Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places Contents

3Creating a healthier media and culture

The relationship between media culture, and sexual harassment

87.The UK’s international obligations to tackle sexual harassment include specific commitments to address the culture which enables it. In 2013 the CEDAW Committee recommended that the UK “continue to engage with the media to eliminate stereotypical imaging of women and their objectification in the media, especially in advertising.”137

88.There are very deep concerns about the relationship between the media, culture and sexual harassment, including the portrayal and representation of women and men and the way in which the media facilitates sexual harassment.138 When we refer to the media we are including mainstream media and advertising, as well as social media, digital media and online pornography. Women in our focus group told us that “media and particularly social media plays a massive role in the stereotypes we have for men” and “the media has a lot to answer for”. One woman who made a written submission told us that she believed that media messaging deprioritises consent and portrays a restrictive stereotype of how a woman should look. She described some of the damaging messages sent out by the media, such as:

if men stalk, pester and persist the woman will give in, women are objects, women should perform sexualized femininity for men, women should dress provocatively in order to feel accepted by society but if they do they are labelled sluts and are not respected.139

89.In a 2015 survey for Girlguiding UK, girls and young women aged 11–21 said that in the previous week alone over half had seen women’s pictures in newspapers or magazines that were sexualised in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, and 42 per cent had read something in the media that had trivialised violence and abuse against women.140 Three quarters of young women in a small survey by the Young Women’s Trust said that mainstream media portrayals of women (as well as pornography) contribute to sexual harassment.141

90.Women who had experienced sexual harassment told us that they believed that a sexualised culture was a contributory factor to the problem.142 There is evidence of wider public concern about these issues. Respondents to Ipsos Mori’s 2018 International Women’s Day survey said that sexualisation of women and girls in the media was the third most important issue facing women and girls in Britain today, after equal pay and sexual harassment.143 The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) classifies films, hard copy and online videos, and has a wide remit in relation to the regulation of pornographic content in film and delivered via UK mobile networks. Research it conducted in 2014 demonstrated public concern about children and young people accessing ‘glamour’ content, and about the cumulative impact of images that objectify women which are primarily about sexual arousal, because of concern about exploitation and inequality of women and girls.144

91.There has been growing focus on sexualisation in government policy, including the Bailey review, ‘Letting children be children’, which led to a series of actions to tackle sexualisation in retail, the media and advertising.145 Following the Advertising Standard Authority’s inquiry into gender stereotyping in advertising in 2016, there has been consultation on a new advertising code stipulating that “advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”146 The outcome of the consultation is expected by the end of 2018.


92.There is specific concern about the role of pornography in contributing to harmful attitudes to women and girls and providing a context in which sexual harassment takes place,147 and that it is increasingly being used by young people as a source of sex education, with negative consequences.148 One man who participated in our focus groups said, “I think the problem is that not only has [pornography] become normalised, it is also considered acceptable, even expected.” This was worrying, as the research also showed that men in particular—who are far more likely to be regular users of pornography than women149—believed that pornography was harmful because it engendered unrealistic expectations of sex.150

93.Our research did not find a strong relationship between attitudes towards pornography and attitudes towards sexual harassment, although it did suggest some clear trends that need exploring in further research. For example, people who find legal pornography acceptable are generally more likely to find sexual harassment acceptable than people who find legal pornography unacceptable. However, our research asked about attitudes rather than behaviours (for example, use of pornography or sexual harassment perpetration), and research both internationally and in the UK suggests that there is a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviours, including violence.151 We asked Dr Maddy Coy whether there is a link between men viewing pornography and the likelihood of them sexually harassing women and girls. Dr Coy told us:

There is a meta-analysis of research that shows that. It was pornography consumption associated with higher levels of attitudes that support violence, which includes things like acceptance of violence, rape myth acceptance and sexual harassment, yes. [ … ] The basis of some of those studies can be critiqued [ … ] but the findings are consistent across individual studies and the meta-analysis that pulled them together that there is a relationship between pornography consumption, attitudes that support sexual violence and likelihood of committing sexual violence.152

94.The BBFC told us that it knows through its work with charities that children report that exposure to pornography, much of which is accidental, is impacting on their attitudes and their behaviours. A rapid evidence assessment for the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2016 found that children’s exposure to pornography was linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex, belief that women are sex objects and less progressive gender role attitudes.153

95.One woman told us that the Government should recognise pornography, sexism and objectification as a public health risk and use the media to inform society of the harms associated with them: “This could be done in the same way the amazing effort by the Government worked in turning people’s attitudes around regarding smoking.”154 Our research suggested that, whilst men may believe that pornography can be harmful, this does not necessarily lead them to think it is socially unacceptable. This has implications for how the Government develops policy to tackle the harms associated with pornography; focusing messaging solely on harms may not be the most effective approach with men and boys. More research is needed to develop policies that address these issues.

