Victims of street harassment such as cyberflashing and upskirting are being encouraged to report offences to police, amid concerns there is a lack of awareness that such behaviour can amount to criminality.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for England and Wales has published new legal guidance on public sexual abuse, which also includes exposure of genitals, to clarify the law and “send a clear message that this intimidating behaviour can be a criminal offence”.
The move, the first time the CPS has published specific guidance on public sexual abuse, comes after a report published by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for UN Women last year found most women have lost faith that abuse will be dealt with.
The APPG found that 71% of women in the UK had experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space, rising to 80% among 18– to 34-year-olds. In 95% of cases the incident was not reported to the police, with the most common reasons given that they did not think it was serious enough (55%) and they did not think it would help (45%).
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.”
Offences highlighted by the CPS include exposure, upskirting, which was made a specific criminal offence in 2019, cyberflashing, and intention to cause harassment, alarm, or distress by words or behaviour under the Public Order Act.
Cyberflashing is due to become a specific offence, punishable by up to two years in prison, in the delayed online safety bill, although it can be prosecuted under existing legislation relating to malicious communications.
Campaigners said that the requirement in the bill for cyberflashers to have intent to cause “alarm, distress or humiliation” sets a high bar, particularly when a lot of boys and men do not understand the seriousness of sending unsolicited nude images.
Lisa Hallgarten, head of policy and public affairs at sexual health charity Brook, said: “Simply making something illegal doesn’t stop it from happening.
“Unless we genuinely address the misconception that cyberflashing is harmless or just a joke, people will continue to send unsolicited images without understanding the distress and intimidation it can cause.
“The best way to tackle cyberflashing is through education that promotes a better understanding of consent and equips people to develop safe and healthy relationships both online and in the real world.”
Gabriela de Oliveira, head of policy, research and campaigns at Glitch, wants to see the law based on the fact that the victim has not given consent and for tech giants to take responsibility for abuse on their platforms.
She said a prompt asking senders whether they had consent to send the image would be useful. “Something like that prevents it, but also teaches people what is abuse and what isn’t,” she said.