Home Secretary Suella Braverman has backed a private members’ bill that would outlaw wolf-whistling even if the person responsible thinks it is “just a joke.”
Wolf-whistles and cat calls are just one type of “sex-based harassment” included in the bill which has been proposed by Conservative backbench MP Greg Clark.
The bill makes it an offence to cause “intentional harassment, alarm or distress” to a person in public based on their sex, and offenders face a maximum of two years in jail.
On Friday, Clark told the House of Commons: “For the first time in our history, deliberately harassing, following, shouting degrading words at, making obscene gestures at women and girls in public places and yes, on occasion, men and boys in public places because of their sex with the deliberate intention to cause alarm or distress will be a specific offence and a serious one.”
‘Women Should Be Able to Use Streets … Safely’
He said: “Women should be able to use our streets as confidently and safely as men, free from abuse, free from humiliation, free from violence, physical or verbal.”
Clark proposed an amendment that would remove the defence of “reasonableness,” meaning someone could not escape prosecution by saying they thought they were behaving reasonably and were unaware they were causing offence.
The amendment—which was passed—followed concerns raised by Labour MP Stella Creasy, who said: “Women and girls often get told ‘you can’t take a joke’ or ‘it was just a compliment’ when they object to being harassed, but without change this public order law risks making that an actual defence to a criminal offence.”
The amendment introduces a “reasonableness test” and assumes defendants “ought to know” their behaviour amounted to harassment.
Creasy told the debate: “Misogyny is driving crime against women and girls … This legislation for the first time ever, recognises that women are being targeted, simply because they are women. That young girls in our society walk with their keys, get asked ‘what were you wearing?’, are told not to get on buses at certain time of night, to be frightened, to be wary in a way that young men don’t.”
The Home Office has listed the types of behaviour that count as street harassment as making an obscene, aggressive, or offensive comment or gesture; “cornering” a person or obstructing them as they walk; or driving or riding a vehicle or bike slowly near to a person walking down the street.