Street harassment laws explained as new guidance says offenders can be prosecuted for catcalling

·3-min read
A report by the All-Party Parliament Group (APPG) for UN Women last year found that 71% of women in the UK had experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public place. (Alamy/PA)
A report by the All-Party Parliament Group (APPG) for UN Women last year found that 71% of women in the UK had experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public place. (Alamy/PA)

Those responsible for sexual harassment in the street can and will be charged, new guidance to prosecutors in England and Wales says.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is also pushing for those who are sent obscene images, have pictures taken up their skirt, get flashed in person or sexually harassed in the street to turn to the criminal justice system.

They have also suggested that one-off incidents of “cat-calling” could be classed as offences under existing public order laws.

A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for UN Women last year found that 71% of women in the UK had experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public place, but 95% of cases were not reported to the police.

Elsewhere, an Ofsted report last year showed that nearly 90% of girls and nearly 50% of boys revealed to inspectors that being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they didn’t want to see happened often to them and their peers.

The government is also considering stronger laws on street harassment, revealing it has begun a consultation on extending existing legislation, making it an offence to cause “intentional harassment, alarm or distress” to someone because of their sex.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is the new guidance on sexual harassment prosecution?

The CPS has revealed that it’s decided to review laws on sexual harassment in the street because of a renewed focus on women’s safety in public areas, following the murder of Sarah Everard last year.

The new guidance stresses public order laws can be used to prosecute, even when someone makes “one-off, less serious comments”.

“Examples could include unwanted sexual comments... where it is not possible to prove that the perpetrator had an intention to cause harassment, alarm, or distress,” the guidance states.

In cases of unwanted touching in the street or on public transport, police do not have to prove what happened was “intentionally sexual”, says the guidance.

The CPS has also highlighted a new law that bans voyeurism while a person is breastfeeding a child, as well as introducing a ban on up-skirting, which came into effect in 2019.

Elsewhere, cases of “cyber-flashing” - where offenders send lewd messages or sexual images via bluetooth to people nearby - should also be handled in the same way as misuse of social media, the report says.

This would include an assessment of whether the messages were offensive, and intended to cause distress.

The CPS has stated it believes a clear approach to abusive behaviour in the street will help victims feel more able to make an allegation.

Siobhan Blake, CPS national lead for Rape and Serious Sexual Offences said: “It is sickening that seven in 10 women – almost three quarters – have been subjected to this disgusting behaviour.

“It is equally concerning that so few incidents of sexual harassment in public are reported.

“The law is clear that if someone exposes themselves, tries to take inappropriate pictures or makes you feel threatened on the street, these are crimes and should not be dismissed.

Everyone has the right to travel on public transport, dance at a festival or walk the streets without fear of harassment. Feeling safe should not be a luxury for women.”