Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

What is the nature of the problem?

1.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. (Paragraph 28)

2.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. (Paragraph 29)

Making public places safe for all women and girls

3.A more robust and proactive approach is required by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to tackling the problem of sexual harassment of women and girls in public places, in which it has a vital role. This includes using all tools at its disposal for the enforcement of equality legislation, and working with other regulators such as the Office for Students and transport regulators. (Paragraph 43)

4.The Equality and Human Rights Commission must set out a plan of action for working with other regulators such as the Office for Students and transport regulators to ensure that the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment, and the effectiveness of actions being taken to eliminate it, are transparent. (Paragraph 44)

Criminal laws

5.The legal framework around sexual harassment in public places is piecemeal, and the Government has a tendency to react to problems such as ‘upskirting’ as they hit the headlines. Laws on image-based sexual abuse are not based on an understanding of power and entitlement as the factors behind perpetration of sexual harassment; they focus too narrowly on perpetrator motivations and do not provide the protection of anonymity for complainants. (Paragraph 51)

6.The Government should introduce a new law on image-based sexual abuse which criminalises all non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate sexual images, including altered images, and threats to do so. This should be a sexual offence based on the victim’s lack of consent and not on perpetrator motivation, and include an automatic right to life-long anonymity for the complainant, as with other sexual offences. (Paragraph 52)

Policy on violence against women and girls

7.In signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, the Government has made a commitment to eliminate sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030. The Government was not, however, able to provide us with evidence of a comprehensive plan or programme of work for achieving this goal and making public places safe for all women and girls. While we agree with the Minister that a siloed approach to such work would not be effective and that it needs to be embedded across government, at present the foot appears to be almost entirely off the pedal. The Government has not caught up with the huge social changes reflected in the #MeToo movement. Instead it risks giving the impression that it thinks sexual harassment is either too trivial to address, or that the problem is immune to policy intervention. (Paragraph 59)

8.The Government already has a well-regarded cross-departmental strategy for tackling Violence Against Women and Girls. It is astonishing that the most common form of violence against women—sexual harassment—is currently almost entirely overlooked in that strategy. We welcome the Minister’s commitment to refreshing the Violence Against Women and Girls strategy later in 2018, and we expect to see specific actions to address sexual harassment, much of which is already prohibited in law, in the new document. Those actions need to be supported by dedicated funding and staffing, and developed in partnership with community organisations. The Government must exploit the full range of policy levers at its disposal, and must set out the milestones to be met on the way to fulfilling the 2030 goal. We expect the strategy to set out a comprehensive programme of work to make all public places safe for all women and girls. (Paragraph 60)

Data collection on sexual harassment in public places

9.The Government has left it to others to collect data on sexual harassment in public places. Even where there is data on specific criminal offences, such as indecent exposure, it is not brought together. This means that there is no central measurement of the problem upon which to develop policy, and no way of knowing whether the incidence of sexual harassment is increasing or decreasing, or whether women and girls of particular backgrounds are particularly targeted. (Paragraph 63)

10.Data on sexual harassment in public places should be collected through the Crime Survey of England and Wales or brought together through other official data-gathering processes. It should be broken down so that the Government can start to build a picture about the particular ways that different groups of women and girls are targeted for abuse. This data should underpin the development of the comprehensive programme of work to tackle sexual harassment in public places. (Paragraph 64)

Preventing sexual harassment in public places

11.The introduction of Relationships Education in all primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education in all secondary schools provides a welcome opportunity to ensure that concepts such as healthy relationships, consent and boundaries are communicated to children. It is disappointing that the statutory guidance will not come into force until September 2020, and we urge schools not to wait until then to review their policies and practices to ensure they are taking every possible action to prevent sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence. (Paragraph 75)

12.As with any social harm, prevention should be the Government’s aim. Prevention must therefore be the foundation of the new programme of work to eliminate sexual harassment. The Government has previously committed to tackling harmful social norms that underpin sexual harassment, but we have seen little evidence of specific or comprehensive work underway to do this. Opportunities to embed a preventative approach in schools, through media regulation, through public awareness campaigns and through crime policy (such as the Modern Crime Strategy), for example, are being missed. The Government must show leadership in seeking to change the cultural acceptability of sexual harassment. It should develop a long-term, evaluated programme of public campaigns to tackle the attitudes that underpin sexual harassment, targeted at both adults and children. (Paragraph 78)