96.The Government is not consistent in its understanding of the research suggesting a relationship between pornography and sexually harmful behaviour. On the one hand, in a range of ways government policies and media regulation already assume that some media content is sexually harmful. For example, in introducing the new policy of age verification for online pornography the Government says: “We will help make sure children aren’t exposed to harmful sexualised content online by requiring age verification for access to commercial sites containing pornographic material.”155 The Minister told us that she very much hoped that the policy would have an impact on attitudes towards women and sexual harassment.156 The draft consultation on the new statutory guidance on Relationships and Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education states that: “Some pupils are [ … ] exposed to harmful behaviours online, and via other forms of media, which may normalise violent sexual behaviours.”157 Chief Executive David Austin told us that, as a regulator, the BBFC takes into account research evidence about the effect of men viewing violent pornography when determining classifications:

For example, we will not classify depictions of pornography that feature real or simulated lack of consent, encourage an interest in abusive relationships, such as sex with children or incest, that kind of content. We definitely take that into account.158

The Government also restricts adults’ access to hard copy pornographic films to licensed sex shops and licensed cinemas.159 It is therefore clear that government policy and media regulation is already based on an understanding that pornographic content can be harmful.

97.It is odd, therefore, that the Government’s written evidence to us expressed doubt about the strength of research suggesting a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexually harmful behaviours. It stated that “there is currently limited evidence to suggest a link between the consumption of pornography and sexual violence”.160 The Minister for Women told us that she was commissioning research on the impact of online pornography on attitudes towards women and girls, saying that:

We have to be careful about the research, which is why I have commissioned this research over and above everything that has gone before. We have to acknowledge the fact that the Crime Survey for England & Wales has shown a reduction in sexual violence since 2004–05, while online pornography has exploded exponentially. I have to bear that in mind in terms of what we are doing, which is why I want thorough research looking not just at gang criminality, frankly, but also at how this affects people forming healthy relationships in adult life. [ … ] I know the Children’s Commissioner did some research in 2014 that showed some evidence, but I do not think it could be described as being unequivocal in the links between these things. I would like to be entirely clear on that.161

98.The Government’s approach to pornography is not consistent. It restricts adults’ access to offline pornography to licensed premises and is introducing age verification of commercial pornography online to prevent children’s exposure to it. But the Government has no plans to address adult men’s use of mainstream online pornography, despite research suggesting that men who use pornography are more likely to hold sexist attitudes and be sexually aggressive towards women.

99.There are examples of lawful behaviours which the Government recognises as harmful, such as smoking, which are addressed through public health campaigns and huge investment designed to reduce and prevent those harms. The Government should take a similar, evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography.

100.The BBFC, the regulator for age verification, believes that, as a result of the new policy, “accidental stumbling across commercial pornography by children online will largely become a thing of the past.”162 However, writer and commentator Melanie Phillips told us she was more sceptical about pornography websites abiding by the new law because the “commercial impulse is so enormous.”163 Furthermore, pornography accessed through social media is not part of the new regime, because it does not come within the definition of ‘commercial pornography’ under the draft regulations published in 2017, though not consulted upon. As pornography is also accessed through social media, this gap could undermine the effectiveness of the policy.164

101.The definition of ‘commercial pornography services’ for the Government’s policy on age verification of pornography websites should be amended to include social media, to ensure that this policy is as effective and comprehensive as possible.

102.BBFC classification guidelines address content related to discrimination: “Potentially offensive content relating to matters such as race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion.” The BBFC told us that preliminary research to inform new classification guidelines suggests increased public concern about sexual violence. We believe that the new guidelines provide an opportunity to be clearer about normalised sexism as discrimination, and to name sexual harassment as a form of sexual violence in order to be clear about the regulation of its depiction.

