Public sexual harassment

In partnership with Our Streets Now.

As the definition below identifies, public sexual harassment (PSH) is part of gender-based violence. Whilst most of the available data looks at the impact of PSH on women and girls, men and boys can be victims as well.  Those who identify as transgender can also experience high rates of harassment, misogyny and transphobia when in public.

PSH can include sexualised comments, sexual jokes, taunting, being groped, grabbed or flashed at in public.  It can also include online harassment.  Public spaces can include (but are not limited to) parks, public transport, streets, commons, recreational spaces as well as online environments.

The impact can be significant, with fear of PSH occurring dictating where individuals go in their home areas, how they look and the actions that they take in order to keep themselves safe.

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Definition of public sexual harasssment

Public Sexual Harassment (PSH for short) is part of gender-based violence. It comprises unwelcomed and unwanted attention, sexual advances and intimidating behaviour that occurs in public spaces, both in person and online. It is usually directed towards girls, women and often oppressed groups within society. However, it can be experienced by all.

Our Streets Now

Quotation marks

Prevalence

A 2021 survey of more than 1,000 women of all ages found that 71% have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public place, although it was recognised that the true figure could be higher.  The figure rose to 86% among 18-24 year olds.

The same report continues:

Studies have consistently shown that a significant number of women and girls have experienced sexual harassment throughout their lives, and that it continues to be a problem. The  numbers have often varied, and historically data have underrepresented the number of women affected. Studies have also shown that location, time of day, and intersectional factors such as ethnicity and sexual orientation, can play a role in women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Research by Plan-UK (2021) identifies that common forms of PSH include unwanted comments, insults or questions of a sexual nature, with other forms of PSH including touching, groping, stroking, kissing or grabbing of any part of the victims body.  A 2021 survey by charity Rights for Women found that the pandemic and move to home working has increased online sexual harassment.  They report that:

Remote sexual harassment refers to the following: sexual messages (e.g. email, texts, social media); cyber harassment (e.g. via Zoom, Teams, Slack etc); and sexual calls.

Plan-UK’s research (ibid.) also evidences the role of technology suggesting that 13% have been filmed or photographed by a stranger without their permission.

Consent

PSH is not something that anyone consents to.  Consent is about having the freedom and capacity to choose (Keeping Children Safe in Education).  Often perpetrators will frame things differently to allow them to dispense with the need for consent, e.g. it is a prank, harmless fun or just a laugh.  This all suggests that there will be no harm done to the victim thus minimising the need to think about how intrusive or degrading the act may be for the person on the receiving end.  This is a cultural issue that needs to be addressed, and is echoed by the findings of the Ofsted Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges (2021).

Impact on children

In findings that echo those of the Ofsted review, a survey of secondary school pupils by Our Streets Now found that the majority would not report their experiences to their school or college with the main reasons being that they did not believe that they would be taken seriously.  Many reported that they did not know how to report an incident.

Less than 20% of pupils who had reported something had a “vaguely positive” or “positive” response.

This is not just an issue for secondary schools, as well as not being a recent issue.  A Girl Guiding Survey in 2015 of girls aged between 7 and 21 identified that “Three quarters say anxiety about sexual harassment negatively affects their lives – whether it’s their choice of clothing (51%), their body confidence (49%) or their freedom to go where they want on their own (43%).”

What do we need to do?

Organisations need to:

  • model healthy and respectful relationships;
  • challenge inappropriate behaviour and language;
  • child protection procedures are the same;
  • don’t dismiss it;
  • PSH may have a long term impact so it may need long term support.