The presentation of public sexual harassment in the media


Public harassment is not an issue experienced by an insignificant, small percentage of the population. It has, for many, become part and parcel of daily life, so much so that what are everyday objects for some become familiar weaponry for others: keys go between fingers, and headphones are for feigning ignorance.

According to Plan International UK, ‘66% of girls aged 14 to 21 [surveyed have] experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in a public place’. Unfortunately, these behaviours are not currently subject to any specific legislation. This has led to a culture of normalisation – one which has been increasingly questioned in recent months following the disappearance of Durham alumna Sarah Everard.

Media coverage of public harassment in the forms of reported incidents, opinion and analysis pieces has continued to be extensive since. All the press has not been ‘good’ press, though. ‘Good’ in the sense that it has accurately, fairly, or ethically approached the true complexity of public harassment as an issue that is symptomatic of failures in and across social, educational, and legislative systems.

‘66% of girls aged 14 to 21 [surveyed have] experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in a public place’

It goes without saying that the media should be, and is, entitled to cover, discuss and debate topics of public interest. But this should be achieved with a baseline awareness as to nuances and sensitivities. Biases influence the representations of an argument, but this should not come at the expense of the well-being of those who are personally engaged with the issue. It is a privilege to be able to examine a societal problem as an intellectual argument rather than as a reflection on direct experience.

The media are aware of this and those who err on the side of controversy scramble to deploy their favourite mode of opinion defence: the female journalist. The logic here is that if they can scrape the bottom of the journalistic barrel to find a woman who can state that they were harassed once and felt flattered, not violated, then all of the protesting, angry “other ones” are proven wrong. Fight fire with fire, and all that.

It is the tone of these articles, not their content, though, which is problematic. You cannot, after all, negate personal belief and experience. However, by diverting the focus from consideration of the legislative and logistical challenges of criminalising public street harassment to whether it is, in and of itself, a problem, these papers replicate the rhetoric of the perpetrators. It’s a compliment, they insist. It’s just a joke, they insist. They’re overreacting, they insist. It’s exhausting and totally unproductive.

The media are ultimately complicit in the normalisation of harassment as an acceptable personal and commercial behaviour

Speaking realistically, the papers that print these types of articles will not tend towards an ethical reformation any time soon. The most obvious reason for this is that they survive on their reputation for opposition to the consensus. But antagonism for antagonism’s sake is not their sole motivation for refusing to support regulation of harassment.

The truth is that the quasi-decriminalisation of public harassment directly financially benefits them. They invest in harassment, funding the stalking, pestering practices of the paparazzi to secure exclusives which in turn reward them with increased sales. Thus, they are ultimately complicit in the normalisation of harassment as an acceptable personal and commercial behaviour.

In short, the coverage and discussion of public harassment in the media is needed. Healthy, constructive debate should be valued. And focus should be maintained on the issue at hand – the ubiquity and root causes of such behaviour – not diverted to querying the “real” weight of its consequences for victims. They should be touting from the rooftops unanimously that physical safety and autonomy should be a right, not the privilege that it currently is.

Image: Chen Feng via Unsplash

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