Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places Contents

5Women and girls’ safety at night

Women and girls’ experiences of sexual harassment at night

123.Evidence demonstrates that sexual harassment is the norm in the night-time economy. Kent Union, the students’ union at the University of Kent, told us that “harassment isn’t just expected, it’s accepted. It is a cultural norm and women are no longer surprised to be hassled, harassed or assaulted. Many never report it, they just see it as a normal part of a night out.”205 According to a Drinkaware study in 2014, nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of women and a quarter of men (26 per cent) aged 18–24 who regularly drink in clubs, bars or pubs said that that they had experienced sexual harassment on a night out.206 Our own research shows that sexual harassment is regarded as more socially acceptable when it takes place in a bar than in the street or in public generally, with one participant describing it as “part of the unwritten rules of a bar”. Despite the Minister agreeing that there is no place for sexual harassment in public places, there are no clear messages coming from Government or other sources that sexual harassment is unacceptable and will not be tolerated, even in regulated and licensed settings such as pubs and clubs.

The context and impact of sexual harassment at night

124.Sexual harassment at night can be particularly frightening, and it is sometimes perpetrated or enabled by people who are in positions of trust. One woman told us:

I was followed home by a man wanking late into the night after a shift finished close by. I was very frightened, as he got closer, I turned around and bellowed FUCK OFF at him, spun around and ran off and managed to get home ok. The following night, I got a taxi home. Unfortunately I sat in the front seat, where the taxi driver touched my leg and knee, and tried to grope me when we stopped for me to pay and exit the taxi.207

One woman who had experienced repeated sexual harassment in her life told us that she was thrown out of a bar for defending herself against a man who sexually assaulted her. The bouncer told her: “He’s had a few too many, doesn’t excuse you using violence.”208

125.Sexual harassment affects women’s freedom to enjoy being out at night. One participant in research by the Young Women’s Trust in 2018 said: “I don’t like to travel on public transport alone, or walk anywhere alone when dark. I have avoided clubs entirely for a few years now as the harassment is not worth the night out for me.”209 These limitations on women and girls’ freedom start at a young age.210 Kent Union noted that “reports are often hard to prove, as more often than not the assault has happened in a crowd, out of sight from CCTV or staff. This leads to victims being reluctant to report, as nothing will come of it.”211

126.Alcohol is known to be utilised by perpetrators of sexual offences, both to target victims they believe to be vulnerable through drink, but also to disinhibit and reduce accountability for their own behaviour.212 Furthermore, victims are often blamed for what has happened to them because of their alcohol intake.213 Kent Union stated that “reports aren’t always believed from drunk victims, and there is an expectation that if they are drunk and have come out on a night out then they are looking for physical sexual attention, which is not the case.”214 The ‘policing’ of women’s behaviour in society is highlighted in a number of surveys which show that a significant minority of people believe that women are at least partly to blame for being sexually assaulted if they go out late at night, wear certain types of clothes and get drunk.215

Where does responsibility lie for women and girls’ safety at night?

Central government

127.The Minister for Women told us that the Government was doing “a great deal of work” on the night-time economy, including through development of a new alcohol strategy, local alcohol area partnerships and the modern crime prevention strategy. We pressed the Minister on whether sexual harassment will be explicitly addressed in the new alcohol strategy. She said:

I don’t know, because I have not seen an early draft of it, but in terms of the work [that] has been going on into the safety of the night-time economy, certainly my officials are thinking along those lines.216

We asked the Minister if there is a reference to sexual harassment in the modern crime prevention strategy. She said that this issue is dealt with as part of references to “preventing alcohol-related crime and disorder in the night-time economy”.217 The strategy addresses child sexual abuse and other sexual violence, but not sexual harassment specifically.218

128.Sexual harassment is the norm in the night-time economy, marring women and girls’ enjoyment of going out at night. The Government should be active in tackling the social norms that lead to acceptance of sexual harassment in venues like bars and clubs as a regular feature of a night out, but it is missing opportunities to do so through policies such as the modern crime prevention strategy.

