Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places Contents


Why an inquiry into sexual harassment of women and girls in public places?

1.The last five years have seen a growing public debate about sexual harassment and sexual assault of women and girls in the UK. Then, from October 2017, the global #MeToo movement put sexual harassment and abuse in the headlines and saw allegations rapidly emerging about sexual harassment in the UK, US and elsewhere in sectors ranging from the performing arts and film industry to the medical and legal professions. Political institutions around the UK, including the House of Commons, are also grappling with these issues amid concerns that their cultures have enabled the problem. While men may not recognise the level, impact and harm of sexual harassment in many women’s lives, women are glad that it is at long last being openly discussed.

2.But this report provides evidence that sexual harassment is not only a workplace phenomenon, and not only seen in Hollywood and the corridors of power. Sexual harassment pervades women’s and girls’ lives and it is doing damage: perpetuating a culture where women are routinely undermined and their confidence damaged through school, university and into work. As such, there needs to be a wider policy response. A survey published by Ipsos Mori on International Women’s Day in March 2018 showed that respondents in Britain thought that, from more than 20 options, sexual harassment and sexual violence were respectively the second and fourth most important issues facing women and girls in Britain today.1

3.Concerns about these issues are not new. Sexual harassment was developed as a concept by Lin Farley, Professor Catharine MacKinnon and others in the 1970s as a way of naming and understanding how some of men’s routine behaviours towards women in the workplace functioned as a form of sex discrimination.2 It is now widely recognised by experts as being part of the continuum of sexual violence3 and, under international law, it sits within a broader framing of violence against women and girls.4

4.These are long-standing areas of focus for our work: in September 2016, we published a report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools in which we raised serious concerns that these were widespread harms against girls in particular that were being accepted as a part of daily life.5 In July 2018 we published a report on sexual harassment in the workplace which found that the Government, employers and regulators had failed to tackle the high incidence of unwanted sexual comments, sexual touching and assault, and other unlawful behaviours in the workplace. We called for a series of robust measures to ensure that sexual harassment was addressed in people’s working lives.6

About this inquiry

5.It is important to tackle workplace harassment but we will not prevent it in the future unless there is a proper understanding of sexual harassment in women’s daily lives outside of work. In December 2017, we held an evidence session on Women’s everyday experience of sexism and sexual harassment.7 We took evidence from witnesses from different sectors about the legal framework, the workplace, street and online spaces, and about policing and community initiatives. It was clear to us that sexual harassment in public places was a pervasive issue, but one where there was very little coherent government focus. Often called ‘street harassment’, it in fact takes place far more widely: on buses and trains, in bars and clubs, in parks, onlisne spaces and in educational settings. In particular, we wanted to know why sexual harassment happens in order to look at how it can be prevented. We know that sexual harassment in public places can happen to men and boys as well as women and girls. However, it was very clear from our other work in this area, and from all other available evidence, that sexual harassment, wherever it takes place, is overwhelmingly experienced by women and girls, has a particular impact on them, and is an issue of women’s equality. We therefore focused the inquiry on their experiences.

6.We launched this inquiry in January 2018 with the aim of hearing about the harms that women and girls experience on a daily basis across different spaces and at different times in their lives. Our inquiry has taken place at a time when other countries have decided to introduce legislation on sexual harassment as a result of demands for change from survivors and activists. In 2018, France introduced on-the-spot fines for sexual harassment in the street or on public transport and, in the US, Washington DC introduced a Street Harassment Prevention Act. This legislation contains the first legal definition of street harassment in the US and has a focus on prevention through education rather than criminalisation.8 UN Women’s ‘Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces’ initiative is a network of cities across the world, including London, which have signed up to a programme of work to make cities safe spaces for women and girls.9 We hope that this report contributes to these important global debates as well as leading to change in the UK.

7.We received over 100 written submissions including from the Government, police bodies, women’s organisations, unions, researchers and transport bodies. We took evidence in four oral evidence sessions about the prevalence, perpetration, scale and impact of sexual harassment of women and girls in public places, the role of the media and culture, the UK’s international and domestic obligations to tackle and prevent sexual harassment, and about sexual harassment of women and girls at night, at university and on public transport. We are very grateful to all who provided evidence, particularly those women who told us about their own experiences. We are also grateful for the advice and assistance throughout the inquiry of our specialist advisers, Dr Helen Mott and Dr Fiona Vera-Gray.10

8.In Chapter 1 we set out the nature and scale of the problem of sexual harassment of women and girls in public places. In Chapter 2 we explain why the Government must adopt a programme of work to address this problem more coherently and to make public places safe and enjoyable for all women and girls. Chapter 3 looks at the role of the media and culture (including online spaces) which are critical to understanding some of the underlying factors contributing to sexual harassment. Subsequent chapters focus on some of the interconnected issues we received evidence about in relation to women and girls’ safety in specific contexts: on public transport (Chapter 4), at night (Chapter 5) and at university (Chapter 6). We have not considered each of these individual contexts in exhaustive depth. Instead, we have used these specific settings as examples to highlight the breadth of the issue, and to show where there are gaps and where solutions can be developed.

Our research on sexual harassment in public places

9.Significant work has already been done on sexual harassment by researchers, civil society organisations, media organisations and some public bodies, but we are conscious that much of the focus of this has been on the experiences of victims and survivors. We wanted to supplement this body of research by bringing a fresh approach where we felt there were gaps of understanding in the UK, particularly on attitudes that underpin sexual harassment. To prevent sexual harassment, there needs to be an understanding of why it happens; girls and young women themselves say they are frustrated when adults focus more on their personal safety than on the behaviour of harassers and want more work to be done to prevent sexual harassment.11

10.We commissioned YouGov to carry out exploratory research on attitudes related to sexual harassment in public. The research employed mixed methods: a set of questions was included in a quantitative survey conducted with 1659 adults in Britain in July 2018, followed by two 90-minute online focus groups involving eight men and 10 women, recruited through the survey. Both groups were of mixed ages, geographical locations and social grade. We are conscious that this was a small project. Nevertheless, the findings help to build a picture and indicate where more research and policy attention could usefully be focused. We have drawn on the findings throughout our report and a summary is annexed.

11.This report confronts some deeply uncomfortable truths within British society that we cannot side step if we are to tackle the issues raised by #MeToo and broader sexual harassment in the long term. The truth is we have to question the attitudes some men hold towards women. These attitudes are damaging women’s opportunity to be on an equal footing in society. These are not new problems but they are problems we cannot continue to ignore.

2 Catharine A. Mackinnon Sexual harassment of working women, Yale University Press 1979

3 L Kelly, Surviving sexual violence, Polity Press 1988

5 Women and Equalities Committee, Third Report of Session 2016–17, Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, HC 91

6 Women and Equalities Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2017–19, Sexual harassment in the workplace, HC 725

7 Women and Equalities Committee Oral evidence: Women’s everyday experience of sexism and sexual harassment, Wednesday 6 December 2017, HC 592

8 DC’s new law against street harassment, Stop Street Harassment website, accessed October 2018

9 Q95

10 Dr Helen Mott is a member of the Fawcett Society and the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW). Dr Fiona Vera-Gray is a trustee of EVAW.

11 Plan International UK (SPP0071)

Published: 23 October 2018