July 18, 2024

Public sexual harassment – meet the sisters campaigning to make it illegal

Our Streets Now is a grassroots activism group founded by sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton, aged 21 and 16 respectively. Plan International is a children’s organisation that fights for equality, and their joint mission is to tackle Public Sexual Harassment (PSH) by pushing for legislative and political change, and by increasing awareness and education around PSH.

This week, a campaign was launched to make public sexual harassment a crime in the UK. Launched alongside the hashtag #CrimeNotCompliment, Our Streets Now and Plan International have teamed up to call for a clear law that makes all forms of public sexual harassment illegal.

So what is public sexual harassment? Cat-calling and comments on appearances are a part of it, but the term encompasses any unwanted behaviour, actions or gestures in public spaces whether they’re verbal, non-verbal or physical. “These experiences deny women equal access to civic space,” says Maya, referring to things like being followed, upskirted, filmed or given unwanted attention, which can leave women feeling threatened, frightened, belittled and distressed.

Over 80% of parents worry their daughters will experience PSH, and 67% instruct them not to walk home alone after a certain time; 41% tell them not to go out after dark.

In other words, parents are encouraging their daughters to change their behaviour to avoid PSH, which means girls are effectively being punished for harassers’ behaviour, feeding into a culture of victim-blaming. Parents are simply trying to protect their kids, but Our Streets Now aims to flip the narrative, placing the responsibility to change on those committing PSH, not those suffering as a result of it.

Our Streets Now aims to flip the narrative, placing the responsibility to change on those committing PSH, not those suffering as a result of it.

Human rights lawyer Dexter Dias QC and gender-based violence expert Dr Charlotte Proudman worked closely with Our Streets Now and Plan International to draft a bill that they aim to take to Parliament. The campaign has generated overwhelming public support in the form of over 220,000 signatures on their petition to make PSH a criminal offence in the UK, with 94% of girls – unsurprisingly – agreeing it should be illegal. The next step is mobilising parliamentary support so that MPs will table the bill. “The big thing people are sceptical about is whether this is possible to enforce. Yet a number of countries already have strong legislation in place tackling this very issue. We know the problem, and we’ve created the solution. Now it just needs to become law,” Maya explains.

“The legislation fills the gap around public sexual harassment, which despite being such a huge cause for physical and psychological trauma is still not illegal in this country. We based the bill on international human rights standards and it’s in keeping with the Istanbul Convention (which focuses on preventing violence against women and girls), so punishment would vary from fines to prison sentences of up to 12 months, factoring in age, severity and escalation. For example, many women experience sexual harassment and it soon turns into a homophobic, transphobic or racist attack. There is not one singular experience of sexual harassment, so our proposed legislation is as intersectional as possible to reflect that. ”

It’s no coincidence that the campaign launched in the same week as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which took place on Wednesday 25 November. “Public sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence,” says Maya. “And it’s having a massive impact on the mental health, fear and freedom of women, girls and marginalised genders. That’s unacceptable, and needs to change. ”

The #CrimeNotCompliment campaign follows in the footsteps of activist Gina Martin, who successfully campaigned to make upskirting (the act of taking a picture under another person’s clothing without their consent) a criminal offence in April 2019.

“I don’t think our legislation would be possible without her paving the way,” says Maya. “She raised the profile of public sexual harassment, and turned what was once something we all complained about among friends into a conversation being had by people in power. ” This week, upskirting hit the headlines once again as 55 year old barrister Daren Timson-Hunt, who was the first person to be convicted for the crime, received a further six-month professional suspension. He was sentenced to 35 days of community service, 30 days of rehabilitation activity and 60 hours unpaid work, received two fines and was placed on the sex offenders register for five years for filming underneath a woman’s skirt on the London underground. “Gina basically said, this is unacceptable, we need to change the law to reflect that this is a form of gender-based violence,” Maya adds, echoing her own approach. “Not only does it put people off doing it in the first place, it holds those that do it accountable. ”

Not only does legislation put people off doing it in the first place, it holds those that do it accountable

On Monday 23 November, BBC5 Live invited Maya to discuss the campaign with broadcaster Emma Barnett. “It’s not about pulling, it’s about power,” Maya said, so Emma invited listeners who have sexually harassed women in the street to call in, and was surprised when one man did. It’s a poignant, disturbing and shocking piece of radio. “They’re just objects,” the man says, sending shivers down the spine of every woman in the country, adding that 11 years old “might be too young”. Some listeners couldn’t help but feel vindicated in his comments – finally, an outright admission from a male perpetrator.

For years, women have been gaslit by society into thinking they are the problem, and here is a real life example of how very damaging that attitude can be. “The interview really clearly showed us the link between objectification, sexualisation and PSH,” Maya says after the broadcast. “And it’s not just ‘weird sex pests and perverts’ – these are your everyday guys. This is toxic masculinity, patriarchal structures and the normalisation of violence against women and girls in action. ”

A study by Promundo in 2018 reported that 1 in 3 young men in the UK had made sexually harassing comments to a woman or girl they didn’t know, in a public place the month before.

It’s clear that the legislation proposed fills a gaping hole in the UK’s safeguarding mechanism. When you consider that this summer, during a period of the Covid-19 pandemic in which many were isolating and social interaction was limited, over half of women and girls still experienced PSH, it’s easy to understand why there’s an urgency to #CrimeNotCompliment, too. So what can you do to help?

“Sign the petition, and check out Plan International’s activism page, which has loads of helpful guides. The legislation is one piece of the puzzle, so you can contact your MP to express your support and put pressure on them to back it, but you can also take this conversation into schools. If you’re a student, do an assembly on PSH. If you’re a teacher, address this with your class. Education is one of the most important things we can do to tackle PSH at the root. ”

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