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Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places Contents

1What is the nature of the problem?

What is sexual harassment of women and girls in public places?

12.A range of definitions of sexual harassment are used by researchers and in law in different jurisdictions. The Equality Act 2010 defines it as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” which has the purpose or effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.12 Laws do not, however, necessarily reflect the full breadth of the problem. Women and girls experience a wide range of behaviours as sexual harassment, including behaviour that is unwanted but not necessarily unlawful as well as sexual assault and other criminal offences. In this inquiry we have considered all types of behaviour that women experience as sexual harassment, regardless of whether it could be considered an offence.

13.We heard about a wide range of behaviours including unwanted sexual comments in the street, rape threats on public transport, sexual assault in bars and clubs, racial abuse when sexual propositions were rejected, men exposing themselves in public, being masturbated at, sexual rubbing on a crowded train, and we heard from a group of women who had experienced sexual harassment in prison and elsewhere in the criminal justice system.13 Being shouted at or ‘cat-called’ was the most common form of sexual harassment reported by girls and young women in research by Plan UK.14 This woman’s evidence to us about her experiences was not uncommon:

I have been sexually harassed, and suffered physical assault too, many times over a 30-year period. The harassment ranges from whistles and ‘catcalls’ to my breasts, bottom, legs and groin being touched. These events have taken place on buses and trains, while walking or standing in public places during the day, in shops and bars—anywhere where men are present, in fact.15

These kinds of relentless, everyday experiences may not be visible to those who do not experience them. Sexual harassment of women and girls is so ingrained in our culture that it is often hidden in plain sight; it is not always recognised or understood by men in the same way as it is by women because it is, overwhelmingly, women and girls who are the victims of sexual harassment, not men. Our research showed that women are more aware of the frequency of public sexual harassment and its impact than men are.16

What is known about victims of sexual harassment?

14.Sexual harassment in public places is overwhelmingly experienced by women and girls. Surveys show that sexual harassment is, in fact, the most common form of violence against women and girls and that young women are particularly targeted:

15.Girls often first experience sexual harassment below the age of 18; we were particularly disturbed to hear from a number of women about the sexual harassment they experienced as a girl from men and boys.22 One woman told us that her worst memories of sexual harassment were of walking home from school wearing school uniform. She said she had to walk down a busy road to get home and “it was normal for men to lean out of vans to wolf-whistle or to shout inappropriate things at me. I remember on one occasion, when I was [under 18 years of age], a man shouting ‘Great tits, can I have some pussy?’”23

16.Even more disturbingly, for some girls their first experience happens below the age of 10. One woman told us: “I have experienced sexual harassment in public since I was a young child. I remember the first time I was [under 12]. [ … ] I continued to be sexually harassed almost daily throughout my childhood.”24 Many girls in Plan UK’s 2016 research described witnessing or experiencing the harassment of girls aged eight and upwards, among whom girls in uniform appeared to be “a particular target, with girls describing feeling fetishised by ‘older men targeting school girls’.”25 This experience then becomes ‘normalised’ for girls and young women; it helps to shape the messages boys and girls receive about what is acceptable behaviour between men and women, and teaches girls to minimise experiences of harassment and abuse.26

17.Sexual harassment can intersect with other forms of abuse27 such as disability-related harassment28 and racialised sexual harassment.29 Marai Larasi, Director of Imkaan, told us “we hear that a lot of black and minority ethnic women and girls are being victimised in ways that include racialised abuse—being called a black bitch, for example, might be one of the things that happens.”30 The available evidence about these intersecting issues is limited in the UK and is an important area for future research.

What is the impact of sexual harassment in public places?

18.Sexual harassment has significant and widespread impacts, both on individuals as well as on society. Sexual harassment in public reduces women and girls’ freedom to enjoy public life, and can negatively affect feelings of safety, bodily autonomy and mental health. Being sexually harassed can be a degrading, humiliating, and harmful experience in itself, but the effects are damaging more widely. It helps to keep women and girls unequal by perpetuating a culture in which they are sexualised; it is the backdrop to a society in which sexual violence can be normalised or excused.31

