Assault victims want to 'change male mindset' — not create new laws
- Credit: Lynda Groves
The government has pledged a raft of new policing powers to tackle harassment against women — but victims say "changing the male mindset" is a far better use of resources.
In home secretary Priti Patel's new strategy on tackling violence against women, the overwhelming message was one of "giving police powers to crackdown on perpetrators" through the creation of new public order offences, and by introducing a national policing lead to prioritise the issue.
But women themselves say creating laws to criminalise all-too-familiar and entrenched forms of street harassment, such as cat-calling and wolf-whistling, completely miss the point — which is to stop men harassing women in the first place.
Nationally between December 2019-2020, 1,074 rapists were convicted — a decline of 64pc on the 2016-17 figures, when 2,991 rape charges were brought to conviction.
According to Young Labour chairman Jess Barnard, who has herself been subject to both street harassment and serious sexual assault, "dragging even more women through the justice system" is not the answer.
"It's a huge cultural shift we need", she said. "The people who report harassment and rape are just the tip of the iceberg, because most people don't want to go through the humiliation and scrutiny of having to relive and retell your ordeal at a trial or in front of police.
"The intrusion puts people off, and even more so for trans people and people of colour who experience street harassment, because they have a fractious relationship with the police anyway.
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"Besides, how would we even catch people cat-calling in the act? It would be almost impossible to prosecute, and the police have enough to deal with.
"Instead of legislating, we need to be educating men from a very young age about how they should behave towards women. We need men to be calling out other men when they hear or witness misogyny in their friendship groups and the workplace."
In Norfolk between March 2020-2021, just 5.4pc of all reports of violence and sexual harassment against women in Norfolk ended in a charge or a summons for the perpetrator.
Most of the time, however, the report never even reached that stage.
In 53.5pc of cases last year, the victim did not support prosecution, and in 27.9pc of cases, there were evidential difficulties even where a suspect was identified and the victim supported action.
Natasha Harpley, a 42-year-old councillor for Broadland, says it is for this reason that criminalising cat-calling and other types of street harassment is "misguided".
She said: "These things are spontaneous and difficult to bring a charge against. You can't prepare for harassment and you don't know how you'll react when it happens — and we can't walk round with bodycams all the time.
"When I was sent some unsolicited disgusting images by a random man on the internet I reported it to the police, but they said there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute because there was no intent to harm.
"If the law could change on that, it'd be great. But for me, the real issue here is the mindset of some men.
"I really welcome the fact the government is taking it seriously, but most women, when they receive lewd comments or gestures in the street, don't have the time, energy or belief in the system to report that to the police."
Lynda Groves, who is 49 and lives in Norwich, said she's been cat-called and harassed on the street since she was 12. The same happens to her 16 and 19-year-old daughters.
She said: "I still get it now at 49, and my daughters used to get it in their uniform. It's appalling.
"If it's ever someone in a work vehicle or on a building site, I would report their behaviour to their employer, and would probably use a law if there was one specifically for cat-calling and street harassment too.
"I do feel it'll be a deterrent more than anything else, but if that makes a difference then I welcome it."
Norfolk's Police and Crime Commissioner, Giles Orpen-Smellie, said while enforcement activity was important, the key was "focusing on changing attitudes and behaviours".
He said: "Violence against women and girls is an intolerable issue, and I will be watching the progress of the proposed new legislation with interest.
"There is a lot of work happening in Norfolk at the moment to ensure we have well-developed plans in place to protect women and girls."
The report follows a 180-000 response public consultation in the aftermath of the murder of Sarah Everard.
Launching the strategy on tackling violence against women and girls today, Priti Patel said: "I'm determined to give police the powers they need to crack down on perpetrators and carry out their duties to protect the public, while also providing victims with the care and support they deserve."
Measures suggested include the creation of new public order offences where there are "gaps in the law" and a review into police management of registered sex offenders.
But there are also plans to address street safety infrastructure, fund a 24/7 rape and sexual assault helpline and StreetSafe online tool, fund NHS trauma support services and initiate a public campaign focused on challenging misogyny.