Why Is Sexual Harassment Not Illegal In The UK?

It's an offence to sexually harass a woman in a public place in Portugal, Belgium and Peru. So, why, is it not illegal to sexually harass someone in the United Kingdom?

Why Is Sexual Harassment Not Illegal In The UK?

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

Hands up if you've ever been followed down the street? If a stranger has ever commented on your appearance? If you've ever been groped ina club by somebody you didn't know and didn't want to touch you? Told to 'cheer up love' by a random guy?

Last year in the UK the number of recorded sexual offences on trains and at stations rose by 25% and hit record levels, according to the British Transport police. There are no official figures for street harassment in general, partly because it’s not a crime and partly because many women don’t feel they can report it.

The last time women were polled substantially (by YouGov in 2012) and asked whether they had experienced sexual harassment in public, 43% of women aged 18-34 said they had. Indeed, in 2014, a survey conducted by Girlguiding UK found that up to 60% of girls and young women aged 13 to 21 had experienced sexual harassment at school or college.

To really drive it home, last year research done by Hollaback and Cornell University found that 84% of women are harassed in public by the time they turn 17, with that figure rising to 90% in the UK. Make no mistake, public harassment is part of growing up as a woman in this country.We grow up, put up and get on with it. In light of all this, you may find it somewhat surprising (and frustrating) that, in the same year sexual offences on our public transport system hit an all time high, Portugal made the verbal harassment of women in the street a crime. The country’s Social Democratic party ensured that offences can incur a fine of up to 120 euros (£95) and even are punishable by up to a year in prison.

Laura Bates, of Everyday Sexism, writes today in the Guardian that it’s also illegal in Peru, where a bill passed last year categorises harassment as anything that affects another person’s ‘freedom and dignity and movement’. This bill is intended to protect people from sexual harassment in public spaces and there, such offences, reported in public spaces, carry a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.

She also points out that in Belgium there is a law which was passed in 2014 which, too, imposes fines and potentially imprisonment on those who commit street harassment. Belgium didn’t stop there, much to the disdain of some, they put in law that the concept of sexism would be understood as: ‘any gesture or act that, in the circumstances of Article 44 of the Penal Code, is evidently intended to express contempt for a person because of his gender, or that regards them as inferior, or reduces them to their sexual dimension, and which has the effect of violating someone’s dignity.’

Bates argues that while we do have legislation in the UK which means it is a crime to expose yourself to another person in public and makes doing anything which you know, or should know, is harassing to another person, there is nothing that specifically relates to street harassment, particularly verbal harassment, in public places.

The Portuguese, Belgian and Peruvian laws all go as far as to state that it’s not only physical harassment or flashing that are criminal offences but verbal harassment such as cat calling or unwanted advances too.

The problem that we have in this country is that harassing a woman in the street is normalised and accepted. It’s OK for somebody to call out ‘cheer up love’ as you walk to work. If somebody you’ve never met says ‘hey gorgeous’ to you in the street and you don’t respond you are somehow seen as the one in the wrong.

Calling someone out on such behaviour can be met with an aggressive response, so many women choose to keep their head down, keep walking and keep schtum. Even then, you may find yourself being followed down the street until the person in question loses interest – that, as anyone who has ever experienced it knows, is an incredibly unsettling, unpleasant and scary experience.

Sadly, though, it is not an uncommon one. Perhaps we do need more rigorous legislation in this country, perhaps it wouldn’t be so acceptable for women to be treated this way while going about their day to day lives if it was actually illegal and perpetrators could be held accountable. However, as Bates also points out, bringing in new legislation could have it's own pitfalls, and could be used to target particular communities.

Of course, the problem is also a cultural one, absolutely, for some reason it still seems to be the general consensus that a woman’s body is somehow public property – available for all to comment on and stake a claim to. We need to make it clear to people, from a young age, that this is not the case. Once again, it comes down to consent.

However, it’s chicken and egg. If the law was on the side of people who are harassed in the street then perhaps fewer people wouldn’t feel their only option was simply to adopt a keep, calm, carry on and hope they don’t kick off approach as they walk away, hoping quietly that nothing more serious or violent comes of it.

Worryingly, it seems as though we are still a long way from dealing with attitudes though. Calls for compulsory sex and relationships education in schools have only in the last few weeks been blocked by our government despite the best efforts of many.

The questions are: just how safe to women feel in public spaces in this country? Would they feel safer if the law was on their side?

Surely we need both better legislation and better education to make sure women can go about their day to day lives in public spaces without being harassed, cat called, groped or followed.

You might also be interested in:

Strangers Have Ben Catcalling You Since Before You Were 17, right?

It's Time To Talk About Being Groped In Nightclubs

Why Is The Issue Of Consent At University So Difficult To Grasp?

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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