THE BLOG

New Statistics Shine a Spotlight on Street Harassment

11/03/2016 08:30 GMT | Updated 11/03/2017 10:12 GMT

With brand new statistics from YouGov revealing that 85% of young women have experienced street harassment, the conversation about dealing with everyday sexism in public spaces has never been more urgent.

The figures also reveal that 45% of young women have experienced 'unwanted sexual touching' (which is defined as a form of sexual assault under UK law).

The poll makes it clear that unwanted sexual attention and both physical and verbal abuse are an ongoing problem for women of all ages, with a shocking 35% of all women experiencing 'unwanted sexual touching' and 64% having been harassed.

The statistics were released by the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Imkaan alongside a powerful video revealing the racist and sexist harassment faced by young Black and minority ethnic women on a daily basis.

Lia Latchford, Policy and Campaigns Coordinator at Imkaan, said:

"Our film tells a powerful story of young black women's everyday experience of racialised sexual harassment. For us, we cannot 'leave race out of it' because the way we are treated is based on how our whole identities are perceived as black women. This harassment and abuse often uses racist stereotypes and insults as an attempt to put black women in our place. Everyone, adults and young people alike, need to talk about it and it needs to stop."

The new figures come as the Women's Equality Party, the feminist political party launched last year by Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig, revealed a new campaign to tackle harassment on London's streets. The #WEcount campaign was launched with a short film featuring My Body Back activist Pavan Amara, and invites those who experience street harassment to mark where the incident happened on a map of London.

The Women's Equality party, whose leader Sophie Walker is standing for London Mayor, said that she is the only candidate with policies on sexual harassment and abuse and a focus on ending violence against women. Walker said: "The prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in our capital shames London. I want us to take back every part of this great city to make it safe for women."

The new figures make it clear that provision for tackling the issue of sexist and racist street harassment is not by any means a niche issue - this is a scourge that impacts on the majority of women's lives, starting from a shockingly young age. Perhaps the most devastating numbers released were those that revealed more than three quarters of women who experience unwanted sexual attention and touching were under the age of 21 when it first happened, and more than a quarter were aged under 16. And an enormous 63% of women said they felt unsafe in public places.

When harassment starts from such a young age, it is easy for it to become ingrained and normalised, with many beginning to feel like it is simply part of life. Such normalisation is compounded by societal attitudes to the issue, which often see it dismissed and belittled. Just 11% of those in the YouGov poll who experienced unwanted sexual touching said that someone else intervened, though 81% would have liked someone to do so.

When I go on school visits to talk about gender inequality, it is common for girls to use the word 'normal' to describe being leered at, shouted at or touched against their will whilst on the way to or from school in their uniform. The normalisation and acceptability of such attitudes in public spaces has a knock-on impact on behaviour towards women in other spheres too, with girls also describing harassment from boys at school, and frequently facing responses such as 'it's a compliment', or 'boys will be boys' if they try to complain.

Meanwhile, entries to the Everyday Sexism Project make it clear that for women and non-binary people, street harassment becomes so much a part of life that it often impacts on their freedom of movement, their ability to exercise or attend work or medical appointments, and their enjoyment of social events.

Far from being a one-off 'compliment' or a trivial issue, this goes to the very heart of some of the wider injustices women across the UK are facing, whether in education, at home or in the workplace. If we allow women's bodies to be fair game for comment, appraisal and abuse in public spaces, we send a powerful and pervasive message about women's value, and about a gendered hierarchy of power and control. It might start in the street, but it is a message that makes its impact felt much further afield as well.