Nearly half of young women in London were sexually harassed in public last year, with many forced to endure unwanted male attention on buses and trains.
Harassment ranges from wolf-whistling and lewd comments to physical groping and sexual assault.
Campaigners say that reported cases represent "the tip of the iceberg" and that authorities can no longer afford to ignore the issue.
Research released by the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition shows 41 per cent of women under the age of 34 have been sexually harassed in the street. Of the total, 21 per cent classified the abuse as unwanted sexual attention and 4 per cent said they had been touched.
The revelations have led to renewed calls for a more pro-active approach from the authorities. In recent years, a slew of websites and campaign groups have sprung up encouraging women to report their experiences and pressure the police into pursuing allegations more vigorously.
But there are concerns that not enough is being done to counter a view that unwanted sexual attention is little more than light-hearted flirting.
Figures for those using public transport were also alarming. A third of the 1,047 respondents reported unwanted sexual attention on trains and buses, with 5 per cent saying they had been groped. Professor Liz Kelly, co-chair of EVAW, called on the Government to invest more readily in campaigns targeting sexual harassment on public transport and educating staff on how to respond to allegations.
"Despite this high prevalence and impact, however, public sexual harassment is a form of abuse which generally goes unchallenged, creating an unsafe and unequal environment for women," she said.
Campaigners say there is an acute shortage of academic studies looking into women's experiences. But anecdotal evidence and the few studies that exist suggest unwanted sexual attention is frighteningly common. Fiona Elvines, from the Rape Crisis Centre, south London, is one of the few academics researching public sexual harassment for a PhD. "The issue has been trivialised for so long that is hasn't been seen as a valid subject to study," she said. "But the effect it has is enormous, from everyday decisions women have to make to avoid such harassment – like pretending to talk on your phone – to longer term effects on how they view their bodies."
Vicky Simister set up a campaign group encouraging women to report harassment after she was herself the victims of unwanted sexual advances.
Her Anti-Street Harassment website has since gone nationwide.
"This is both a societal and policing issue," she said. "It's not just about slapping cuffs on people – it's changing the way we think."Reuse content