Wolf-whistling in particular is increasingly being seen as sexual harassment
At the end of 2022, home secretary Suella Braverman announced there will be a tougher approach to public sexual harassment, increasing the maximum prison sentence from six months to two years.
The 21st century has seen social movements emerge campaigning against sexual harassment and violence towards women. #MeToo is one of the most famous examples, having risen to prominence in October 2017 following the exposure of sexual abuse committed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Since then, YouGov has been tracking Britons’ attitudes towards sexual harassment, with our latest results showing that the public are increasingly seeing several behaviours as constituting sexual harassment.
How are attitudes to sexual harassment changing?
While some behaviours are almost universally recognised by the public as being “always” or “usually” sexual harassment, including upskirting, groping, and requesting sexual favours, other actions are more divisive – but there is a clear trend towards people seeing them as sexual harassment.
For example, 59% of Britons consider a man looking at a woman’s breasts to generally be sexual harassment, up from 50% in 2017. Over the same time period, the number of people saying it wouldn’t usually, or would never, be sexual harassment has fallen from 46% to 36%.
A man wolf whistling at a woman now also tends to be seen as sexual harassment, with 51% saying so compared to 45% who disagree. In 2017 just 38% had considered it to generally be harassment, with 58% saying it was not.
Likewise, while people have consistently tended to say that placing a hand on a woman’s lower back is not sexual harassment, this gap has narrowed, with Britons now divided between 46% saying it is and 50% saying it is not. This compares to 37% considering it sexual harassment in 2017, with 58% disagreeing at that time.
The only behaviour we asked about which has a conclusive majority saying it is not sexual harassment (93%) and has not seen a rise in Britons recognising it as such, is a man asking a woman out for a drink.
Older Britons are the least likely to see behaviours as sexual harassment, and the least likely to be changing their mind
Despite the nature of the topic, it is age, rather than gender, that is the biggest factor in whether or not someone considers an action to be sexual harassment.
Indeed, there is a general consensus between men and women on what they would class as sexual harassment - except when it comes to looking at a woman’s breasts. Whilst men are split, with 49% saying it is and 44% saying it is not, women are much more sure on the issue, with 68% considering it sexual harassment and 29% disagreeing.
While there is general agreement among age groups when it comes to the most egregious forms of sexual harassment, like flashing, upskirting and groping, other examples are more divisive.
The most striking disagreement between age groups is on wolf whistling, which 75% of those aged 18-24 say is sexual harassment, compared to just 25% of over 65s. These generations are also divided on whether a man placing his hand on a woman’s lower back should be classed as such, by 57% to 34%. Both groups have, however, become more likely to consider wolf whistling as sexual harassment since 2017, by nine-points in the case of younger Britons and eight-points among the oldest.
A man commenting on a woman’s attractiveness directly to her is another example of big differences between age groups, with 37% of young Britons saying this is sexual harassment compared to just 14% of those 65 and older. There has been a bigger shift in attitudes over time amongst younger Britons, with a twelve-point increase amongst 18-24s and just a four-point change amongst the over-65s.
A man pressing himself against a woman in a club has a slightly different trend amongst age groups, with older Britons being more likely to see this as sexual harassment than younger ones (by 90% to 77%). Indeed, we now see more older Britons feeling this way compared to 2023, but have not seen the same change in attitudes amongst younger Britons in the same time. A man requesting sexual favours from a woman is the only other behaviour which older Britons are notably more likely to recognise as sexual harassment than younger people.
There are also cases where opinion differs by both age and gender. For example, when it comes to wolf whistling, attitudes among 18-34 year old women have shifted markedly since 2017, from 51% considering it sexual harassment then to 74% saying so now. By contrast, among men in the same age group that figure is effectively the same now (64%) as it was then (62%).
See the full data here