"Being told to 'smile' or 'cheer up' is just the tip of the iceberg."
In recent years campaigners and women's rights activists have worked hard to push for the criminalisation of public sexual harassment. As a result, in 2019, the UK government recognised street harassment as a form of gender-based violence- a significant step.
Since then, progress has been slow but steady and has included continued work and campaigning from Our Streets Now, Everyone's Invited, and Plan International- including campaigns such as; I Say It's Not OK, #CrimeNotCompliment, to name a few.
On July 21st 2022, the UK Government published their 'Public sexual harassment consultation.' The purpose of the consultation is to determine whether there are any gaps in the law that need to be filled to cover public sexual harassment if a new law is needed, and if so, whether the options the Government have set out are appropriately modelled. Finally, if there are any non-legislative actions, the Government could take alongside or instead of creating new legislation.
There are currently various offences under the law able to catch 'a range of types of public sexual harassment behaviour' states the consultation. These offences have served as a method of prosecuting public sexual harassment for the past 25 years or more.
However, the recent rise in campaigning for awareness of the issue has not prompted a rise in the number of people coming forward to report incidents.

These statistics are from a recent report by the APPG for UN Women; Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces.

  • A staggering 70% of women in the UK say they have experienced sexual harassment in public
  • 97% of women between the ages of 18-24 had experienced sexual harassment in public
  • Only 4% of women reported the incidents 96% chose not to report
The report gave the reasons why 96% of the women decided not to report the incident. The most common reason was "they didn't think the incident was serious enough to report".
In light of these findings, some might say that public sexual harassment is already illegal, as it is covered (case dependent) under the current law, and instead of new legislation, we need better education around how to report incidents or more incentive for people to come forward.
But we disagree. We think that in order for women to feel confident in reporting incidents, we need to consider all forms of public sexual harassment serious enough to report. It is tempting to say that they aren't all as bad as each other, and some are easier to brush off; however, when you do say that, you assume that everyone is equally traumatised by the same things, and you open the gate for other forms of abuse.
We think the current legislation isn't fit for purpose because of similar assumptions. It relies on predetermined definitions and limitations of "obscene language" and "immediate fear of violence" that don't always recognise gendered violence as real or severe enough.
Recognising and understanding the range of public sexual harassment, from non-verbal (staring) to physical assault (groping) is difficult even for those who experience it. For those who have not experienced public sexual harassment, a stranger telling you to "Give us a smile" and someone exposing themselves to you on the street might seem impossible to connect under the same umbrella term as public sexual harassment- some might even call the former a compliment.
The disparity in seriousness we attach to forms of harassment is logical. It mirrors how we treat public sexual harassment as a human rights issue, and sexual assault is a criminal offence.
In the past, these legal distinctions have supported, inadvertently, the acceptance and normalisation of public sexual harassment. This is because of a previous lack of understanding of the realities of women and girls who experience violence against women and girls (VAWG).
"If you look at the pyramid of sexual violence," says Eliza Hatch, "you can see how stares turn into comments, which turn into catcalls, which turn into unwanted touches and so on and so forth. It would be a very different story if being told to "cheer up" was the worst that ever happened to marginalised folk, but sadly this is not the case. Being told to "smile", is just the start of a long, long list of unwanted advances."
Eliza Hatch (@elizahatch) founded Cheer Up Luv after being told to "cheer up" by a stranger in the street back in 2017. Her male friends dismissed the experience as a "compliment", and she felt inspired to prove them wrong.
© ELIZA HATCH. sylvie
Eliza realised that not only was the issue completely normalised but there was a huge lack of awareness surrounding it. So she began taking portraits of her friends in public places and posting the photos on Instagram.
"Each location reflects the testimony of harassment," says Eliza, "empowering survivors by turning a negative memory into something positive. But most importantly, taking back control of the experience and reclaiming the space.
Since 2017 Cheer Up Luv has grown as a platform and has expanded into new mediums. Above all, Cheer Up Luv is a project which aims to empower survivors while tackling the normalisation surrounding sexual harassment.
Understanding the connection between harassment and gendered violence is important for everyone to stop normalising public sexual harassment. Hopefully, with a bespoke legislation for public sexual harassment, we will be on our way to making our streets safe for women and girls.
If you would like to learn more about the current and proposed legislation covering public sexual harassment, you can read and respond to the government's consultation, which is open until the 1st of September 2022.