Sexual harassment of women and girls is ‘normalised’

85 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places. That figures like this are no longer surprising shows how harassment has become ‘normalised’ in society – and MPs in Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee are demanding that government take steps to address the problem.

Black and white image of people on a train
Black and white image of people on a train
Kate Dickinson

Sexual harassment of women and girls is ‘deeply ingrained in our culture’, MPs have admitted in a report published today (23 October).

MPs in the cross-party Women and Equalities Committee have been conducting an inquiry into the sexual harassment of women and girls in public places. Today’s report, the result of nine months of evidence-gathering, attacks the government for failing to address the problem, which is described as ‘a routine and sometimes relentless experience for women and girls’.

One 2016 survey, conducted by the End Violence Against Women coalition, found that 85 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 (and 64 per cent of all women) had experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, while many experienced harassment for the first time below the age of 18.

The committee heard from members of the public about their experiences of harassment. One woman submitted written evidence to the inquiry detailing the instances of unwanted sexual contact she had experienced since she was under 18, in work scenarios, on public transport and on the street.

“Sexual harassment in public places is a regular experience for many women and girls in the street, in bars and clubs, on buses and trains, at university and online,” said Maria Miller, Conservative MP and committee Chair. “It is the most common form of violence against women and girls and the damage is far-reaching. And yet most of it goes unreported.

“It can make women and girls scared and stressed, avoid certain routes home at night or certain train carriages, wear headphones while out running; women feel the onus is put on them to avoid 'risky' situations. It is not acceptable that women have to change their behaviour to avoid sexual harassment. It has a wider effect on society, contributing to a culture in which sexual violence can be normalised or excused. All of this keeps women and girls unequal.”

The UK inquiry came about at the same time as the #MeToo movement was gaining traction, with sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls making headlines across the world. But while this movement has drawn public attention to the problem, sexual harassment remains ‘normalised’ in many situations, with women and girls becoming inured to instances of harassment in public. As the report states, ‘[harassment] shapes the messages boys and girls receive about what is acceptable behaviour between men and women, and teaches girls to minimise their experiences of abuse’.

According to the committee, the government has provided no evidence to prove that it is working towards its pledge to eliminate the sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030. As such, the report recommends a number of actions that the government should take to properly tackle the problem, including a plan of action to make public places safe for everyone, to be set out in the updated Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy.

Train and bus operators, universities and businesses licensed to sell alcohol should all be required to have robust policies in place to address and prevent sexual harassment. In addition, the committee states that a new law should be developed around ‘image-based sexual abuse’, with the criminalisation of ‘all non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate sexual images, on the basis of the victim's lack of consent rather than perpetrator motivation’.

A new Voyeurism (Offences) Bill is set to be debated in the House of Lords later this year after it was passed in the Commons on its third reading in September. This Bill will create two new offences relating to ‘upskirting’: where a person operates equipment or records an image beneath another person's clothing.

The government has also committed to launching a legal review into whether misogyny should be classified as a hate crime.

Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack, who has long been campaigning for the definition of ‘hate crime’ to include misogyny, said that any change has to be community led: “The #metoo movement has underlined our need for a major culture shift, to change the way women are treated in our society. If the government is to classify misogyny as a hate crime, it is critical that it is implemented at the local level so that citizens know how to tackle sexism within their own communities."