Sexual harassment isn’t caused an over-supply of women in prominent public places. Yet the debate so often skews towards ‘protecting’ women that it’s easy to feel that we’re heading back to the times where any problem can be solved by hiding the recipient of abuse away.
The institutionalised spectrum of male violence which women endure on a daily basis is caused by an over-representation of men who think it’s acceptable. In short, men: we’re the problem. And until we face up to our responsibilities, we will fail to tackle it entirely.
Today in the House of Commons, the Women and Equalities Select Committee on which I sit will launch our inquiry into sexual harassment in public places. As recent events have showed us, sexual harassment and abuse of women girls is often a routine part of daily life, and it’s almost always perpetrated by men and boys.
The Harvey Weinstein revelations and the subsequent harassment scandals saw women voice their experiences through #metoo and the ‘Time’s Up’ movement. But men’s contributions have lacked a similar sure-footedness, and have failed to coalesce around a similar shared position and movement. As ever, those voices most magnified focussed on denying the scale of the problem. Men who participate in harassment are, as ever, treated as the exception. Until all men accept that we enjoy an unfair advantage in a society in which harassment plays its shaping role, this will not change.
We know that abuse runs along a spectrum ranging from outdated attitudes toward women, and gender stereotypes, to serious sexual assault and rape. While we wouldn’t equate the seriousness of all of these behaviours, the underlying cause consistent across the spectrum is how men view women. If men see women as equals worthy of their respect then that vastly reduces their likelihood of engaging in harmful behaviour, be it harassment in schools or the workplace or assaulting women in public or in private.
The Committee’s report will contain recommendations based on the evidence we receive, but it should be obvious where government can make a difference. Education is crucial to changing attitudes to gender. Harassment in schools is rife and many boys leave school with harmful attitudes toward women, and others enter the wider world having never considered or discussed how their actions impact upon women they interact with.
Last month I hosted the parliamentary launch of a UK Feminista/National Education Union report into sexual harassment in schools, ‘It’s just everywhere’. We heard shocking examples of treatment girls have to endure, how teachers can react to harassment, and how quickly these cultural norms take hold. Yet the solution that seems to elude is how we can best educate young men and boys to change their attitude and behaviours toward gender.
Teachers and campaigners who work with school age children will remark on how prevalent regressive attitudes to women are, but also on how quickly boys can change their approach and understanding when given help and guidance around gender equality. We have been enormously successful in Britain at changing attitudes toward racism or homophobia and the same can be done for gender.
An essential first step is for the government to introduce mandatory age-appropriate relationship and sex education (RSE) in schools from key stage one to five. Crucial to the success of this will be to give adequate time and training to teachers, rather than the current trend of asking them to constantly to more with less.
Beyond this there is so much more the government must do. One of the four pillars of the government’s VAWG strategy is the prevention of violence and abuse. These are focussed on universities and public transport, but the problem as we know is much wider than this and the strategy should reflect it.
Equally, employers are now liable under the law for harassment which occurs in the work place, creating a legal obligation to prevent it. This is a positive step but can only be truly effective as part of a wider range of actions to change attitudes and behaviours among men.
We should also accept that commercial sexual exploitation - for example as witnessed in prostitution, a practice in which women’s consent can be purchased and men’s ‘right’ to sex when and how they want it is treated as sacrosanct - also drives the gender inequality in our culture which allows harassment to breed.
Theresa May’s government have previously cited research by the Government Equalities Office (GEO) to better understand the scale and scope of this problem as well as providing best practice examples of effective ways to work with boys and girls to promote gender equality.
In our Inquiry launched today, we’ll interrogate these plans further, and to press the government to go faster in doing what only they can do.
Gavin Shuker is the Labour MP for Luton South and member of the Women and Equalities Select Committee