An Assault on Public Sexual Harassment


Exploring sexual harassment of women in public, how the government has tried to tackle this prevalent issue and (spoiler alert) how they have been unsuccessful so far – but there may be scope for women to take matters into their own hands. Literally.

During lockdown Scoopwhoop carried out a survey which asked women what they would do if they woke up tomorrow and all of the men in the world had disappeared for 24 hours. Their answers were quite unsettling, requesting some of the most basic desires, such as;

  • Going travelling alone without fear of being kidnapped.
  • Going for a run at night.
  • Wearing whatever they want without fear of being molested or raped.
  • Going out without having to worry about sharing their live location.
  • Going out drinking with friends without guarding each other’s drinks.
  • Walking to the car without holding keys like a weapon.

For the sake of comparison, I found a post on Reddit where men were asked the same question about women and their answers included going to places they couldn’t before – like the women’s toilets; playing video games; drinking beer; masturbating; going to a bar (which would be more enjoyable because it wouldn’t be full of men competing for women’s attention); watching live sports; relaxing. Some even said that they wouldn’t even notice women were missing.

There is a significant difference in the answers from women as a collective compared with the answers of men. Women focus on a removal of fear and threat from daily activities whereas men would essentially do the same things that they do anyway. I thought the answers might have been worlds apart because fewer men had come across the Reddit post, but when I asked the same question on my Instagram story it was just more of the same. So, while the data may not be from the most reliable of sources the theme is clear – women cannot freely go about their daily lives due to fear of men, yet women cause no such imposition on men’s lives.

When we add some statistics into the mix, the above answers are hardly surprising. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 63% of women have felt unsafe in a public place compared to only 45% of men. 64% of women have been on the receiving end of unwanted attention of a sexual nature whilst this is only experienced by 8% of men. This behaviour is particularly prevalent during nights out. Whilst I miss a proper night out, one thing I don’t miss is unwanted inappropriate touching and according to a Babe survey, 91% of women agree with me. But if you ask a boy whether this is an issue that needs to be tackled, there’s about a 50% chance they’d say no. Since we can’t go on nights out and we have to social distance due to Covid restrictions you would think that one of the few things we would have to thank coronavirus for, would be a reduction of sexual harassment in public spaces – sadly you’d be wrong. 1 in 5 girls aged 14-21 have experienced sexual harassment during lockdown.

Why is sexual harassment so prevalent? It’s because we live in a culture which normalises the sexualisation of women and as such, sexual violence against them is excused. Take the case of Grace Millane – Millane herself was put on trial for being a member of BDSM sites in an attempt to excuse her murderer’s behaviour. Her murderer was given a minimum of 17 years imprisonment with no parole, which in comparison to the cold-bloodedness of his attack is not long enough.

Due to the fact sexual harassment disproportionately affects women, it is considered a human rights issue. The government therefore have various legal obligations requiring an end to be brought to gender inequality. In the UK, sexual harassment by service providers is outlawed under The Equality Act 2010. This legislation also places a duty on public bodies to promote equality and eliminate harassment – however this predominantly focuses on sexual harassment in the workplace and as 91% of girls out clubbing have experienced, cannot be enforced in bars and other private service providers. Unfortunately, women experiencing sexual harassment and assault on a night out or in a similar setting can only make a criminal charge against the perpetrator. I say unfortunately because the burden of proof in criminal cases is very high – to put it as a percentage it must be at least over 90% certain that person committed the crime. In response to this high burden of proof there must be very strong evidence of the alleged incident and given the nature of the situation of sexual harassment on a night out, it is normally difficult to obtain evidence which meets such high requirements – if there is even any evidence at all. Most women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault in public are deterred from reporting incidents because the process of obtaining a sentence is so difficult to achieve.

Though the Equality Act places a responsibility to work against harassment on service providers and public bodies, it doesn’t make sexual harassment into a specific criminal offence. Instead it is broken up into a range of different offences which make up sexual harassment such as stalking; voyeurism; sexual assault and more recently, the offence of upskirting which came into force in April 2019. But despite the government’s legal obligations, women’s answers to the Scoopwhoop survey demonstrate that harassment remains a prominent issue. 

