Opinion

Street Harassment in the UK: Degrading, Offensive, and Threatening, But Not Illegal

Harriet highlights the real issues and danger of street harassement, which is still considered a simple joke by many, this despite the proven emotional and psychological impact it has on most victims.

By Harriet Seedhouse

In the past few years, we’ve seen many young activists such as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, reach major media headlines for their work on large global issues, from women’s educational rights to the climate crisis. Yet two young women who are only recently breaking into the media world in the UK are Maya and Gemma Tutton. Maya (20) and Gemma (14), two sisters, are campaigning for street harassment to be made illegal in the UK. Their campaign on Change.org – OurSteetsNow – has already been signed 165,845 times at the time of writing, and they have received the backing of many influential politicians and activists. But why is this an issue that needs to be brought to light, and why are these two girls the ones that started this?

Maya has stated that hearing Gemma had been harassed in the street at only 11 years old was “one of the most upsetting things in the world” and worse still, she knew there was nothing she could do about it. This experience is not uncommon in today’s society: 90% of girls are harassed in the streets before reaching adulthood according to a Parliamentary report by the Women’s and Equalities Committee. Street harassment can range from catcalling to groping and is often simply seen as a joke, yet it can have very serious effects on people. 

An often “forgotten” element of street harassment is the after-shock. Maya and Gemma state that it is not okay for anyone to be forced to adapt their behaviour to avoid harassment; by walking different routes home, wearing clothing that you aren’t comfortable in just to feel safe. Street harassment can lead to feelings of hurt, anger, feeling powerless and objectified. No one should have to worry about going through this on a daily basis and especially not when there are no specific laws against street harassment. 

While some may argue that there are more pressing matters in regards to women’s rights that need to be discussed more in the media and between politicians right now, there is a multitude of evidence that shows just how damaging street harassment can be, causing “long-term emotional and psychological harm” according to the Women and Equalities Committee’s parliamentary report. This should not be an argument over which type of inequality or injustice is more important, but should be about changing what we can, when we can.

The campaign is designed to empower victims to speak up about their experiences and to show people that street harassment is not acceptable. A large proportion of their Instagram feed (@ourstreetsnow) is made up of anonymous quotes from those who have faced the harsh realities of feeling threatened on the streets. Their petition focuses mainly on the effects on women and girls (by women, they refer to “all those who self-identify as women and/or those who are perceived to be women and/or those who experience misogyny”). On their social media, however, they illustrate just how many groups of people face this type of intimidation. For example, they highlight that members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to experience street harassment and the probability of physical violence is much higher than other communities. OurStreetsNow have also shown that women of colour are at a higher risk of being victims of street harassment. As Ammaarah Zayna of OurStreetsNow has illustrated in a piece she wrote about the campaign: “there is no single way to experience street harassment or to be targeted and each story is equally as valid and worthy of attention.” The issue is extensive. It crosses racial, sexual and class boundaries and is not as harmless as many people think it is. 

But how can changing the law actually affect street harassment? If OurStreetsNow are successful, we would not be the first country to enforce laws to protect people from street harassment. France, Belgium and Portugal have enforced similar laws in recent years. The law in France covers “sexist insults, degrading or humiliating comments, or hostile and offensive “sexual or sexist” behaviour towards a person in public areas, schools or workplaces.” When this was first put into effect in August 2018 it took a month before the first fine was issued to a man who “slapped a woman’s buttocks on a bus and made lewd comments”. France has stated that one of the main features of their “new” law is that fines can be issued on the spot for many cases with the hope that this will not only save victims the stress and fees of reporting a crime but will also deter harassers. They also have higher fines in place for those who commit harassment to those under the age of 15 and those who would be considered particularly vulnerable.

These laws in other countries are proven to work. The public back the enforcement of these laws. So why do we not have any? A large phase in the OurStreetsNow campaign is getting local MPs on board with their mission and with the backing of such people, they hope that their petition can do a lot more than just spark discussions. 

Like their change.org campaign states: people should feel safe walking the streets, day and night, with the confidence that the law protects them. Not just women and girls but everyone. Most likely, many of you reading this will have faced street harassment at some point in your lives and while some may brush it off as trivial and the norm, it can have serious, lasting effects on others. The only way to stop these things happening is to change the law. By signing this petition, by talking to politicians and by tackling this inequality and keeping people safe on our streets, things will only change and get better if we make them.

Harriet is a second year Aerospace engineering student at the University of Surrey.

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