13.In order to prevent sexual harassment, the Government needs a robust understanding of why it happens, who perpetrates it, and how men and women differ in their understandings and experiences of the problem. It must understand the cultural attitudes and social norms that lead to or enable sexual harassment, and how to go about challenging and changing them. Without understanding these factors, it is not possible to design and implement effective policy solutions. (Paragraph 79)

14.The Government’s preventative work should be clearly based on the available research evidence—from the UK and elsewhere—about the cultural factors, attitudes and norms that lead to or enable sexual harassment to take place and how these can be effectively challenged. The available research is not sufficient, however. The Government must also commission ongoing, large-scale research into these factors in the UK to inform its programme over the longer term. (Paragraph 80)

Hate crime

15.We support the Government’s approach of asking the Law Commission to review hate crime legislation. That review should consider whether categorising sexual harassment of women and girls in public places as a hate crime would bring substantive advantages to victims and achieve a reduction in the incidence of such harassment. (Paragraph 86)

Creating a healthier media and culture

16.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. (Paragraph 98)

17.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. (Paragraph 99)

18.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. (Paragraph 101)

19.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. (Paragraph 103)

20.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. 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. (Paragraph 108)

Women and girls’ safety on public transport

21.Some good work is taking place to address sexual harassment on public transport, but there is no central direction to ensure that it is both consistent and comprehensive across the whole transport network. It is also focused on reporting and prosecutions rather than preventing sexual harassment from happening and changing beliefs about the kind of behaviour that is acceptable. (Paragraph 120)

22.The good work that Transport for London and British Transport Police have taken to address sexual misconduct under the Project Guardian and Report It to Stop It campaigns should be supported across the national rail network. The Department for Transport should require train operators in their Franchise Agreements to have a robust policy on sexual misconduct which should include action to prevent all forms of sexual violence including sexual harassment happening on their services in the first place, as well as tackling it when it happens. The Department for Transport should issue guidance to local authorities who let public transport contracts to ensure that bus operators, light rail, tram and other transport providers to whom they let contracts are required to have a robust policy on sexual harassment. (Paragraph 121)

23.Technological developments and widespread use of mobile devices means that viewing pornography on public transport has developed as a new form of sexual harassment in public. Policy needs to take account that public transport is not an age-restricted space; any pornographic material viewed in this space is therefore potentially seen by children. The Government should use rail Franchise Agreements to require train operators to block pornography through public WiFi on public transport and prohibit this activity through individual internet connection so that all passengers can travel comfortably and safely. The Department for Transport should direct bus companies to fulfil their obligations on passenger safety by bringing forward amendments to the Public Service Vehicles Regulations 1990 to specifically prohibit sexual harassment as defined by the Equality Act 2010, and to prohibit viewing pornography on buses. (Paragraph 122)

Women and girls’ safety at night

24.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. (Paragraph 128)

25.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. (Paragraph 129)

26.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. (Paragraph 138)

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

28.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. (Paragraph 140)

29.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. (Paragraph 141)

30.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. (Paragraph 142)

Women’s safety at university

31.Sexual harassment and other violence against women is blighting women’s experiences of university. As a place where young people learn and develop their ideas this is particularly concerning. Before the #MeToo campaign, higher education was the sector in which the most significant action to prevent sexual harassment was taking place. There are promising initiatives in the universities sector, particularly involving bystander programmes, which could be embedded elsewhere. However, even here, the prevention work is piecemeal and there is no overarching co-ordinating body or monitoring system. Between the Government, regulators and institutions, we have been left with a strong impression of passing the buck on who is responsible for women’s safety at university. A voluntary approach has not proven to ensure that women’s safety is prioritised consistently across the higher education sector and it is now time for the Government to consider legislation. (Paragraph 160)

32.The Government should put in place legal obligations that mirror provisions in the US to link state funding with a requirement to prohibit sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and to collect and publish data on the effectiveness of institutional policies. This could be done by introducing Regulations under s.153 of the Equality Act 2010. (Paragraph 161)

Published: 23 October 2018