129.Tackling sexual harassment should be overtly embedded into the new alcohol strategy and the modern crime strategy. Action should be focused on tackling the social norms that mean that sexual harassment of women and girls is allowed to be an accepted part of a night out.

Local initiatives

130.A range of initiatives to tackle sexual harassment of women and girls at night have developed in local areas but very little, if any, of this work is driven by central government. We heard from the Minister for Women about the London Mayor’s Women’s Safety Charter “whereby clubs and bars sign up to it and their treatment of sexual harassment is part of that charter.”219 Seventy towns and cities in the UK and Ireland are accredited by the Association of Town Centre Management with Purple Flag status as having a “safe and vibrant night-time economy”. The Purple Flag core standards include destinations being “safe and welcoming” and people being able to get home safely. The scheme provides a vehicle for the wide range of actors involved in the night-time economy—councils, police, venues, taxi operators and so on—to work together, and to address all of the issues that affect people from before they start their evening out to arriving home afterwards. We are not aware of any evaluation of the scheme for its specific effect on preventing or tackling sexual harassment; this would be worthy of further exploration. Drinkaware, a charity funded by the alcohol industry and retailers which works to reduce alcohol-related harm, has developed a number of initiatives to tackle sexual harassment including an awareness-raising campaign (‘You Wouldn’t Sober, You Shouldn’t Drunk’) and Drinkaware crews in Nottingham (trained staff in large venues who aim to keep young people safe on a night out).220 Other initiatives include student and women’s groups working with venues and training for night-time economy workers such as bar staff and taxi drivers.

131.Action is sometimes driven by particular incidents. The Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria and Northumbria Police have delivered safeguarding training to bar staff, taxi drivers and hotel staff. This followed the case of a young woman who was thrown out of a club for being drunk and was then picked up by men who repeatedly raped her.221 Evidence that we received from women with direct experiences of sexual harassment at night suggests that such training for staff is vital.

Licensing of bars and clubs

132.Some local areas are proactively using licensing laws to ensure that women are safe in bars, clubs, in taxis and elsewhere in the night time economy. We took evidence from the Licensing Officer for Canterbury City Council, Anton Walden, about that council’s use of licensing laws to tackle sexual harassment. It has worked together with Kent Union to develop a ‘Zero tolerance premises guide’ for venues which licensees are required to sign up to. This includes a model policy, requirements for staff training, materials and posters and providing students with maps of ‘safe’ routes home.222 Mr Walden told us that venues are expected to ensure that they do everything they can to make their premises safer, not only inside the venues but in the immediate vicinity as well. Canterbury City Council has included taxis as well as premises within this work, and requires all drivers to attend safeguarding and bystander training. Anton Walden told us:

We do not have any statistical data as yet, but we have had feedback from drivers who have noticed situations that they were not aware of, such as grooming, and now they report them. We have had feedback particularly from parents that they are very pleased that the taxi driver or the private hire driver has got their young person home safely. We have never had that feedback before.223

133.Mr Walden proposed that Home Office guidance on the Licensing Act 2003 should make it compulsory for all licensed premises to address sexual harassment by putting in place policies and training. This would set a basic expectation and introduce some consistency: at present there are different approaches with some local authorities taking proactive steps, but little evidence that women and girl’s safety is addressed consistently throughout the country.224

134.We asked the Minister for Women, who is also the Home Office Minister with responsibility for crime prevention, violence against women and girls and anti-social behaviour, whether venues should be liable to lose their licence if they fail to take steps to prevent sexual harassment occurring on their premises. She responded:

I would have to say that my instinct would be yes. These licence holders need to understand that they are operating within the law and with the consent of the public. If they are abusing that, I would be very sympathetic to action being taken against them. They have a duty to the people they employ and to the people in the wider community.225