19.Women and girls often fear and experience retaliation from men and boys perpetrating sexual harassment.32 Plan UK told us that girls talked about the backlash they could receive if they ‘rejected’ unwanted approaches, with harassment often turning into verbal aggression: “They felt that harassers exploited the perceived vulnerability of younger women, thinking they could ‘get away with it’ more easily as girls were less likely to ‘fight back’ or report.”33 It is notable that several women asked for their submissions of evidence to us not to be published because of fear of retaliation. One woman who was content for her submission to be published described how a group of men sitting behind her on a bus made sexualised comments, asking her to come and sit with them. She said she ignored them and put her headphones in: “Eventually a note landed in my lap which read: ‘when you get off this bus we will rape you.’ I got off at the busiest stop possible and went into a shop until I was sure they hadn’t followed me.”34

20.While some men and boys experience sexual harassment in public, harassment directed from unknown men to women and girls has a particular meaning given both the prevalence of sexual violence and the routine ways in which responsibility is put on women and girls themselves for preventing it.35 Dr Fiona Vera-Gray told us about the habitual ‘safety work’ women perform, often unconsciously, such as taking particular routes or doing specific things such as wearing headphones or looking down.36 This ‘safety work’ came up repeatedly in the evidence we received from individual women. One woman told us: “I’m hyper-aware of men when running, particularly when I’m on a street with no-one else around.”37 A 2014 survey found that 87 per cent of women reported changing their route as a result of harassment and nearly 80 per cent chose different forms of transport, for example calling a cab instead of walking or taking a bus.38 One woman in her forties said she still has vivid memories about being sexually harassed in her twenties and told us about the impact it had on her:

I was terrified of going home that night—convinced that I was being followed. I lived alone and was frightened of being home and frightened of going out too. I changed my behaviours and began walking beside or behind other women or families so that I wouldn’t be alone. [ … ] I will never forget the fury and then the fear of what happened.39

21.Women also told us that they doubted themselves, questioning whether anything had happened, or blamed themselves.40 Women’s self-doubt and self-blame, reflecting a culture of victim-blaming, was also highlighted in Sian Lewis’ research about sexual harassment on public transport: “women questioned their own behaviour and role in the incident—did they encourage it? Did it happen because they’d been drinking? Because they were wearing a short skirt? Because they smiled?”41 ‘Unwritten rules’ for women and girls to keep themselves safe become accepted as ‘common sense’, meaning that society places the onus on them to avoid putting themselves in ‘risky’ situations.42 When sexual harassment is trivialised or treated as no big deal, it can reinforce the problem. Victims do not want to speak out in case they are told that what they experienced is trivial, a joke, or a compliment.43

22.One of the effects of sexual harassment can be that girls feel that they do not control their bodies in public spaces and that they are seen as sexual objects, whether or not the experience is explicit.44 Emma Renold, Professor of Childhood Studies at Cardiff University, told us that some of this experience is overt, such as being asked to be seen naked, whereas some is about the fear of being raped, if being followed.45

23.There is little evidence, however, about how boys experience being the perpetrators of sexual harassment.46 Women have been told that they have to accept sexual harassment as part of their lives for generations—perhaps this is why it has not been adequately examined. The impact that sexual harassment has on women is not routinely set out for men and boys to consider. Laws and policy send inconsistent messages, Parliament permits pornography and prostitution to be legal in certain circumstances, and local councillors license sex shops and strip clubs in their communities, all of which routinely shows women in a sexualised and often vulnerable setting. Plan UK told us that much greater attention should be devoted to male socialisation and “how practices of male dominance and sexual predatory behaviour are established.”47 Our exploratory research showed that young men hold some concerning ideas about gender norms.48

Who perpetrates sexual harassment and why does it happen?

24.In the UK, as elsewhere in the world, men and boys are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of sexual harassment in public places.49 Promundo, a global organisation that works on masculinities and gender equality, has conducted one of the few studies to focus on perpetrators of sexual harassment in the UK. Its 2016 study of young men’s views about manhood (which included representative samples of more than 1,000 young men each in the UK, US and Mexico) found that perpetration of harassment starts young and takes many forms. Nearly one in three of the young men surveyed in the UK had made sexually harassing comments to a woman or girl they didn’t know in a public place—such as the street, their workplace, their school or university, or an online space—in the previous month.50 One woman told us that it was the age of the perpetrators that had such an impact on her:

As the boys passed me one of them grabbed my left breast. They then ran off. The boys were [under 18]. The incident left me feeling very shaken and vulnerable. The thing I wouldn’t get over is that the boys were so young.51

