Skip to main content

Street Harassment: It's not OK

Girls’ experiences and views

Authors: Jessica Southgate and Lucy Russell

This research emerged from Plan International UK’s work to uncover the reality of growing up a girl in the UK today. Our report, The State of Girl’s Rights in the UK (2016), found that girls didn’t feel safe in the classroom, online or on the streets, and that experiences of harassment were so widespread that many felt that this was just ‘part of growing up’. We heard a clear message from girls that they considered harassment to be a problem, and one that they wanted to find solutions to.

Around the world harassment and the threat of harassment can have serious implications for girls’ freedom, autonomy and perceived safety. In both the UK and internationally, evidence shows that harassment of girls and women in public places is widespread and profoundly affects their lives. This is a particular issue for girls, as harassment – and the behaviours that allow it to happen – often starts at a young age and is likely to be experienced more frequently by adolescent girls and younger women than by older women or their male peers.

This report reflects the voices of girls we interviewed and sets out what they think about harassment, how they experience it, and the things they want to change. It is based on focus groups and polling involving girls from across the UK, evidence from literature and research, and interviews with leading experts on the subject of harassment in public places.

We explore some of the innovations being developed, including work in Nottinghamshire to record misogynistic incidents as hate crime, efforts by the police and transport authorities in London to increase reporting of unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport, and some of the creative ways girls and women have resisted harassment in their everyday lives. We define street harassment as a form of gender-based violence and on the continuum of violence against women, as well as considering how other identity characteristics – like race or sexual orientation – intersect with gender to mean girls experience harassment differently.

This work is part of a growing global movement – including leading experts interviewed for this report and organisations like Hollaback!, Stop Street Harassment and Everyday Sexism – to shine a light on harassment and resist its widespread acceptance.

Plan International UK’s global programmes have shown that work can be done to make public spaces safer for girls. This report aims to amplify girls’ voices and their priorities for change to encourage everyone to take the harassment of girls seriously and take steps to end it.

All of the girls we spoke to had stories of intimidating and unwanted behaviour, with many having witnessed and experienced harassment from a very young age – some as young as eight years old. This often happened when they were in uniform – travelling to and from school or college – which they felt made them a particular target.

Worryingly, harassment was such a prevalent part of girls’ lives that some felt they were taught to expect sexual harassment, because so many had experienced it, and often on such a regular basis. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of girls in our polling had experienced unwanted sexual attention, including catcalling, sexual comments and being started at, or sexual exposure. A third (35 percent) had experienced unwanted sexual contact, including being touched, groped or grabbed.

Academics we spoke to confirmed that many women felt it was just ‘part of growing up’ and something they had to get used to. They also described the harassment of girls starting at a young age, and often being more pronounced in the teenage years. Girls felt that being seen as young, and as less likely to ‘fight back’ or tell anyone what happened to them, made them particularly vulnerable.

Girls described being ‘catcalled’, experiencing unwanted touching or invasions of their personal space, alongside more serious incidents of being groped, grabbed or ‘flashed at’ in public. A small number reported technology being used as part of the harassment they experienced, with a quarter (26 per cent) of girls in our polling having been filmed or photographed by a stranger without permission, and almost one in ten (9 per cent) having been the victims of ‘upskirting’, having their underwear photographed whilst wearing it, without their consent. In focus groups they described all these acts of harassment as frightening, threatening and intimidating, making them want to ‘disappear’, and talked about the shock, shame and embarrassment they felt when it happened.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) and Black, Asian or another Ethnic Minority (BAME) girls talked about the dual discrimination of being harassed both for their ethnicity or sexual orientation, as well as their gender.

Harassment is so prevalent in girls’ lives it can happen in any of the spaces they occupy, and overlaps between the different worlds they inhabit. Girls could often name specific locations near where they lived which were virtual ‘no-go zones’, because they feared harassment in those places. They described being particularly targeted when on their own, when out walking or jogging, when travelling to and from school, as well as in busy, central areas like main high streets where something might happen but no one could see who did it.

They talked about being shouted at or beeped at from passing cars, as well as experiencing unwanted touching or staring on public transport. Girls felt particularly vulnerable on nights out or working in night-time venues. They were very conscious of potentially predatory behaviours around bars and clubs.

Whilst the evidence we explore in this report tells us that girls and women are overwhelmingly the targets of harassment and boys and men are overwhelmingly the ones who perpetrate harassment, there is very little research into the motivations of boys and men who harass girls and women. More research is needed to better understand the motivations behind harassment, as well as how to prevent it in the first place.