Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places: Sixth Report of Session 2017–19
Report, together with formal minutes relating to the report
Sexual harassment pervades the lives of women and girls and is deeply ingrained in our culture. This report, which follows the Committee’s reports on schools and workplaces, focuses on sexual harassment in public places: on public transport, in bars and clubs, in online spaces and at university, in parks and on the street; it is a routine and sometimes relentless experience for women and girls, many of whom first experience it at a young age.
The UK Government has a strong reputation for taking seriously the prevention of sexual abuse and violence overseas, but the domestic Violence Against Women and Girls strategy does not reflect the same focus at home in relation to sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement has helped to bring this problem out into the open in the UK, and women are glad that it is being more openly discussed. Research tells us that the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment is not recognised or understood in the same way by many men. The impact that sexual harassment has on women and girls is not routinely set out for men and boys to consider, and data is not routinely collected on its incidence. Laws and policy send inconsistent messages, Parliament permits pornography and prostitution to be legal in certain circumstances, and local councillors license sex shops and strip clubs in their communities, all of which routinely shows women in a sexualised and often vulnerable setting.
Sexual harassment can constitute sexual assault and other criminal offences, as well as behaviour that is not covered by any law but is nevertheless unwanted and harmful. We heard about a very wide range of experiences, from women—and even girls in school uniform—being shouted at and cat-called in the street, being routinely harassed in bars and clubs at night to the extent that it is the norm on a night out, being upskirted (photos or videos taken up their skirt without their consent) on public transport, to women students being sexually assaulted by their peers or women being masturbated at by men at night.
The damage is far-reaching. Experienced at a young age, sexual harassment becomes ‘normalised’ as girls move through life: it 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. The memory or fear of it affects women’s behaviour and choices and restricts their freedom to be in public spaces. 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 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.
Sexual harassment is never 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 already pledged to tackle sexual harassment as an equality and human rights issue under its international obligations, including a commitment made in 2015 to eliminate sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030. We have not seen evidence of a programme of work for achieving this goal. A cross-departmental strategy for tackling Violence Against Women and Girls is in place, but sexual harassment—the most common form of violence against women—is almost entirely absent in that document.
As with any social harm, prevention of sexual harassment should be the Government’s aim. In order to do this, it is necessary to understand why it happens and this may involve confronting deeply uncomfortable truths about British society and the attitudes some men hold towards women.
The Government has said that its objective is to change social norms. From September 2020, primary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education and secondary schools will be required to teach Relationships and Sex Education—this is one important way to achieve such change. More widely than this, it is not clear to us what other specific actions the Government is taking to meet its objective. Opportunities to embed a preventative approach, for example through media regulation, public awareness campaigns and crime and licensing policy, are being missed.
Laws alone cannot address the cultural acceptability of sexual harassment, most of which is unreported, but they have an important part to play, including in responding to new forms of public sexual harassment facilitated by technology. We welcome legislation on ‘upskirting’ and ‘revenge porn’, but at present, the Government is too often racing to catch up with these developments.
There is significant research suggesting that there is a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviours, including violence. 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 it has no plans to address adult men’s use of mainstream online pornography.
Sexual harassment on public transport, including viewing pornography in what is not an age-restricted space, is a real concern, as is women and girls’ lack of safety and equality at night, in bars and clubs and whilst at university. Some good work is taking place on these issues but there is far more that could be done and we have made recommendations to the Government on what some of this should entail.