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Britain’s Systemic Sexual Harassment Problem: What Can Be Done?


What are the figures?

In a recent study by UN Women UK, it was found that 97% of 18- to 24-year-old women have faced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. The same survey also found that 80% of women, from all ages, have been subject to public sexual harassment. For the year leading up to June 2020, the Office for National Statistics reported 152,977 sexual offences as recorded by police, with 55,758 of those complaints being related to rape. However, during the same time period, only 2,102 rape complaints led to prosecution and even less led to a conviction. Furthermore, the issue with sexual offences – for both female and particularly male victims – is that they have a low report rate in comparison to other crimes so the problem is far bigger than the statistics could ever show.

This is not a problem that is faced on a small scale. It is not age-specific or restricted to one region or one profession; the problem is intersectional and therefore, it should be everybody’s problem.

What are the effects of this?

When sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct are faced by women so prevalently, forming part of their daily lifestyle, it results in a continued and sustained gender inequality between men and women – because, statistically, the issue disproportionately affects women. However, the problem of systemic sexual harassment and misconduct goes beyond this; the entire criminal justice system has been exponentially failing victims of the most serious sexual crimes since 2016, with the CPS charging less and less perpetrators of rape. In an effort to meet a 60% conviction rate for rape, the CPS appears to be taking forward less cases or ones that are more likely to be won which means that cases deemed to be “difficult” or weaker complaints are being dropped, as the CPS puts in a “touch on the tiller” approach.

When even the judicial system seems to be biased against them, it is unsurprising that less women turn to the police for help when subjected to this. As per the UN Women UK survey, 96% of respondents did not report their complaints to the police and 45% also believed that “it would not change anything”. The number of convictions for rape has been decreasing exponentially since 2016. As this number continues to fall, more victims lose faith in the judicial system and are continually failed by the Crown Prosecution Service. The abysmal rate of conviction for rape is constantly reinforcing the idea that victims of sexual misconduct – and particularly those that have been subjected to extremely violent types of misconduct, such as rape – cannot achieve anything easily by going to the police and chasing a conviction through the courts service.

The significance of almost all women between the ages of 18 and 24 been subjected to sexual harassment is that, from their formative years, they begin to be silenced – an issue which is exacerbated throughout the university experience, a time in which women often face an epidemic of sexual harassment and misconduct. Universities are also known for their use of ‘gagging’ clauses which are used to silence students that complain of sexual misconduct and other conduct issues. With their use being condemned by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the body that regulates student complaints, students – particularly female students – have their silence bought in order to save the reputation of higher education facilities. The reputation of universities is continually prioritised over the ability of women to speak out and report their experiences, with the real possibility of action being taken against their perpetrators.

Where do we go from here?

The deep-rooted issues that are being faced regarding the rape conviction rates are being challenged through judicial review, co-ordinated by the End Violence Against Women coalition, in order to fight the problem at its source.

The encouragement from universities for female students to not be silent when faced with assault or harassment is vapid, without genuine action being completed when accusations are brought to the surface. Women must be provided with a safe space to report experiences, even in higher education facilities, because without this, sexual harassment can never be tackled. Without this, the problem will continue to be a generally accepted part of life for women, who may “brush it off”, however significant it may be to them.

If you have been affected by any of the topics in this article, please seek support:

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