The disappearance and death of Sarah Everard in March prompted an outpouring of grief and brought the issue of street harassment faced by women to the fore. Thousands of women took to social media to share their experiences of harassment against them by men in public spaces and the precautions they need to take to feel safer.
Experts sought to reassure women that the chances of them being abducted and murdered were vanishingly rare, seemingly without understanding that for most women this wasn’t about being able to avoid the worst-case scenario. Rather, it was about being ground down by constantly having to be on high alert, having to hear unsolicited comments about their appearance or not being able to do things many men take for granted, like going for a walk after dark.
Street harassment in the UK is common, with almost two-thirds of women reporting they have been sexually harassed in public, with that figure rising to 85 per cent for women aged 18-24. Even more shockingly, 35 per cent of girls in the UK reported being sexually harassed in public whilst wearing their school uniform.
Suggestions have been made about how to make cities feel safer for women. Examples include increased street lighting, urban planners creating more mixed-use zones and ensuring that walking areas are not overgrown with trees and bushes, despite the aesthetic and environmental benefits. The Government is now also considering making street harassment illegal as France did in 2018, with perpetrators issued with on-the-spot fines.
Ultimately, however, it is social attitudes that need to change if we are to see an improvement in the levels of harassment faced by women and girls in public spaces. Whatever strategies are employed need to target the adults of tomorrow whilst they are still in school, as attitudes formed early on in life can be difficult to change. Schools can also act as a counterweight for those pupils who are growing up in households where misogynistic views are considered acceptable.
Research commissioned by the Women and Equalities Committee found that men who believe more strongly in traditional masculine gender norms and find illegal prostitution acceptable find street harassment more acceptable than men who do not hold those beliefs. Research also links pornography use with acceptance of harassment and violence against women, with the link getting stronger the more hardcore the pornography is.
These issues need to be tackled by a combination of parents, schools and the law. The prevalence of smartphones amongst teenagers and younger children means that online communities that share misogynist material and discussions are now more easily accessible than ever. Unfortunately, the growth and development of the internet has meant that both the law and parents are always one step behind when it comes to protecting children from seeing harmful material online. This is due to the legislative process being slow compared to how quickly the internet and problems related to it develop and parents often not understanding the risks their children are facing as they didn’t grow up with the same accessibility to technology.
The issue of harassment is currently high on many people’s agenda and the Government should strike while the iron is hot. Criminalising street harassment will benefit women today as it shows such behaviour is no longer considered acceptable and punishes those responsible. Better educational programmes tackling gender stereotypes and rules which tackle the sexualisation of girls and women, for example in advertising, will serve future generations and hopefully mean that fewer women and girls experience sexual harassment.