It is also prominent to note that sexual harassment intersects with other forms of abuse – including discriminatory behaviour due to race and ethnicity; religion and beliefs; disability; sexual orientation and transgender identity. A lot of the time this intersect arises when unwanted sexual advances are rejected and the interaction becomes more aggressively abusive. The forms of abuse listed above are criminalised, as such motivated discrimination is a hate crime. This is where sexual harassment deviates - misogyny is not deemed to be a hate crime and sexual harassment is not a criminal offence in its own right.

Sexual harassment of women occurs so frequently that it is unlikely that it will be reported. If a man catcalls a woman, even though it makes her feel unsafe and uncomfortable, in the grand scheme of things most women would consider that this doesn’t warrant trying to bring legal action against the perpetrator – and even if they did, consider how difficult it would be to ever find the catcaller again. Further issues arise as women doubt the validity of claiming their incident as a case of sexual harassment. “Well he didn’t actually touch me.” “It isn’t as bad as r*pe.” “Am I just overreacting?” And then they question whether it was their fault - and so does everyone else. “Did she just drink too much?” “Was she smiling at him?” “What was she wearing?” All questions which disappointingly seem to be reinforced by our legal system. Take the Irish case in 2018 where a 17 year old girl’s underwear was inappropriately shown in court during her rape trial. The burden of prevention is placed on the shoulders of women when the issue needs to be tackled at its source – men.

While the government have done research into sexual harassment in public, the Law Commission’s report highlights that it has been insufficient. The reason for this is because it does not seek to combat the deep-rooted societal issues which sustain sexual harassment – such as systemic oppression of women, assignment of stereotypical gender roles and societal attitudes towards gender-based issues. Factors which contribute to men perpetuating such behaviours against women need to be investigated thoroughly in order to stamp the issue at its core. The Report suggests that in order to begin the process of eradication of sexual harassment in public the following need to be implemented by the government:

  • Commitment to sufficient funding for community projects to support victims of sexual harassment.
  • Campaigns to raise awareness and educate on gender inequality and discrimination.
  • Regulation of how women are portrayed in the media to prevent over-sexualisation.
  • Thorough investigation into the correlation between sexual harassment and pornography.
  • Destruction of the patriarchy – well, break the gender stereotypes and construction of masculinity/femininity which cripple our society.

The Law Commission cried for a long-term plan to tackle sexual harassment back in 2018. While there is a further report into harassment in the workplace and also investigations into sexual harassment online it appears that overall sexual harassment in a public setting has been overlooked. The government acts when there is a call for action, such as the #MeToo movement, but on the whole their response has been abysmal. It is an international obligation to eradicate sexual harassment (as a Sustainable Development Goal) and one of their targets is to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls by 2030. Do you think they’re on track?

From personal experience one of the main elements of being subject to sexual harassment is the feeling of a lack of power and control in the situation. Whether it be a man walking behind you at night and the thought of ‘what if’ or going out for a drink and a man laying hands on you in a sexually inappropriate manner – the combination of adrenaline and not knowing what you will be able to do leaves you with a dread that your brain scrambles to resolve.

Prevention should begin with men and the burden is not one to be placed on women, but given the government’s abysmal response maybe we need to take matters into our own hands – literally. One conclusion that I have drawn is that self-defence classes should be more readily available for women. It could be incorporated into girls PE classes; at the gym; workplace workshops. Access to such classes can teach women how to deal with a threatening situation and can ameliorate fears of the situation escalating. 

It is understandable that self-defence doesn’t feature in the Law Commission report as it places the onus on women to defend themselves when they shouldn’t need to do that in the first place. Though no significant research has been undertaken as to whether women who attend self-defence classes can protect themselves and others from harassment, having prior knowledge of what to do in a situation can help empower women to feel like they have regained some control of their daily lives. It certainly wouldn’t be a ‘fix all’ for sexual harassment incidents, but giving the aspect of control back to women is crucial.

So today we’ve learned that sexual harassment is a cultural norm in our society and whilst the government are legally obliged to take action they’ve fallen flat on their faces – and we haven’t even had to use self-defence tactics on them to do this.

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