Licensing of sexual entertainment venues

135.When licensing lap-dancing clubs and other sexual entertainment venues (SEVs), local authorities can decide to have a policy on licensing SEVs, including on the number of venues to license. The policy needs to reflect the basis on which a license application can be refused. Policies on sexual entertainment venues have been the focus of activity in some local areas because, as Karon Monaghan QC told us, such venues “have an impact on the wider community because they promote the idea that sexual objectification of women and sexual harassment commonly in those environments is lawful and acceptable.” Ms Monaghan continued: “How are we doing that in the 21st century? We are not going to get rid of sexual violence if we mandate the sexual objectification of women in licensed venues.”226

136.Some local areas already take account of women’s safety when deciding their cap on sexual entertainment venues (SEVs). Avon and Somerset Police and the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office support a policy of having no SEVs in Bristol to advance women’s equality. Martin Rowland, Bristol’s City Centre Neighbourhood Manager for Avon and Somerset Police expressed the view that the industry exemplifies men’s objectification and entitlement of women. He told us that: “The licensing of sex entertainment venues, and in particular lap dancing clubs, sends a clear message that authorities support and license activities that encourage these anachronistic attitudes.”227

137.Sheffield City Council has been subject to two legal challenges under the Public Sector Equality Duty by a group of local campaigners for failing to consider the impact on gender equality in the community when it licensed a branch of the Spearmint Rhino strip club and subsequently when it published a new policy on SEVs. The Council was forced to settle both cases on the basis that they had failed to comply with the PSED and is now consulting afresh on their policy. The case has potential ramifications for other local authorities who fail to consider these issues when licensing SEVs. Karon Monaghan QC told us:

The power to take action lies in the hands of individuals. One can issue what is called judicial review proceedings in the High Court and say, ‘My local authority has failed to have regard to the need to eliminate harassment when it licensed this club’ or licensed a pub that is known to sexually harass customers, and so on.228

However, it should not be up to local campaigners to force local authorities to make decisions that properly take account of women’s safety and gender equality. The licensing regime in Scotland requires local authorities who adopt the relevant legislation on SEVs to consider the impact specifically with regard to the objective of reducing violence against women when preparing an SEV policy statement. They are also required to consult appropriate bodies, such as women’s organisations or experts in prevention of violence against women.229

138.Ensuring that women and girls have the freedom to enjoy being out at night, to go to bars and clubs and travel home safely without being sexually harassed or assaulted is the responsibility of everybody including central government, the police, local authorities, bars and venues and transport agencies.

139.Local community safety partnerships should be required to include sexual harassment, including in public places, in their violence against women and girls strategies.

140.The Government should evaluate the impact of the Purple Flag scheme, whether it is effective at reducing sexual harassment in Purple Flag areas and whether the scheme should be extended.

141.Licensing Act guidance (section 10) should be amended to require all licensed premises to have a policy to respond to and eliminate sexual harassment including training for licensees and taxi drivers.

142.Local authorities should consult with local stakeholders including sexual violence specialists and women’s groups to conduct a gender equality impact assessment before setting their policy on sexual entertainment venues and when considering licence applications and renewals. They should consider adopting stringent zero tolerance conditions for any existing sexual entertainment venues. These conditions should make it clear that they will withdraw licenses following evidence of harm to women in and around sexual entertainment venues and following evidence of any failure to follow conditions designed to keep women safe within venues.


205 Kent Union (SPP0062)

206 Drinkaware (SPP0050)

207 A member of the public (SPP0082)

208 A member of the public (SPP0030)

209 Young Women’s Trust (SPP0075)

210 Dr Sara Bragg, Professor Emma Renold, Professor Jessica Ringrose and Professor Carolyn Jackson (SPP0083)

211 Kent Union (SPP0062)

212 The Role of Drugs and Alcohol in Rape, M Horvath and J Brown, 2016

214 Kent Union (SPP0062)

215 Fawcett Society (SPP0074)

220 Drinkaware (SPP0050)

221 Dame Vera Baird QC (SPP0087)

222 Zero tolerance premises guide, Canterbury City Council

227 Avon and Somerset Police (SPP0106), Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner (SPP0102)




Published: 23 October 2018