My daughter was only 12 when she first experienced sexual harassment

My daughter was only 12 when she first experienced sexual harassment

April 24, 2023

My daughter was on the bus home when a boy at her school began making rude gestures towards her.

Elodie told me he was egged on by his friends, who were all laughing about it. I was horrified when I heard about this – and that was just the start. 

She was just 12 when she first experienced public sexual harassment.  

Now aged 16, Elodie has told me something like this happens regularly, around once a month, and she worries about being harassed and humiliated almost every time she goes out. 

As her dad, this is heartbreaking to hear.

Before having a daughter, I admit I was completely oblivious to this problem.

Yes, I’d always felt some of the things I heard men say to girls and women were unacceptable. But what I see now really scares me – the nastiness and abusive comments are not ‘banter’, they’re controlling and hurtful. There is a real intention to cause harm behind these words. 

So many men I speak to when discussing Elodie’s experiences, like friends and family members, are shocked when I tell them what is ‘acceptable’ within the law, like making sexually explicit comments or sexually propositioning someone in public.

They think about their wives and daughters, and cannot believe so much harmful behaviour is legal, particularly when these same behaviours are specifically banned in the workplace through the Equality Act. 

And what is more devastating is that Elodie is not alone. Research from Plan International UK found 75% of girls, some as young as 12, in the UK have experienced some form of public sexual harassment.

For some girls, this is a daily occurrence that affects their walk to school, where they exercise and where they spend time with their friends. Some have even avoided school altogether. 

I worry about Elodie experiencing public sexual harassment all the time: my fear is she’s at risk of assault, or even abduction, when walking alone. She shares my concern that a comment could quickly escalate. 

When Elodie is planning to go out, I have a real mental battle with myself. Should I raise the subject of staying safe and put this issue on the table, or leave it and hope nothing happens?

Elodie is a very level-headed young woman and I trust she is aware of the risks, so I don’t want to limit her life experiences by raising my own fears. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sit and watch both the clock and the phone when she is away from home. 

My anxiety increases later in the day – evenings are particularly bad because I fear she could be assaulted after dark, and winter is worse again as everyone is bundled up and less aware of what’s going on around them.  

I also really worry when she’s on public transport. Anyone could sit next to her and touch her inappropriately or prevent her getting off at her stop, and my wife and I wouldn’t know until it’s too late. That fills me with dread and it’s so easy to see it happening.  

We often pick Elodie up when she’s been out and always check she doesn’t walk home on her own. We’ve also all agreed to use an app on her phone so we can check where she is.

But it’s a tough balancing act – she’s a young woman and we want to give her freedom. We don’t want her to feel she’s being watched all the time by her parents, and we also don’t want to worry ourselves silly as that isn’t healthy for us or Elodie. 

What hope is there for millions of girls like Elodie when our own Prime Minister admits the streets aren’t safe for them? 

Despite my fears, I try my best to reassure my daughter. But there is only so much that I can say when, incredibly, the law isn’t on our side: there is currently no single piece of legislation to protect girls and women from public sexual harassment. 

What we have is piecemeal and decades-old, meaning certain behaviour falls through the legal gaps and leaves girls unprotected. Rishi Sunak recently spoke of his own fears for his daughters’ safety in public. What hope is there for millions of girls like Elodie when our own Prime Minister admits the streets aren’t safe for them?  

The law must change – until it does, girls won’t have the protection they need. That’s why many campaigners, including Elodie and other young people with the help of Plan International UK and Our Streets Now, are campaigning for a new law to criminalise public sexual harassment once and for all. 

Recently, there has been some encouraging progress. A Private Member’s Bill – the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill – on this issue brought forward by our local MP, Greg Clark, is making its way through Parliament, with the Home Secretary’s support.

It was a meeting with my daughter that directly led to him taking up this issue – after she emailed him to raise her concerns – and he mentioned her when he spoke in the House of Commons recently during the Bill’s second reading. 

I’m so proud of Elodie and the fact she has been involved in something that will make such an important difference to girls across the country. She feels empowered by how her hard work and commitment to this issue is starting to pay off. 

But until the law changes, girls are not protected – and even if and when this Bill passes into law, it must not put the onus on girls to prove their harasser intended harm – this would deny many the justice they deserve.

New strong and effective legislation would send a clear signal that public sexual harassment is not OK. We need to do everything we can to help create a society where this kind of behaviour is seen by everyone for what it is: harmful and unacceptable.

As parents, we have a crucial role to play in educating both boys and girls that this kind of behaviour, far from being harmless or even a way of complimenting a girl, is always wrong. 

Men also need to model good behaviour for their sons and grandsons, as well as calling out friends or colleagues if they see them sexually harassing someone. This has really changed how I behave when I’m out too: I’ll often try to walk in front of a woman so she can see me, instead of hearing me behind her and potentially worrying about who is there. 

No-one should feel uncomfortable going about their daily life and the long-term psychological impact on girls is severe, let alone any physical threats they may also face. All I want is for Elodie – and all girls in the UK – to feel safe. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. 

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