple of weeks ago, I left my house in shorts for the first time this year.
Berlin was 28 degrees, and this was my first taste of the city’s summer atmosphere, after moving here from the UK last September.
I was revelling in the sun while the über-cool Germans were still wearing their stereotypical uniform of all black, topped off with weather-defying beanie hats. In contrast, my exposed legs felt especially free in the sun.
Cycling home from work, I slowed to a stop at a traffic light. The car next to me slowed too. The driver wound down his window, looked me up and down, and made a suggestive comment about my ass. The language wasn’t English, but the leer was the same as I’d experienced several times before.
I froze, looking straight ahead, until the light changed and we both eased our vehicles into gear. I felt desperate to escape, but he drove parallel to me for several seconds as I rode away.
For the rest of the evening, I obsessed over how I should have replied. I had wanted to ground my response in power, but instead, whatever words I could have said caught in my throat in shame.
Over the last few weeks in Germany, me and my friends have been enjoying the beginnings of what Insider Magazine has coined ‘Hot Vax Summer.’ Following Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Hot Girl Summer’ in 2019 (and after what can only be described as a fallow year in 2020), the summer of 2021 has been highly anticipated.
Hot Vax Summer describes the hedonism of going to a bar once again, with a shot or two of AstraZeneca in your arm, and basking in the freedom of mingling with strangers.
The change in atmosphere since Covid-19 restrictions have loosened in Germany, as well as in the UK, has been undeniable – but a darker side to being back amongst the general public has also emerged.
As one friend put it, ‘all of the letchy men have come out of the cracks.’
This same friend went on to describe how she’d been increasingly propositioned by men since lockdown eased. I was instantly able to relate. Recently, my days feel punctuated by leering waves, inappropriate comments or incessant staring from strangers.
It seems that some men are also feeling the Hot Vax Summer energy, which has manifested in them sexually propositioning and harassing people as they go about their everyday lives. After spending the best part of the last year inside, simply being out in public again appears to have prompted an increase in this type of behaviour.
I asked my friends if they were also experiencing this increase in sexual harassment, and got an overwhelming response. One described riding the train home in Berlin one night, when a man slapped her ass – she yelled at him to back off and he simply laughed at her.
A UK-based friend told me how after leaving a bar last week, a man followed her for 15 minutes as she walked home, simply to ‘ask her out on a date’. He couldn’t understand her subsequent rejection or why she found this disturbing.
Even if women do want to engage in a Hot Vax Summer, it is never appropriate to proposition them on the street
The fact that public catcalling is back with full force hits women and other marginalised genders with the dull thud of bitter recognition.
Street harassment didn’t disappear during lockdown but it felt like it became more of a rarity as we left our houses less frequently. This period of welcome relief is probably why being on the receiving end of this behaviour now feels both more noticeable, and especially distressing.
As lockdown restrictions ease further, we’ll be spending more time in nightclubs, where 79% of women expect to experience or witness harassment, and on public transport, where 55% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviour.
So, while I welcome a return to normality, it’s hard not to feel anxiety as well as anticipation.
Yes, I’m excited to go out dancing with my friends and stay out late into the night, but I’m also nervously awaiting the inevitable harassment that I know from experience often accompanies these evenings.
For example,the last time the bars were open in Berlin was October. I was riding the train home at around 11pm when a man sat next to me and began to touch himself. I instantly moved to the opposite end of the carriage, willing the train to reach its next stop, while my fellow passengers stared blankly ahead.
Last summer, in a club in Budapest, me and a female friend were touched, danced against or propositioned by men pretty much every two minutes. We spent so much of our evening zig-zagging through the dance floor in escape, that we eventually called it a night.
Every time I’ve been harassed in public, I’ve looked around in search of a glimmer of recognition from somebody nearby that what is happening is not OK. No one has ever stepped in or acknowledged it.
When I recount these everyday experiences to male friends, they are often shocked – and ask me how they could become better allies. My main answer is always, open your eyes and look out for those around you.
To the men that believe someone wearing shorts in public is a valid reason to catcall, touch or harass them: you have a lot to learn about consent. Even if women do want to engage in a Hot Vax Summer, it is never appropriate to proposition them on the street.
After a long lockdown of Saturday nights at home with my flatmates, of course I’m excited to return to a post-Covid world. I’ve received my first vaccine dose, dug out my summer clothes and been reminded of how exhilarating it is to spend random and spontaneous evenings in the company of friends and strangers.
But a desire for hedonism after a pandemic is not an excuse to force your sexual advances on other people’s bodies. Let us revel in existing in public spaces once again, and enjoy oursummer of freedom undisturbed.
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