Wolf whistlers should be prosecuted if they are ‘aiming to cause distress’

·4 min read
A person opens social media on their phone - Yui Mok/PA
A person opens social media on their phone - Yui Mok/PA

Street harassment such as wolf whistling, cat-calling and making sexually explicit comments should be prosecuted if they are aimed at causing distress to women, says new Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance.

CPS chiefs are urging police and prosecutors to treat such harassment, indecent exposure and taking or sending unsolicited nude pictures as potential crimes that “should not be dismissed”.

They say current harassment laws can be used to prosecute a perpetrator’s words or behaviour if they constitute “repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications or contact upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear”.

Repeated comments “during a single short incident” are unlikely to amount to harassment and prosecutors are advised to consider instead using section 4 of the Public Order Act.

“This involves the intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress by words or behaviour. The effect on the victim is an essential element, with prosecutors required to prove someone actually suffered harassment, alarm or distress and the defendant acted intentionally,” says the guidance.

Boris Johnson’s Government has so far resisted calls for a new offence of street harassment, arguing that it can be prosecuted using current legislation. Liz Truss has committed to introducing a new law if she is elected Tory leader.

The new CPS guidance published on Monday has updated public order offences to include, for the first time, a specific chapter on charges relating to public sexual abuse which includes street harassment, cyber-flashing, up-skirting and indecent exposure.

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

‘Feeling safe should not be a luxury’

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.”

The guidance advises police and prosecutors to take action against cyberflashing – where offenders send unsolicited sexual images via data sharing services such as Bluetooth and Airdrop. “These offences are often committed on public transport or at large public gatherings,” it says.

Indecent exposure is defined as an offence when the perpetrator intentionally exposes their genitals and intends for the person seeing them to experience alarm or distress.

“Up-skirting is taking a photograph or video under someone’s clothing without their consent and the perpetrator not reasonably believing consent had been given. It is done with the intention to humiliate, alarm or distress the victim or gain sexual gratification,” it adds.

Campaigners have warned that sending obscene pictures is so common among young people that many do not realise it is abuse.

Gabriela de Oliveira, head of policy, research and campaigns at anti-cyber abuse charity Glitch, said that the current law on cyber-flashing is based on whether the sender intended to cause distress.

She said: “I don’t think that any of us really believe that creating really steep prison sentences for cyber-flashing based on an intent to distress or humiliate will prevent people from doing cyber-flashing in the first place if they can say it was banter.

“Because it is incredibly normalised, and that is the core of the problem, it is normalised to an extent where people don’t understand it yet as abuse.”

Instead Glitch wants to see the law be based on the fact that the victim has not given consent, and wants tech giants to take responsibility for abuse on their platforms.

A spokesperson for the CPS said: “There is no specific law criminalising catcalling or wolf whistling, so a one-off incident is unlikely to amount to an offence.”

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