Most of us are still children when we first experience sexual harassment. It’s a shocking sentence, when you read it. But in day-to-day life, harassment in the form of catcalling is something many women and girls have come to expect.
That doesn’t mean we have to accept it.
Campaigners are calling for a clear law that makes public sexual harassment illegal, after teenagers have shared experiences of being catcalled while wearing school uniform.
The #CrimeNotCompliment campaign is calling for the UK to follow in the footsteps of other countries who have successfully implemented legislation to tackle the issue.
The initiative has been co-founded by the charity Plan International UK and the grassroots campaign Our Streets Now, who surveyed girls aged 14-21 and their parents about street harassment.
Shockingly, half (51%) of the 1,000 girls surveyed experienced public sexual harassment over this summer alone, with worries over harassment adding to the multitude of concerns they’re already facing due to the pandemic.
An overwhelming 94% of girls said they think street harassment should be illegal, and 72% said knowing it was a criminal offence would make them more likely to report it to the police.
The majority of parents agreed with the calls for new legislation, with 80% saying they worry their daughter will experience public sexual harassment. Concerns most commonly begin when their daughters are just 11 years old.
Teän, 14, from Cornwall, experienced street harassment while on her way to school, and is among those backing the calls for a new law.
“I was walking by a road and a group of men shouted and made inappropriate sexual gestures to me out of the back of a bus. I was wearing my school uniform and was visibly underage,” she says.
“A few minutes later another man drove past and shouted something out of the window. I didn’t report the incident to the police because I don’t really know how to, and even if I did, I wasn’t confident that they would take me seriously, or be able to do anything about it.”
Teän’s mum, El, says hearing about her daughter’s experience has made her feel “really angry”.
“I remember getting harassed when I was younger, to the point where I didn’t walk down alleyways, I changed my clothes to feel safe in certain situations, and I wouldn’t walk on my own after dark,” she says.
“To know that thirty years later my daughter is facing the same issues is awful. People think catcalling is not going to cause any harm, but it is incessant, and the build-up of that can cause long-term harm.”
Our Streets Now was founded by two sisters – 15-year-old Gemma Tutton and her 21-year-old sister, Maya – after they spoke to each other about their experiences of street harassment. The pair launched a change.org petition, calling for public sexual harassment to be made a criminal offence, which has already gained more than 210,000 signatures.
Now, with the backing of a big charity behind them, the sisters are hoping their calls will be taken seriously. Along with Plan International UK, they’re asking members of the public to join the campaign and show MPs that it’s time to make public sexual harassment a crime.
“We started this campaign because we want to create a society in which harassment is no longer a ‘normal’ part of being a girl. Public sexual harassment is a blight on the lives of women and girls in the UK and our research shows the urgency with which this problem must be tackled. The glaring holes in UK legislation are the best place to start,” Gemma and Maya said in a joint statement.
“Today, we launch our solution to the problem: a specific, stand-alone criminal offence which would finally give women and girls proper, effective legal protection from sexual harassment in public. ”