Might Never Happen:

A Doll's Eye Theatre Education Production visiting schools in 2017.

Understanding public sexual harassment

What is public sexual harassment? Public sexual harassment has no single definition or term used to describe it. Most commonly it is referred to as “street harassment” however this can be too limiting to describe the range of locations it can be experienced. Public sexual harassment refers to the experience of intrusion from strangers in public space and can include actions such as wolf-whistles, flashing and following, verbal comments including sexualised comments and insults, and physical intrusions including sexual assault.

Why is it a problem? Sexual harassment has a negative impact. The research that inspired the play Might Never Happen found that the experience of public sexual harassment effected how women and girls felt about their body and how they behaved in public. It found that in public spaces many women are constantly evaluating their safety, and performing safety work (such as taking particular routes or doing particular things such as wearing headphones, looking down). This work has an impact on women’s freedom. Women often have to reduce or limit their freedom (freedom of movement, freedom to wear what they want or behave as they choose) in order to increase a sense of their safety. As the experience of intrusion for many begins in childhood or early adolescence, often this safety work is hidden as a normal part of ‘just the way things are.’

Aren’t men sexually harassed in public too? Yes. Men may experience forms of public sexual harassment. It is important to acknowledge this at the same time as recognising how harassment directed from unknown men and boys to women and girls has a particular impact because of how it connects to other forms of violence against women. For example, ‘safety concerns’ for women in public often refers to safety from sexual assault. This is different from men’s fear of crime in public space which more commonly refers to physical rather than sexual violence, or property rather than interpersonal crime. This is not to suggest that there is no harm when men are sexually harassed in public, nor is it to privilege one experience of harassment (e.g. women’s) over the harassment that many LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people experience on the street.

How common is it?

  • A recent poll by the End Violence Against Women Coalition showed that 85% of younger women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public, and that almost half of all women conduct conscious safety work when in public.
  • In similar contexts to England, a study taken of American adult women in 2000 found that almost 87 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 64 had experienced some form of harassment on the street by an unknown man at sometime in their life.
  • Hollaback together with Cornell University conducted an international survey in 2014, finding for example that in Europe over 80% of women report experiencing street harassment prior to age 17.

Is it the same for all women and girls?No. Women can be targeted in different ways, and their experiences can be responded to differently. Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women, for example, experience harassment that is both sexist and racist. Imkaan’s young women’s project Purple Drum, together with the End Violence Against Women Coalition have recently released an excellent short film highlighting this. Muslim women who wear the hijab or other religious coverings are often at the forefront of a particular form of harassment fuelled by the intersection of Islamophobia and sexism. Women with visible physical disabilities may be targeted for both their disability and for being women, and feelings of unsafety in public space can be heightened where a disability physically limits on a woman’s ‘space for action’. Lesbian/bisexual women are commonly targeted for homophobic sexual harassment, as are many gay/bisexual men. Some may be subjected to harassment which targets several aspects of their identity at the same time, for example a young BME lesbian may experience harassment that is racist, sexist, homophobic and age-specific.

Is it a problem only in England? No. There is a global movement of individuals and organisations campaigning to increase the freedom and safety of women and girls in public space. The Why Loiter movement in India was inspired by the book of the same name, and encourages women and girls to ‘take up space’ in public. The Girls at Dhabas in Pakistan also encourages women to occupy public spaces, to feel free to enter traditionally male dominated spaces and to practice male dominated activities, such as cycling or cricket. In Egypt, Harassmap is a campaign to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt. Las Hijas de Violencia (The Daughters of Violence) is a performance art group based in Mexico City, combining punk rock and performance art to combat street harassment. Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has been conducting a public space art project, Stop Telling Women to Smile, challenging street harassment in America, as well as a recent installation in Mexico City. Click on the hyperlinks to find out more.

What can I do about it? You’ve already begun! Taking the time to learn more about the issue and the work being done around it is the first step. Helping to share that information with others is the next. Read up, share your own stories, and help in raising awareness.  

The EveryDay Sexism Project Project cataloguing women’s experiences of routine forms of sexism in England

Hollaback Campaign to share experiences and challenge street harassment in London

Stop Street Harassment American based site with international resources and information

Imkaan Information on specialist organisationa for BME women and girls who have experienced any form of violence.

Rape Crisis England & Wales Support for women and girls who have experienced any form of sexual violence

Survivors UK Information and support for men and boys who have experienced any form of sexual violence