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We are expected to take sexual harassment as a compliment

“We are expected to take sexual harassment as a compliment"

It’s been one year since Plan International UK and Our Streets Now began campaigning for public sexual harassment to be criminalised. Helena shares how fear of harassment has affected her life, and why girls can’t wait any longer for a change in the law.

My name is Helena. I am 17 years old and I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones. I have not experienced public sexual harassment beyond so called ‘wolf-whistling’ and ‘cat-calling’. Most of my friends cannot say likewise.

It is appalling. No one should have to go through this experience or hear stories every day about their friends running home to avoid further unwanted attention after sexual comments, stares and even touching. We have grown up feeling vulnerable and afraid. This is because sexual harassment is still legal.

We should not have to live in constant fear. We are victim-blamed for wearing ‘short skirts’ or ‘revealing tops’ whilst the people responsible for harassing us and negatively impacting our mental health are excused.

Sexual harassment is even seen as a compliment and something we should be grateful for. Our fears are discredited as ingratitude or paranoia. We are not truly heard. We have adapted our whole lives around the behaviour of certain people, often men, but nothing has truly changed.

We should not have to live in constant fear.

Helena smiling, standing in front of a river
Helena is a member of Plan International UK's Youth Advisory Panel

Introducing a standalone Public Sexual Harassment Law which would finally illegalise all forms of sexual harassment, will create the much-needed change. We will feel safer, for once, and less afraid. Perpetrators of harassment may finally learn that what they are doing is wrong, with no exceptions.

Sexual harassment within schools is also not taken seriously enough. The harasser often sees their action or words as a joke whilst the situation is no joke to the harassed. We are expected to take it as a compliment and be grateful for the attention. These are the social norms we face. 

In particular, harassment is often disregarded when the harasser is of a similar age to the victim, as can happen in a school environment. Their actions should not be seen as a ‘compliment’ or a 'joke', just because they are of a similar age to us.

Making public sexual harassment illegal would send out a message that these behaviours are unacceptable.


The outpouring of girls and women sharing their experiences of public sexual harassment – following the deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabrina Nessa – should have taught us something. That despite a changing society, girls are still having to live in fear. This needs to change now.

Our laws set out what’s right and what’s wrong. Making public sexual harassment illegal would send out a message that these behaviours are unacceptable.

Harassment degrades our mental and physical health. It is not a compliment to give someone unwanted attention, it should most definitely be a crime. This is why Plan International UK and Our Streets Now’s #CrimeNotCompliment campaign is so important to me.

Amongst girls aged 12 to 21 in the UK, 75% have experienced public sexual harassment. To break out of a patriarchal world, this number needs to be dramatically reduced. To do this we must make sexual harassment illegal.

It would be truly wonderful if I could live a day without feeling vulnerable and afraid on public transport and my walks home.

Be part of the change. Help make public sexual harassment a crime by joining the #CrimeNotCompliment campaign today.

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