By Maisie Allen
"Our world is used to not holding perpetrators of gender-based violence accountable for their actions."
“It’s a compliment."
“Why are you taking it so seriously?”
“Don’t let it bother you so much, it happens to everyone."
All of the above are phrases routinely used to justify public sexual harassment, that is usually unwanted attention of a sexual nature that manifests itself in both verbal and physical abuse. Often downplayed as a normalised part of the journey of adolescent sexuality, especially if you’re a girl, public sexual harassment hints at a more sinister existence of the unequal power relations between the genders.
A recent survey from Plan International UK found that 51% of girls in the UK had experienced public sexual harassment since June 2020, and from the same survey, 80% of parents were worried that their daughter would experience public sexual harassment. Surely, if this problem is so prevalent, why are we so hesitant to call people out for this kind of behaviour? The long-standing cultural narrative of ‘boys will be boys’ is outdated and is no excuse for behaviour that makes so many girls, women, and non-binary people feel unsafe in public spaces.
One of the most worrying aspects of public sexual harassment is that it seems to start at an extremely young age, with many girls reporting that they receive regular unwanted sexual attention whilst wearing school uniform. This feeds into the collective societal fetishisation of young girls and the hypersexualisation of their school uniforms, creating a sense of entitlement towards schoolgirls and their bodies that is inherently problematic and grotesque and one that makes these girls feel constantly vulnerable even when they’re supposed to be in a safe environment.
"The long-standing cultural narrative of ‘boys will be boys’ is outdated and no excuse for behaviour that makes so many girls, women, and non-binary people feel unsafe in public spaces."
The constant feeling of vulnerability and wariness that young girls and women will carry in public spaces is one that all of us know, and usually, by the time we’ve reached adulthood, our safety measures become something of a second nature. Measures from sharing locations with friends and family on social media, planning exercise routes in well-lit and populated areas, walking with one earphone out, or even carrying keys in-between fingers among others are common experiences, but they shouldn’t be. These are measures often proposed by those in positions of authority, including those in the police force, and whilst they may be well-intentioned so women can keep themselves ‘safe’, why is it always the work of those most vulnerable to keep themselves protected?
Our world is used to not holding perpetrators of gender-based violence accountable for their actions, and the very fact that the UK does not yet have a law criminalising public sexual harassment speaks volumes to how our justice system is yet another patriarchal institution which fails women and minorities consistently.
"Why is it always the work of those most vulnerable to keep themselves protected?"
Alongside this though, as well as a lack of legal and judicial action on public sexual harassment, the taboo nature of this topic also means that those who experience it are often made to feel isolated and alone, especially as there is a distinct lack of mental health or pastoral support for survivors. Public sexual harassment can often lead to feelings of anxiety, and the Young Women’s Trust found that those who endure sexism are five times more likely to experience depression in later life. Yet services who support survivors still face funding cuts, and despite an alarming rise in gender-based violence during the lockdown period, the current cultural discourse is still adamant on victim-blaming and fails to recognise the systemic oppression that this is reflective of.
Public sexual harassment operates on multiple levels of oppression alongside gender identity, which all intersect with one another, such as race, disability, and sexuality. Whilst breakdowns of public sexual harassment into these various identity markers are limited and hard to come across, those who are marginalised will often experience public sexual harassment that overlaps with several of the above categories. Women, girls, and non-binary people of colour are also often hypersexualised and fetishised in a way that white women are not, and the same applies to those belonging to the LGBTQ+ community; with transgender women often facing the brunt of public sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
It is important to recognise that legislative change and cultural change are both required in order to prevent public sexual harassment from affecting the next generation and shouldn’t be viewed in diametric opposition to one another. As well as calling for a specific law to protect those who experience public sexual harassment, education is key to raising awareness too. It is vital that those who regularly experience public sexual harassment, disproportionately women and girls, know that this isn’t just part of growing up and that they have every right to feel safe in their communities.
Compliments don’t make you feel unsafe, compliments don’t make you alter the way in which you move through the world, and compliments don’t seek to degrade you. Public sexual harassment is all about enforcing a dangerous sexist power dynamic - it’s a crime, not a compliment.
Maisie Allen is a final year Liberal Arts undergraduate student, specialising in English Literature and Politics, at King's College London, where she also serves as President of their Women and Politics Society. She has served on Plan International UK's Youth Advisory Panel since January 2019 and has a keen interest in the intersectional nature of feminism and its role in public policy and legislation. She is also a Higher Education Ambassador for Our Streets Now and is passionate about making university campuses a place free from all forms of gender-based violence.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.