EuroTrack: How many women have experienced sexual harassment?

Sarah Prescott-SmithSenior Research Executive
March 08, 2021, 11:32 AM UTC

New YouGov research reveals what types of sexual harassment women in five European countries have been subjected to

Today marks International Women Day, with this year’s theme being #ChooseToChallenge – encouraging people to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. A core part of this inequality is sexual harassment, which women are far more likely to be subjected to than men.

Now new YouGov research looks at how common female experience of sexual harassment is across five European countries: Great Britain, Germany, France, Denmark and Sweden.

In Britain, Germany and Denmark around half of women said they had ever been sexually harassed by men. In Sweden the proportion is even higher, with two thirds (66%) saying they have been subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour. The proportion of women who have experienced sexual harassment in France is lower than in other countries (36%) but is still represents tens of millions of victims.

Looking at experiences of sexual harassment in the past five years specifically, Swedish women were again most likely to have been harassed, at 29%. Whilst women in France were again least likely to say they had been harassed, one in seven (14%) had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in this time period.

What kinds of sexual harassment have women experienced?

The study asked women which of 12 potential forms of harassment, if any, someone had done to them who was not a friend or romantic partner. In Sweden, Denmark and Germany it is most common for women to have had someone direct a sexual joke at them (44%, 44% and 36% respectively). In Britain, meanwhile, women are most likely to have someone comment on their attractiveness directly to them (49%), and in France it is wolf whistling (46%).

More than one in five women in Britain (22%), Germany (21%), France (26%) and Sweden (22%) have had someone who was not a friend or romantic partner request sexual favours from them. In Denmark this figure is slightly lower at 16%.

Around a third of British (35%) and Swedish (33%) women have had someone pinch or grab their behind who was not a friend or romantic partner. Similar levels of women in Germany (28%) and Denmark (29%) have experienced this, whilst in France it is less commonplace (15%). 

Women in France are more likely to have had someone expose their genitalia to them than they were to have someone pinch their behind, with one in five women (19%) having experienced ‘flashing’. This rate is similarly high in Denmark (18%). In Britain 14% of women had been flashed, closely followed by 12% of women who had experienced this in Germany, and 9% of Danish women. Relatively smaller numbers of women across all countries say someone has tried to take a photo up their skirt (1%-3%), which was recently made a crime in the UK.

What counts as sexual harassment?

Could the different levels of reported harassment between countries indicate that harassment levels are lower in some countries, or might it point to cultural differences over what constitutes sexual harassment?

In all countries a majority of people consider sexual harassment to include: a man taking a photo up a woman’s skirt; a man exposing his genitalia (i.e. flashing); a man pinching or grabbing a woman’s bum; a man requesting sexual favours from a woman; and a man going up to a woman in the club and dancing by pressing himself against her.

Similarly, majorities across all countries considered a man commenting on a woman’s attractiveness directly to her, a man winking at a woman and a man asking a woman out for a drink to not be forms of sexual harassment.

A man placing his hand on a woman’s lower back proved to be more contentious, with a majority of respondents in France (71%), Germany (54%), and Sweden (53%) considering this a form of sexual harassment. In Britain and Denmark the public were more split, with still 40% and 41% considering this sexual harassment respectively.

Britain was the only country in which a majority considered a man directing sexual jokes at a woman (69%) and a man looking at a woman’s breasts (53%) to be sexual harassment. Similarly, only the French were more likely to consider wolf whistling (52%) to constitute sexual harassment, than not.

See the full results here