By street harassment, we mean unwanted behaviour in public areas that includes, but is not exclusive of:

  • unsolicited sexualised or offensive comments or gestures
  • unwanted whistling or honking
  • so-called 'catcalling'
  • indecent exposure
  • stalking or being followed
  • intrusive staring
  • persistent sexual advances
  • unwanted touching
  • being insulted or shouted at
  • feeling physically threatened

Public areas include streets, shopping centres, public transport (e.g., buses, trains, etc.), hospitality venues (e.g., pubs, clubs, bars, etc.), public events (e.g., concerts, sports games, festivals, etc.), parks, commons, and other public recreational spaces.

Behaviour doesn't have to be illegal for it to be harassment, although some harassment is a crime. In 2019 the UK government recognised street harassment as a form of gender-based violence in its refreshed national strategy to end Violence Against Women and Girls. Behaviours that are not considered harassment are those that arise from a relationship of mutual consent. A hug or a compliment on physical appearance between friends or mutual flirtation is not considered harassment.

In circumstances where street harassment includes unwelcome sexual conduct, another term for it is ‘public sexual harassment'.

“Public Sexual Harassment (PSH) comprises unwelcomed and unwanted attention, sexual advances and intimidating behaviour that occurs in public spaces, both in-person and online. It is usually directed towards women, girls and gender-diverse people; however, it can be experienced by all.

PSH is carried out because of gender discrimination and/or power dynamics. It perpetuates an environment and culture that disregards historically vulnerable and oppressed groups of people, diminishing their sense of self-worth and denying equal access to public space.”

OUR STREETS | Our Streets Now

How big is the problem?

Harassment happens to people of all genders, but most commonly, women are victims of harassment by men. Trans and gender-diverse individuals are often victims of public sexual harassment. Women of colour experience not only higher rates of public sexual harassment, but the type of harassment is often more targeted and more damaging. Racial language is coupled with sexist remarks.  

From February to March 2022, the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) asked people about their current perceptions of safety and their experiences of harassment in the last 12 months. The findings showed that 82% of women and 42% of men feel fairly or very unsafe walking alone in a park or open space after dark. Half (50%) of all women feel unsafe in a quiet street close to home, 48% on public transport and 45% in a busy public space.

A UN Women UK survey conducted in January 2021 found that 71% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in a public space.  

More women (27%) than men (16%) reported they had experienced at least one form of harassment in the previous 12 months. More than two-thirds of women (38%) aged 16 to 34 years had experienced so-called catcalling in the last 12 months, the highest of all age and sex groups.

The March 2022 ONS Survey reported Disabled people consistently felt less safe in all settings than non-disabled people. People felt less safe walking alone in all settings after dark than during the day; with women feeling less safe than men in all settings after dark. 63% of people felt unsafe in a park or open space after dark and 11% during the day. People also felt less safe using public transport after dark than during the day. Women aged 16 to 34 years felt the most unsafe of any age and sex group using public transport alone after dark.

Street harassment is often not an isolated incident

The cumulative effect of these types of comments and behaviours can cause the person being harassed to feel a heightened sense of anxiety, or to be “on edge” at all times. It limits their ability to be in public. Someone may avoid leaving their home, work, or school for fear of being harassed, limiting their access to opportunities and community. 37% of women and 24% of men had stopped walking in quiet places such as parks or open spaces after dark because of feeling unsafe.

Due to having to change their own behaviour, many people are forced to spend money on private transportation, such as ride apps, when they would otherwise take public transportation or walk. For those who cannot afford these options, fear of street harassment can severely limit when and where they can go out in public, which also limits access to employment and education.

Street harassment not only negatively effects those who experience it but also whole communities as it creates an environment of fear and intimidation. People are less likely to engage with strangers and participate in their communities if they fear being harassed.

Watch this impactful video to find out more about the impact street harassment has on victims.