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Photography Shaojie, via Unsplash

97 per cent of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed

A new survey exposes the extent of the insidious problem, as well as a widespread lack of faith in authorities’ desire and ability to deal with it

For young women, public sexual harassment has become a grim rite of passage in the UK. Lewd comments, stalking, and even physical abuse are so commonplace that many women are in a near-constant state of fear, particularly when walking alone. Now, a new survey by UN Women UK has revealed the extent of this insidious problem. 

As reported by The Guardian, 97 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 said they had been sexually harassed, dropping to 80 per cent when it came to women of all ages.

YouGov’s survey, which polled over 1,000 women, also exposed the widespread lack of faith in UK authorities’ desire and ability to deal with it. 96 per cent of women said they did not report incidents, while 45 per cent said it wouldn’t change anything even if they did. Among those who didn’t report their experiences were women who had been groped, followed, and coerced into sexual activity.

“It has been proven again and again that the system is broken,” Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, tells Dazed. “In a country where only 1.5 per cent of rape cases reported to the police result in a charge or summons, what possible confidence can women have that they’ll be taken seriously if they come forward about sexual harassment?”

Bates reveals that many women who share their stories with the Everyday Sexism Project say that when they have reported an incident, they’ve been told “they’re overreacting, making a fuss about nothing, or should have taken it as a compliment”.

Rose Caldwell, the CEO of Plan International UK adds: “There is no UK law that fully criminalises public sexual harassment, leaving perpetrators to get away with it. As one girl told us, you can be fined for dropping litter in the UK, but not for harassing a woman or girl in public. This cannot be right.”

In November, a report by Plan International UK and Our Streets Now – the campaign to make public street harassment a crime – detailed how sexual harassment was holding girls back. The study revealed that 80 per cent of parents prohibited their daughters from doing certain things, due to the threat of harassment. Off the back of their findings, the organisations launched their collaborative #CrimeNotCompliment campaign, which calls for a clear law that makes all forms of public sexual harassment illegal.

Speaking to Dazed now, Maya and Gemma Tutton – the founders of Our Streets Now – say the proposed law “would finally give women and girls proper, effective legal protection from sexual harassment in public”. They add: “Across the world, countries have put specific legislation in place to address public sexual harassment in its entirety – the UK is lagging behind.” In 2018, France implemented a law that enables on-the-spot fines for perpetrators of street harassment.

“Across the world, countries have put specific legislation in place to address public sexual harassment in its entirety – the UK is lagging behind” – Maya and Gemma Tutton, Our Streets Now

In September, Citizens UK launched its own campaign to tackle harassment, specifically with the aim of making misogyny a hate crime. It has been backed by Melania Geymonat and her partner Christine Hannigan, who were attacked on a night bus in 2019. “Laws can protect women from feeling violated,” Geymonat told Dazed last year, “but that permission is not given today. Once we acknowledge the violence, we can do something.”

“Street harassment makes girls feel ashamed, frightened, and vulnerable,” Caldwell tells Dazed (a recent study found a link between sexism and depression). “It causes them to chase their behaviour, like avoiding certain streets or changing their clothes before leaving the house, (which has) serious implications for their freedom and autonomy.”

Bates echoes this statement, saying the impact of sexual harassment on young women can be “immense”. She continues: “It can affect a woman’s mental health, confidence, and relationships. As a society, the normalisation of sexual harassment in public spaces plays a huge part in creating a gendered power imbalance and ingraining derogatory attitudes and behaviours towards women. What starts in public spaces doesn’t stay there. It plays into discrimination against women in the workplace and abuse in the home. If we say street harassment doesn’t matter, we’re designating women’s bodies public property. And that has a huge knock-on impact.”

UN Women UK has written an open letter to government leaders, which calls for better designed public spaces, improved reporting systems, and education – you can sign it here.