25.Promundo found that young men who sexually harass come from all income levels, all educational backgrounds and all ages, but that the strongest factor in the perpetration of sexual harassment was attitudes about what it means to be a man. These were measured using attitude statements, including “guys should act strong even when they feel scared or nervous inside,” and “a real man would never say no to sex”. Young men who held the strongest beliefs in what Promundo refer to as ‘toxic’ norms of manhood were nearly 10 times as likely to have harassed, as young men who least believed in these norms.52 Research in England for the Children’s Commissioner on young people’s attitudes to sexual consent found that, for some young men, collecting ‘man points’—rating from their peers—is dependent on persuading and often harassing young women to send ‘sexts’, and on sharing pornography with each other.53 This is supported by other research.54 NUS Women’s Officer Hareem Ghani commented that “what a lot of people are not talking about is gender norms—the way that constructions of masculinity and the way we often consume media that portrays a hyper-masculine image, feeds into sexual harassment.”55

26.Given how little research has been done on this in the UK, we wanted to test further the factors underlying sexual harassment in public places. The exploratory research we commissioned suggested a significant relationship between belief in traditional male gender norms and acceptability of public sexual harassment.56

27.Understanding the factors that contribute to sexual harassment is an important prerequisite for developing effective policy solutions to the problem. Some work has been done internationally to identify these factors, including a framework developed for the European Commission in 2010.57 This said that sexual harassment is more likely in societies that devalue women in all sorts of ways, and in societies where damaging gender stereotypes and ideas about what it means to be a man are ingrained. A sense of ‘entitlement’ on the part of men about their right to behave in certain ways is an important factor. Lack of sanctions for sexually harassing behaviour and the existence of opportunities to perpetrate also contribute.

28.Sexual harassment affects the lives of nearly every woman in the UK. Most experience harassment at some point; many start to experience it when they are still children, and are harassed so frequently that it becomes a routine part of everyday life. Even when sexual harassment is not taking place directly, memory or fear of it affects women’s behaviour and choices and restricts their freedom to be in public spaces. This is not acceptable, and women and girls should not be expected to endure it. It should matter to us that women and girls are respected, not forced to change the way they live to avoid daily sexual harassment and abuse. The Government has a responsibility to show leadership in eradicating sexual harassment and making public places safe.

29.The damage done by sexual harassment needs to be better reflected in policy and law. There needs to be a consistent response in policy and law to sexual harassment, not putting the onus onto women and girls to modify their behaviour. The Government should use our findings and those of other available research as the basis for developing its own body of knowledge about the underlying factors contributing to perpetration of sexual harassment. This is essential for informing all policy that is relevant to women and girls’ safety in public places. In the next chapter, we will examine the ways in which such policy should be made and co-ordinated.


13 Drake Hall Prison Reform Group (SPP0094)

14 Plan International UK (SPP0071)

15 A member of the public (SPP0058)

16 See Annex

17 Violence against women: An EU-wide survey, European Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2015

18 End Violence Against Women Coalition (SPP0096)

19 Street Harassment It’s Not Ok, Plan International UK, 2018

22 A member of the public (SPP0005), A member of the public (SPP0006), A member of the public (SPP0016), A member of the public (SPP0042)

23 A member of the public (SPP0064)

24 A member of the public (SPP0009)

25 Plan International UK (SPP0071)

26 End Violence Against Women Coalition (SPP0096)

27 Stonewall (SPP0043), Rape Crisis England & Wales (SPP0088)

28 Equality and Human Rights Commission (SPP0112)

29 Dame Vera Baird QC (SPP0087), Rape Crisis England & Wales (SPP0088)

30 Q3

31 Rape Crisis England & Wales (SPP0088)

32 A member of the public (SPP0029)

33 Plan International UK (SPP0071)

34 A member of the public (SPP0029)

36 Dr Fiona Vera-Gray (SPP0076)

37 A member of the public (SPP0077)

38 Hollaback! and Cornell University international survey on street harassment, UK data released in 2015

39 A member of the public (SPP0010)

40 A member of the public (SPP0010)

41 Ms Sian Lewis (SPP0026)

42 Mrs Hayley Crawshaw (SPP0052)

43 Street Harassment It’s Not Ok, Plan International UK, 2018

44 Professor Emma Renold (SPP0078)

45 Professor Emma Renold (SPP0078)

46 Plan International UK (SPP0099)

47 Plan International UK (SPP0099)

48 See Annex

49 Rape Crisis England & Wales (SPP0088), End Violence Against Women Coalition (SPP0096)

51 A member of the public (SPP0006)

54 Plan International UK (SPP0099)

56 See Annex




Published: 23 October 2018