We need to keep talking about the harassers | ActionAid UK

Danielle Cornish-Spencer

Senior Technical Advisor - Violence Against Women and Girls

While leading businessmen like Green and Weinstein are being named and shamed, everyday sexists and perpetrators stay in the shadows. We talk about violence against women and girls happening, but frame it as though it occurs by magic. Here's how we can change things.

ActionAid activists march against misogyny and harassment during President Trump's visit to the UK
ActionAid activists march against misogyny and harassment during President Trump's visit to the UK

This week, thanks to a new report from Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, we heard just how common it is for women and girls in Britain to be harassed. And two days after the report was published, Lord Hain used parliamentary privilege to name one of the most powerful men in the UK as a harasser: Sir Philip Green. 

On the surface, this appears to have been a step in the right direction – it just remains unclear as to whether the survivors in this case were comfortable, or felt safe, with this disclosure. But while leading businessmen like Green and Weinstein are being named and shamed, the everyday sexists and perpetrators stay in the shadows and here’s why.

Your average wolf-whistler might not think of it this way, but harassment is a way of asserting, in public, a display of power and control over women’s bodies. It’s rooted in the same basic misogyny that is disturbingly common in most societies. Around the world, 1 in 3 women has experienced some form of physical or sexual violence. Still more disturbing is that all kinds of violence against women and girls are chronically underreported. For example, research carried out by ActionAid has shown that nearly half of women surveyed in four countries around the world have been sexually harassed. Nearly two thirds of these women didn’t report the harasser. Half of them said that reporting it ‘would be pointless’. 

High time we reform our justice systems

That lack of faith is entirely justified. All too often, when women survivors of violence find the courage to report what’s happened to them, they don’t receive any form of justice. Outdated legal systems and deeply-held sexist attitudes mean that when women seek help, they are not taken seriously or are treated with suspicion. Impunity is a major contributing factor to the violence being perpetrated or repeated – perpetrators are safe in the knowledge that there will be no consequence to their actions.  

So it’s high time that we reform and retrain our justice systems, here in the UK as well as on a global scale, to ensure that women and girls can have confidence in reporting the violence perpetrated against them by men and boys and they know that the law has their back.  One key way that politicians and journalists can help to support this change is to start talking about the issue in a way that highlights the perpetrator – and not just the high profile names.   
Harassment, rape, domestic violence – they don’t just happen. Yet often, we all forget to name the perpetrator. We talk about violence against women and girls happening, but frame it as though it occurs by magic. Sadly this was predominantly the case in the Women and Equalities Committee report where men and toxic masculinity were barely mentioned, thus leading to the same happening in all the media coverage it secured. 

Easy tactics to create change

Just a slight change of frame can be a cue to the audience – including young men and women – to question why the violence takes place, and who is carrying it out. We can all understand the difference between ‘Street harassment is “relentless” for women and girls’ and ‘Men harass women and girls relentlessly in public spaces’. Crucially, reframing can also show women and girls that when someone hits, harasses or rapes them, it is not their fault.  
In the #MeToo era, arguments about this type of violence can seem overwhelming – even toxic. But we’re at a genuine turning point, as a society and around the world, in the way we understand this issue and treat survivors. We just need to stay on the right track. 

Violence against women and girls isn’t like the tides, or the weather. It doesn’t ‘just happen’, it is a gross violation of human rights and it is a crime. If the press and politicians began to reframe the way we describe these crimes on a daily basis, it will set us on a path were we acknowledge this. By naming perpetrators more regularly, not only will we bring them out of the shadows, we may be able to see less of them on our front pages altogether. 

Find out more about our work tackling violence against women and girls