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Catcalls, whistles, groping: the everyday picture of sexual harassment in London

Government urged to take abuse more seriously as London study shows 41 per cent are harassed

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, a new study shows.

Laurie Penny: Do you ignore him, and risk him getting angry, or smile, which might encourage him?

The harrassment 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 today by the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition shows 41 per cent of women under the age of 34 have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the street. Of the total, 21 per cent classified the abuse as unwanted sexual attention and 4 per cent said they had been physically touched by someone.

The revelations have led to renewed calls for a more pro-active approach towards sexual harassment from local councils, police and national government. 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 the view among wide sections of society 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.

Her comments were echoed by Bob Crow, head of the RMT union which represent many public transport workers. He said recent cuts to staffing levels on transport networks would make passengers less safe.

"The reassurance of having a human staff presence on a station late at night is key to showing that safety and security are a priority and those who want a faceless transport system in the name of cuts and profit should study this important piece of work," he said. The true extent of sexual harassment across Britain is difficult to judge. 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 Simisterset 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."

Sexual harassment victims speak out

Rosie Wadey, 20, is a music photographer who lives in east London

"I've suffered a lot of street harassment since I moved to London. I've been assaulted three times. Those incidents were induced by street harassment. I was either followed home, or followed off the train, I was assaulted on the Underground.

"It's changed the way I live in London, the way I dress, the areas I visit. I turn down things if it's late. I don't have the money to take taxis all the time.

"A lot of them started when someone has said something to me. If someone's openly aggressive, I say 'thank you'. Then they use that as an opportunity to follow me or touch me.

"The most recent assault happened in Liverpool Street station. I was coming home late, probably 11.30, and using a cash point, and some guy came up to me and said, 'What's your name?' I continued to use the cash point, but it was out of order. I had to move away, and he followed me. There were a lot of people around. He followed me and would not stop talking to me. By that point, I had made it perfectly clear that I did not want to talk to him. He put his arm around me. He asked me things like, 'Do you have a boyfriend?', 'Want to come back to my house?'. I got more and more aggressive; and this person is not taking the message. It got to the point where he put his hand on my head and pulled me by my hair, and I screamed at him."

Emma Allwood, 19, from Milton Keynes

"The kind of stuff that's happened to me, I think, it's nothing much. But then, that's part of the problem isn't it? I remember when I went to school, when I was in sixth form, we would walk up the road during lunchtime to get food. As we were walking up, groups of men in cars would be beeping their horn or saying stuff at us. In London, literally last week, I walked on to the road at a bus stop, and in under a minute people were beeping at me. This stuff generally happens at least once a week."

Caroline Mortimer, 21, a student at Birmingham university, was on the train from Birmingham to London

"I was listening to my iPod, when I felt the fingers of the man next to me lightly touch my leg. He seemed to have fallen asleep, so I thought it was a mistake." After shifting her position, she again felt him touch her leg – and she realised it wasn't an accident. But she didn't speak up. "I thought, if I say something and ask the people around me to swap seats, they'll think I'm over-reacting."

Hannah, Manchester

I went home, wondering how I could feel so violated by words, being angry at myself for not reacting more robustly and then finally mulling over what exactly that guy would need to hear to stop him from doing it again. I still haven't come up with anything."

Natalie, Exeter

"I was queueing at a cashpoint with a couple of friends in a busy part of town one Friday night after work. It was cold so I was wrapped up warm, with a long thick coat on – which was just as well because a group of five men came jogging past us and one of them forcefully grabbed at my backside as he went by. It all happened so quickly, I didn't see which one it was and they were out of sight by the time I'd told the people around me what had happened. It made me feel angry and vulnerable."

Jane, London

"I've begun taking photos of people who harass on the street. I took a photo of a man who said I had a nice arse. He seemed unhappy but also adamant that he'd done nothing wrong. I see him about once a week now. Makes my skin crawl."

Naomi, Birmingham

"I think the most threatened that I've felt was a couple of months ago. I just walking through a park. There were these two boys. They followed me all through the park. And they were saying very sexual things, in quite a threatening way. A lot of the time, you don't think you can report it to the police because you don't know if the police can do anything about it."

Lisa, Bath

"It seems quite minor, but for me it really summed up how some men are such knobs sometimes. I was walking across [town]. A guy shouted 'hello' at me, I ignored him and carried on walking. He then shouted 'what, not good enough for you? It really angered me that he turned his douchebaggery round on me. Suddenly, in his mind, he's not an ass for shouting at me, it's that I'm a bitch because I ignored him. So typical.