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Should Street Harassment be Criminalised in the UK?

Trigger Warning: Please note this article includes discussion of a range of gender-based violences, including sexual harassment

11 October marks International Day of the Girl Child, a day observed by the United Nations with the aim of amplifying the voices and rights of girls everywhere. Hosted since 2011, the goal of the day is to demand better access to health and education, recognise girls as leaders of social change and bring an end to gender-based violence. The day highlights issues which disproportionately affect girls around the world such as access to education, child marriage, female genital mutilation, virginity testing and period poverty.

Public harassment and lack of safety on the streets is a prevalent issue that affects both women and girls worldwide and the UK is no exception. It can take the form of many different behaviours, including whistling, catcalling, pursuing and groping. In 2018, Plan UK found that 66 per cent of girls ages 14 to 21 had experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in a public place. This year, the UN found that over 70 per cent of women in the UK say they have experienced sexual harassment in public. Worryingly, only 4 per cent said they reported the incidents to an official organisation.

Recent discussion about the adequacy of the legislation surrounding sexual harassment in the UK was reignited by media coverage in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021. Currently, there are a range of laws covering offences of sexual and gender-based violence in the UK. These include the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Public Order Act 1986 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003. However, street harassment is not considered a specific offence under any of these acts and some have called on the UK government to address this shortcoming. Indeed, statistics on the prevalence of public harassment suggest that the existing laws are insufficient in practice.

These are not the only reasons underpinning demands for new legislation surrounding public harassment. Many activists argue we need to challenge the excuse that unwanted sexual attention in public places is a "compliment" (for example, the campaign Crime Not Compliment). They suggest tougher and more specific criminal penalties could change this narrative and make it clear that these types of behaviour are not to be tolerated.

Even more worryingly, it is claimed there are some common types of public harassment that are not captured within existing legislation at all. Behaviours like cornering an individual, making sexual propositions and "cyber-flashing" (sending unwanted illicit images via services like AirDrop) are all examples which "fall between the cracks" in our current criminal law. So, our current roster of criminal offences ought to be amended to include these crimes.

A further barrier to tackling public harassment is a very low report-rate of incidents. This is attributed to several reasons. Again, some critics think this can be explained by a lack of awareness that public harassment qualifies as a criminal offence within the UK. Secondly, in 2021, the UN found that 45 per cent of women said they didn’t believe reporting would help change anything. This illustrates that there is also a lack of faith in the ability of the authorities to support victims and pursue perpetrators. For these reasons, there is large support for revisions in legislation and law enforcement procedures to solve these problems.

France took a vigorous approach to tackling sexual harassment in 2018 when it revised laws against sexual and sexist violence and in doing so introduced the notion of "sexism" into French law for the first time. The legislation included strengthening the sentencing for sexual crimes against minors, broadening the definition of online harassment, and defining a new crime called “offensive sexist behaviour” (or in French, “outrages sexistes”). The latter applies specifically to harassment in public spaces and enables on-the-spot fines of up to 750 Euros (approximately GBP 637) and even higher for repeat offenders.

There were two main aims in establishing these laws. First, the nation wanted to raise awareness that public harassment is in fact a crime and that perpetrators would face consequences where they previously went unpunished. Secondly, the government wanted to enable law enforcement agencies to be more effective at bringing perpetrators to justice. In particular, French police officers were given the ability to sanction perpetrators on the spot, unlike other countries where law enforcement could not take action in the field but had to follow complex procedures of complaint filing and subsequent investigations before any charges could be brought against an individual.

This ground-breaking French legislation prompts the question: could a similar approach prove effective in the UK? In July 2021, the Home Office launched a strategy called Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls. The strategy aims to increase support for victims and survivors, increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice and reduce the prevalence of violence against women and girls. One key action the government pledged in the strategy was to produce new advice on existing laws for police officers to respond to street harassment more effectively. The hope is that changes to law enforcement procedures will increase the proportion of incidents that are reported, and bring more perpetrators to justice. The strategy did not however, recommend introducing a specific criminal offence for street harassment.

In a government press release, Home Secretary Priti Patel acknowledged that there is no specific offence covering street harassment but insisted other existing acts capture the behaviours involved. Altogether, she maintained that the government’s strategy is committed to ensuring the existing laws work in practice and are effective at reducing and responding to cases of street harassment.

Promisingly, she did highlight, and thus draw attention to the fact that cases like "cyber-flashing" are not covered by current legislation. She also acknowledged that the underreporting of public sexual harassment, because many do not think it is criminal behaviour or that the police will not take the report seriously, is a serious problem.

However, the question remains whether new advice and training on existing legislation will be effective enough, especially in altering beliefs that certain forms of public harassment are legally permissible.

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