Artillery Row

Right off track

Women deserve better than a half-baked poster campaign

Many things are against the law in this country. Indecent exposure, for example, carries a sentence of up to two years in prison, but that didn’t deter the almost 11,000 men who were reported to the police for “flashing” in England and Wales last year. Why would it? Only 594 suspects were taken to court, leading to 435 guilty verdicts. Those look like pretty good odds to me, at least from the point of view of men who want to abuse women in this way.

I’m not aware of “up-trousering” being a thing

They’re not so good, though, if you’re a woman who’s been shocked and upset by a bloke exposing his genitals. Especially as indecent exposure is a “gateway” offence, often associated with other crimes against women. After the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March this year, it emerged that her killer, PC Wayne Couzens, had been reported several times for indecent exposure, including in the days leading up to the abduction, but had never been arrested, let alone suspended.

It’s all the more perplexing, then, that Transport for London, which is on the brink of bankruptcy, has chosen to spend public money on a campaign informing travellers in London that indecent exposure is a bad thing. “Revealing intimate body parts is sexual harassment and is not tolerated”, the posters declare in a studiously gender-neutral way, as though hordes of women have been exposing their labia on the Victoria line.

Just how far TfL and its partners — the Rail Delivery Group, British Transport Police, and the Metropolitan Police — are taking this nonsense is demonstrated by another poster, which targets “up-skirting” (taking photos under “someone’s” clothes). Who might that “someone” be, I wonder? I’m not aware of “up-trousering” being a thing, let alone a common problem on London buses.

As so often these days, the urge not to offend — in this case, to avoid acknowledging that the crimes in question are overwhelmingly committed by one sex against the other — ends up obscuring the real problem: male violence against women (MVAWG).

TfL has form in this area, having put up posters in the summer calling out hate crimes against everyone but women, who are almost certainly the most frequently targeted demographic. A recent report from the police inspectorate said that 50 per cent of women who responded to a survey felt unsafe in public spaces, while the ONS suggested that two out of three women aged 16 to 34 had experienced harassment in the previous twelve months.

TfL’s framing of the sexual harassment problem on public transport is flawed in other ways as well. The posters urge anyone who sees it to text the details to a six-digit number, which seems strange advice to anyone witnessing or being the target of a criminal offence. (“In an emergency always dial 999”, they add, raising a question about definitions.)

The promise that “together, we can stop sexual harassment” feels over-optimistic when you look at the figures for up-skirting prosecutions; only 46 men and a teenage boy were prosecuted between April 2020 and June this year. It is striking that a third had committed other sexual crimes, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, suggesting it’s another “gateway” offence.

MVAWG is an epidemic, fuelled by violent porn and a sense of impunity

TfL’s campaign suggests, unintentionally or otherwise, that victims need to play a bigger role in preventing violence against women. We’ve been here before with rape, with one campaign after another encouraging victims to go to the police. Women listened, assuming they would be treated fairly and sympathetically, only to be let down at every stage by the criminal justice system. The figures speak for themselves: 61,158 rapes were reported to the police in England and Wales in 2020-21 but there were only 1,557 prosecutions and 1,109 convictions.

A hell of a lot of sexual predators are walking around with no fear of arrest and prosecution, but it’s not because victims are reluctant to report. (Many don’t, but it’s abundantly clear that the system can’t even deliver justice for those who do.) After Sarah Everard was abducted in Clapham, many people asked whether her death would turn out to be a watershed. It’s an understandable question, but the number of rapes reported in London was already going up, heading for an annual total of almost 7,500. It’s now reached 8,486, which is close to one every hour of the day in the capital alone.

Could someone please get a grip before this campaign is rolled out nationally? We know what’s against the law and we also know that far too few offenders are prosecuted or convicted; MVAWG is an epidemic, fuelled by violent porn and a sense of impunity.

Women in London are angry about the murders of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and Sabina Nessa, and all the other women whose names we don’t know who have been harassed or raped. After a truly terrible 18 months, women deserve better than a half-baked poster campaign that doesn’t even acknowledge their existence.

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