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Government urged to tackle ‘relentless’ sexual harassment in public places

The report detailed incidents ranging from wolf-whistling to unwanted sexual comments and groping. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The Government is failing to address the problem of sexual harassment in public places, despite evidence it is “deeply ingrained” in British culture, affecting the lives of nearly every woman, a parliamentary report has found.

The report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee found evidence of “routine and sometimes relentless” harassment of women and girls on the street and in parks, on public transport, in bars, clubs and universities, and online.

Warning that the damage from such behaviour is “far-reaching”, the committee called on the Government to “show leadership” on the issue by committing to a comprehensive programme of action to make all public places safe for women and girls.

The Government’s adherence to the international Sustainable Development Goals effectively committed it to eliminating sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030, but there was no evidence of any drive to achieve this, said the committee, which has conducted a nine-month inquiry into the issue.

“Sexual harassment is never acceptable, and women and girls should not be expected to endure it,” the report said.

85%
Proportion of young women who reported receiving unwanted sexual attention in public places

“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.”

The report warned that the Government’s “foot appears to be almost entirely off the pedal” when it came to tackling sexual harassment, with ministers risking giving the impression that they see the issue as “too trivial to address”.

It was “astonishing” that the problem of sexual harassment was “almost entirely absent” from the Government’s strategy for tackling violence against women and girls, the report said.

The committee called for:

  • Long-term publicity campaigns to tackle the attitudes which underpin sexual harassment
  • A new law to criminalise the creation or sharing of non-consensual sexual images
  • Investment in research and action to address the harm caused by pornography, along the lines of public health efforts to reduce legal but harmful activities like smoking
  • New requirements for rail operators to tackle sexual harassment on trains, as well as action to block the use of mobile devices to view pornography on public transport
  • Changes to licensing laws to require bars and clubs to take action to prevent harassment and require councils to consult women’s groups before allowing lap-dancing clubs to open
  • New legal obligations on universities to outlaw sexual harassment

The report cited surveys which found that 64% of women – including 85% of 18-24-year-olds – had experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, with 35% reporting unwanted touching. More than 60% of girls and young women said they did not feel safe walking home and growing numbers of girls said they felt unsafe online.

The report detailed incidents ranging from wolf-whistling to unwanted sexual comments, groping and sexual rubbing on public transport, “upskirt” photographs, rape threats and men exposing themselves.

Outdated pre-internet laws on indecent imagery were not keeping up with online phenomena like unsolicited “dickpics”, which one survey found had been received by around 40% of younger women.

As well as causing distress to the women involved, harassment of this kind is “contributing to a culture in which sexual violence can be normalised or excused”, the report warned.

Research on young men in the UK found that nearly one in three had made sexually harassing comments to a woman or girl in a public place in the previous month, the report found.

And it cited evidence that harassers come from all income levels, educational backgrounds and ages, but are most likely to be found among men who have a strong belief in gender stereotypes and “toxic” forms of masculinity.

Committee chair Maria Miller said: “The #MeToo movement shows that we must confront some deeply uncomfortable truths about our society and the attitudes some men hold.

“Laws alone cannot solve the cultural acceptability of sexual harassment.

“That is why we have set out a series of practical measures that Government, public transport operators, local authorities and universities should implement immediately. Public places must be made safe for all women and girls.”