103.British Board of Film Classification policies and guidelines should be explicit about categorising normalised sexism as discrimination. The policies and guidelines should name sexual harassment as a form of sexual violence in order to be clearer about regulation of its depiction.

Social media

104.Social media is a ‘public place’ which has been left largely unregulated, and women and girls are subject to high levels of abuse in online spaces.165 We touched on some of the issues around social media and sexual harassment in this inquiry, but have not duplicated work going on elsewhere by examining the particular features of online harassment in depth.166

105.In research conducted in 2017 by Amnesty International, one in five women said they had experienced abuse or harassment through social media, with young women aged between 18 and 24 particularly affected; 37 per cent of them had experienced online violence or abuse. Of the women who said they had experienced some form of online violence or abuse more than a quarter (27 per cent) had received direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence and almost half (47 per cent) had experienced sexist or misogynistic abuse. Fifty-nine per cent said the perpetrator was a stranger, compared with 27 per cent who personally knew the offender. One third (36 per cent) felt their physical safety had been threatened and more than half (55 per cent) suffered stress, anxiety or panic attacks.167 Abuse and harassment, including on social media, can impact on women’s willingness to run for political office and so restrict their participation in democratic processes.168 It can also intersect with other forms of harassment, including racialised sexual harassment.169 Professor Clare McGlynn told us that public sexual harassment can result in some women feeling they have to remove themselves from social media: “That means they are removing themselves from public debate, from participation in social life. Regulation enables them to participate in social life. It enables them to exercise their freedom of speech.”170

106.The Government told us that the law is clear that what is illegal off-line is also illegal online and that there is also “robust” legislation in place to deal with harassment and stalking.171 This includes Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which creates an offence of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, “a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”172 The Crown Prosecution Service has published guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent by social media which includes cases related to violence against women and girls and disclosing private sexual images without consent—often referred to as ‘revenge porn’.173 The Law Commission is conducting an analysis of laws relating to offensive online communications and we are keen to see how sexual harassment of women and girls will be addressed when it publishes this analysis later in 2018.

107.We heard calls for social media companies to take more robust action against sexual harassment and abuse of women on their platforms.174 Welsh women’s organisation Chwarae Teg called in its submission for social media platforms to take a zero tolerance attitude towards such behaviour and to encourage users to report content they believe constitutes harassment.175 The Government’s Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, published in October 2017, includes a commitment to introducing a voluntary social media code of practice which will specifically consider how harmful conduct impacts on female users.176 This is an opportunity to address the harms of sexual harassment targeted at women and girls in online spaces.

108.Online spaces are public places where sexual harassment of women and girls is rife. This has damaging effects on their health, and their ability to have their voices heard in public. The internet safety strategy and social media code of practice should include specific, robust and proportionate action to prevent and address sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls online. There must be clear consequences for those organisations that fail to effectively address sexual harassment—consequences that hurt their bottom line.

137 Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Committee on the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, 2013

138 Not Buying It (SPP0085), Tom Farr (SPP0069), Welsh Women’s Aid (SPP0091), Dr Matthew Hall and Jeff Hearn (SPP0100)

139 A member of the public (SPP0042)

140 Girlguiding (SPP0035)

141 Young Women’s Trust (SPP0075)

142 A member of the public (SPP0006), A member of the public (SPP0042)

145 Letting Children Be Children: Progress Report, Department for Education, 2013

147 Dame Vera Baird QC (SPP0087), Dr Jane Meyrick and Dr Kieran McCartan (SPP0041), Tom Farr (SPP0069)

148 Tom Farr (SPP0069)

150 See Annex

154 A member of the public (SPP0042)

159 British Board of Film Classification (SPP0101)

160 Home Office (SPP0104)

165 Dr Kim Barker and Dr Olga Jurasz (SPP0057), Professor Clare McGlynn (SPP0047), Amnesty International UK (SPP0055), Rape Crisis England & Wales (SPP0088)

166 See for example the Law Commission Review on Offensive Online Communications

167 Amnesty International UK (SPP0055)

168 Fawcett Society (SPP0074)

169 Rape Crisis England & Wales (SPP0088)

171 Home Office (SPP0104)

174 Dr Kim Barker and Dr Olga Jurasz (SPP0057)

175 Chwarae Teg (SPP0070)

Published: 23 October 2018