06:06, May 02 49 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-02 06:06:04
Criminalising street harassment works. Britain must follow France's lead

If you’ve not been catcalled yourself, chances are you’ll know someone who has been. In 2016, research from the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that 64% of women of all ages have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public; among 18- to 24-year-olds, that percentage increased to 85%. With figures like these, you’d have thought we’d all be talking about street harassment. But new figures from children’s charity Plan International UK suggest that isn’t always the case.

Of the 1,004 girls and young women aged between 14 and 21 they surveyed, 66% had experienced unwanted sexual attention, grabbing or groping, or indecent exposure. But 42% of them didn’t tell anyone. 33% said they were “too embarrassed” to open up, 28% didn’t think they’d be taken seriously, and 14% said they had kept quiet because they felt they were to blame.

It’s a stark contrast to news from France, where nearly 450 fines have been issued since new legislation came into effect in August last year. Sexist behaviour – which includes catcalling, unwanted sexual attention or degrading comments – can now result in an on-the-spot fine of up to €750.

Here in the UK, it doesn’t feel as if these crimes are taken so seriously – and data from the Fawcett Society released earlier this year seems to bear this out. It found that gender was the most common cause of hate crime for women; 85% of gender hate crimes in England and Wales were, in fact, reported by women. But when the society called for misogyny to legally be made a hate crime, police chief Sara Thornton said that though the cause was “desirable and deserving”, the police simply “did not have the resources”.

You may, like Thornton, argue that not every catcall or instance of unwanted sexual attention is worthy of police attention or resource. But as Women’s Aid chief executive Katie Ghose pointed out at the time, wider abuses do not take place in a vacuum. Street harassment may be at the more harmless end of a spectrum of misogyny and violence, but it’s exactly that – a spectrum. If women aren’t believed when they tell someone they’ve been catcalled – an occurrence we must grimly categorise as “everyday” – then why would they have faith that more serious offences are going to be taken seriously?

The government’s recognition of street harassment as a form of gender-based violence – in its refreshed Violence Against Women and Girls strategy – is a positive first step here. But, as the charity Plan UK suggests, local authorities need to take this seriously, putting into place strategies of their own to combat the issue. The French model may be a good start.

At the heart of this issue is the assumption most women make about street harassment – that it is something that is inevitably going to happen to them. But why should it? Why should we have to discuss tactics, swap notes on what to say or do when someone gets too close or won’t stop following us? Why should leaving the house also involve the exhausting ongoing calculation of how safe we are if we take this route or this one or the next? And why should we accept that despite our best efforts to exert our own autonomy, there’s nothing we can do when someone threatens to take it away again?

When it comes to gender violence, nobody is arguing that catcalling is top of the agenda: that would be absurd. But a casual acceptance of its existence, dogged refusal to do anything about it, and a fingers-in-ears approach to acknowledging it even exists is not going to make the problem go away, nor is it going to make women more safe.

We shouldn’t have to go through the galling experience of being harassed every time we leave the house – and we should at least be afforded the dignity of being believed when we are. Support for and belief in women’s accounts of their negative experiences needs to be at the heart of both legal and social responses – until it is, nothing will change.

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author of The Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind

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