Time’s Up: Criminalise Sexual Harassment

Women's March in London, 21 Jan 2018

From domestic violence to stalking and harassment, most current laws do not adequately protect women. When it comes to sexual harassment, legislation worldwide tends to be particularly vague and piecemeal, leaving unclear definitions of what is acceptable and unacceptable, in turn making the issue neither scalable or preventable.

Setting clear behavioural boundaries across societal spheres – from the workplace to public and private spaces – is essential in the fight to end all sexual and gender-based violence. There needs to be no obscurity when it comes to defining sexual assault – no confusion with ‘seduction’ and ‘praise’. We cannot wait any longer for entire cultures to change. For our protection and to prevent further abuse, the law can be used to have a tangible impact.

Results from the most comprehensive survey on women’s experiences of violence worldwide, revealed there are greater chances of abuse specifically in the UK, with 85% of women in Britain having been sexually harassed in public places and two-thirds at work. So why are current UK laws failing victims?

Culture change vs criminalisation

Some argue that the laws in developed countries like Britain are already well-established and the focus should be on changing culture, while creating a space for survivors to be able to use existing laws to access justice.

However, as younger generations increasingly advocate equality, progress appears to be hindered by legislative lags. With mounting pressure on behalf of social media campaigns and protests worldwide, there is hope of change. But no matter how much public discredit perpetrators endure, without those responsible being legally held to account, we cannot expect to see the shift that is needed to end violence against women and girls. Is it a far cry to compare this to America’s gun problems? Social attitudes alone won’t stop children being gunned down while at school, tighter gun regulations will.

In Malaysia, Youth Parliament members recently urged the government to enact a Sexual Harassment Act in light of increasing cases. Using India and the Philippines as examples of countries that had specific acts on the crime, Ahmad Zaki contended following suit would, “provide a guideline in preventing the problem from occurring, including definitions and procedures for processing complaints relating to sexual harassment.”

In Britain, ‘upskirting’ or ‘downblousing’ are not a criminal offences, and Sarah Green of the End Violence Against Women Coalition believes the inability to classify these terms as offences impede the ability of police to record and take action to tackle these acts.

Before 1975, sexual harassment in the workplace was not defined in the Sex Discrimination Act. The Equality Act 2010 included workplace sexual harassment, but as chair of Commons Women and Equalities Committee Maria Miller pointed out, the process requires the victim to jump through too many hoops. At present, there is nothing in UK law which specifies crimes permitted through street harassment, particularly public verbal harassment. The only police force in the UK that records misogynistic incidents as a hate crime is Nottinghamshire.

Specific legislation is making a difference

Revenge porn was legislated in Britain as a specific criminal offence in 2015 under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, and carries a two-year prison sentence. Before the law was changed, only two prosecutions had been made under copyright or harassment laws. Within a year of it being introduced, 206 people were convicted.

After a survey revealed 75% of Belgian women experienced street harassment before aged 17, Belgium brought in a new law in 2014 which issues fines of up to £901, or a one year prison sentence for sexual harassment crimes. In 2015, Peru enacted the harassment punishment and prevention law entailing a possible conviction of 12 years’ imprisonment for violations. In 2011, verbal harassment of women was made illegal in Portugal, but women’s rights group UMAR are urging now for all forms of sexual harassment to be covered under one single law.

From catcalling to upskirting, these behaviours are indisputably unsolicited and unwarranted, thus constituting sexual harassment. In order to aid victims in seeking justice and to deter individuals from committing these offences in the first place, legislation must specifically criminalise these acts.

We cannot expect cultural change without the justice system reflecting what is right and wrong. Even if legislation fails to directly influence behavioural change, better laws will facilitate a more adequate space for victims to report abuse. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement is symptomatic of the hunger for survivor’s voices to be heard, but justice can only prevail through legislation.

So let us hope the Women and Equality Committee’s new inquiry into sexual harassment of women and girls in public places can lead to positive change by shaping a safer society for all, and perhaps the UK can in turn become a leading example of why we must universally criminalise sexual harassment.


  • Rape Crisis services for women and girls who have been raped or have experienced sexual violence – 0808 802 9999
  • Survivors UK offers support for men and boys – 0203 598 3898