March 19, 2021

Criminalising sexual harassment - Are UK laws letting victims down?

The devastating news of Sarah Everard’s case has prompted a public safety debate, particularly centered on women across the UK. The abhorrent turn of events involving a woman walking home at night while taking all reasonable safety precautions has shed light on the shortcomings of the legislative framework currently in place in the UK. 

With 97% of women between the ages of 18-24 having experienced sexual harassment, this is a problem that can no longer be ignored

There is no specific offence in the UK for public sexual harassment

In the UK, no law has been enacted with the purpose of specifically preventing and prosecuting public sexual harassment (or “PSH”). PSH could includes behaviour like:

  • Unwanted sexual gestures or actions (verbal and non-verbal) in public spaces, such as the streets, parks, gyms, public transport, shopping centres, etc;
  • Persistent staring or following; 
  • Aexually propositioning someone; 
  • Intrusive persistent questioning;
  • ‘Catcalling’ and ‘wolf‑whistling’;
  • Non‑consensual physical contact;
  • Non‑contact technology such as ‘Air Dropping’ unsolicited images to someone’s phone; 
  • Viewing or showing pornography in public.

While some aspects of PSH behaviours may fall within the remit of existing laws (as we set out below), many argue that the vast majority of incidents will likely fall through the cracks of the current legislation. 

Existing laws : why don’t they go far enough to protect victims of public sexual harassment?

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

  • Creates an offence if someone causes another person distress or alarm, including behaviours such as stalking. 
  • Requires a ‘course of conduct’,  meaning an individual must experience at least two incidents by the same individual before being protected by this Act. Does not therefore protect victims from ‘one-time’ or ‘opportunistic’ public sexual harassment. 

Public Order Act 1986:

  • Captures offences in relation to threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour ‘in way which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’. 
  • Very broad law which does not expressly reference public sexual harassment behaviours

Sexual Offences Act 2003

  • Creates sexual offences and measures protecting the public from sexual harm.
  • Captures only the most serious sexual offences such as rape and sexual assault. No specific offence for public sexual harassment. 

There is also some specific legislation against ‘upskirting’ (Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019) and acts of ‘public indecency’ (Common Law - Outraging Public Decency), but there are no laws that effectively protect victims from other forms of PSH that are so often suffered. 

Why is a criminal offence needed?

Many campaigners have renewed their call to make PSH a specific, criminal offence in the UK. Infact, a recent Our Streets Now petition calling for criminalisation gained 100,000 signatures in less than 100 days post-launch (and at the time of writing now has over 420,000 signatures). 

NGO Plan International UK argues that by making PSH a punishable crime:

  • The weaknesses in the legal framework, which is not tailored to target PSH specifically, will be addressed;
  • It will send a clear message that public sexual harassment is unacceptable;
  • It will increase reporting of PSH incidents and address significant data gaps - 72% of girls said they’d be more likely to report PSH to the police if they knew it was a criminal offence
  • Will mark a ‘critical step towards gender equality and social justice’

Without clear legislation in place, police ability to respond to reports of PSH is also limited - giving those who harass others a higher chance of getting away with their actions if they fall into the grey areas of existing laws. 

“For now, however, one of the most effective routes we can take to end PSH is by making it a criminal offence which challenges not only perpetrators but the culture which normalises this behaviour. In a society structured by law, the absence of legislation around PSH is notable. It is a direct product of the normalisation and passive acceptance of violence against women and girls in our society’” -- Our Streets Now

The UK lags behind several countries in its protection victims 

Several countries across the world have already implemented laws to tackle PSH head on. Campaigners argue there’s much for the UK to learn from them: 

  • Belgium (2014) and Portugal (2015) -  Public sexual harassment can result in both fines and imprisonment.

  • Argentina (2016) - PSH not a crime per se, but perpetrators can be punished with 2-10 days of public utility work and/or a fine.

  • France (2018) - Outlawing of PSH. In the first year of the new legislation, 700 men were fined €750 or €1,500 (for aggravated cases) for harassing women in public spaces.

  • Chile (2019) - Sliding scale of punishment according to the severity of PSH e.g. lower fines for verbal/gestural acts and much higher fines and/or imprisonment for acts of obscene exhibitionism.
  • Costa Rica (2020) - Laws to crack down on PSH with the aim to ‘guarantee the equal right, to all people, to transit or remain free from sexual harassment in public spaces…’

So what is the UK government doing about public sexual harassment? 

Following Sarah Everard’s death, immediate steps were announced aimed at improving safety for women and girls in England and Wales. These include proposals to deploy uniformed and undercover police officers in pubs, bars and clubs; and an additional £25m for better lighting and CCTV in towns and cities. 

However, while Government action is welcomed by some, the proposals have been met with criticism by campaigners:

  • Rights of Women has expressed deep concern over the plans to deploy officers in hospitality venues, pointing out the intrusive nature of the scheme and the tensions between women and the police in light of Sarah Everard’s vigil. 
  • Doubt has been cast on the plan to fund additional lighting as ‘over-lighting’ areas may render other areas less safe. 

Critics also argue that the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has missed an opportunity to adequately include measures to tackle PSH at all. Check out our blog post for a full summary of the Police BIll. 

Moving forward

Criminalising PSH will be a huge step in the right direction, but it is important to note that PSH is symptomatic of more deep-rooted societal issues, which must be tackled. 

For there to be any meaningful change the focus must be on how to stop PSH and violence altogether. However, in the meantime, here are a number of safety hacks and applications to help people stay safe on the streets:

  • Safe & the City - helps you navigate the safest routes
  • Walk safe - visualises crime reports published by the Police
  • Bsafe - includes various features such as fake calls, SOS buttons, automatically activated recording, GPS, and alerts
  • One scream - detects panic screams, identifies location, and sends for help
  • Parachute - texts, calls, and emails your emergency contacts and sends them your live video, audio, and location.
  • There are also various features for both iPhone and Android users, such as registering your phone to be able to text for 999 help, as well as emergency location sharing, or ‘Find my Friends’ apps.

If you experience harassment or any behaviour that makes you uncomfortable in any way, make sure to alert someone immediately. Call 999 if you feel in immediate danger.

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