Why public sexual harassment should be made illegal and how you can help

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I have been sexually harassed in the street by men many, many times.

I’ve been groped, shouted at, intimidated, and even had a man expose himself.

While that may be surprising for some (males) to read, the truly shocking part is how unremarkable my experience is.

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A recent poll conducted by UN Women UK found that 80 percent of all women have been subjected to sexual harassment, and that number climbs to 97 percent between the ages of 18-24.

However, unlike the coronavirus pandemic, sexual harassment does not have the whole force of the world attempting to curb its spread.

Sadly, it is already an accepted truth in our society.

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As women, we are brought up knowing to travel home via main roads, wear an overcoat to cover our skirts, and text our friends once we’ve shut the front door.

One year, aged 14, Santa Claus even gifted me a rape alarm in my Christmas stocking – something I did not question.

For too long, the onus has been on making ourselves un-attackable and not on our attackers, but this approach does not work.

The recent tragic murder of Sarah Everard is point and case. Here was a woman doing everything ‘right’. She wore bright clothing, walked home at a sensible time, and even rang her boyfriend. Yet, still, she wasn’t safe.

Some may say that her killer was an evil anomaly, a rare and unavoidable horror. But if our culture does not tackle public sexual harassment (PSH) on a smaller scale, how can we ever hope to stop perpetrators of heinous crimes?

We must take a stand, and to create true systemic change public sexual harassment needs to made illegal.

Our Streets Now is a group working to do just that. Jess Leigh, a core campaigner for the organisation explained to OK! that PSH is defined as “unwanted sexual behaviours action or gestures. This could be verbal, non-verbal or physical and it occurs in public spaces”.

Currently, it is illegal in France, Belgium, and Portugal, and so what is the UK’s excuse?

Jess said: “Our laws very much reflect our culture. So if you can get fined £70 for dropping a piece of litter on the floor, but you can shout horrific horrible things at somebody and there be no action against it, that says something.

“That says the government will stand by and let women experience this, and have all those horrible feelings.”

A counterargument is that criminalising such acts could infringe on free speech, to play devil’s advocate; where would we draw the line?

Jess addressed this, explaining: “What is essential is remembering that the punishment would be fair, reasonable and provide the necessary protection for women and girls.

“So you’re not going to get arrested for shouting ‘Hey gorgeous!’ at someone across the street. However, the law is there to set a precedent so when those more serious behaviours do happen there can be charges against.”

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She went on to add that it is a “pyramid of violence. The words we have on the street are the same in sexual violence cases and the same in online abuse”.

Our Streets Now aims to take a bill to parliament they worked on with human rights lawyer Dexter Dias QC and gender-based violence expert Dr. Charlotte Proudman, and their petition is currently at over 400,000 signatures. I urge you to sign it.

Public sexual harassment is part and parcel of being of woman, but please know that it doesn’t have to be. Sarah’s death does not have to be in vain.

Across the nation, conversations are happening, and we cannot let them fade to whispers. We must keep shouting and making noise, because that is the route to walking home in peace.

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