Understanding harassment: Filling the evidence gap

An image of people walking down a street

For the first time the ONS has published analysis of harassment using data from new questions on the Crime Survey for England and Wales. These invaluable insights show one in ten people aged 16 and over had experienced a form of harassment in the previous 12 months, with the findings particularly striking for younger women and men. Catherine Grant explains how today’s work is an important first step in improving the understanding of experience of harassment and how the survey will provide more granular insights as time goes on.

Harassment is a complex topic which cuts across a number of different crime types and is experienced by both sexes.

It is usually described as a repeated pattern of behaviour. However, this can exclude certain experiences such as harassment experienced from strangers on the street or on public transport.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) has not historically included a comprehensive measure of harassment. The need for these statistics was identified as a key evidence gap, as explained in our blog post Violence against women and girls: Helping to understand the scale and impact of the problem.

Since then, the Centre for Crime and Justice at ONS has been working towards developing new measures of harassment that capture the extent and nature of harassment experienced by people in England and Wales.

Today’s findings are stark.  Overall, 1 in 10 people aged 16 years and over experienced at least one form of harassment that made them feel upset, distressed or threatened in the previous 12 months. More women (13%) than men (7%) experienced at least one form of harassment, largely reflecting different experiences of sexual harassment among women (8%) and men (3%).

The likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment was highest among younger age groups. This was particularly the case for women, with 23% of those aged 16 to 24 and 16% of those aged 25 to 34 experiencing some form of sexual harassment in the previous year compared with 5% of those aged 35 and over.

Younger men were also more likely to experience sexual harassment than older men, with 8% of those aged 16 to 24 being in receipt of unwanted attention compared to 2% of men over 25.

A phased approach

With an urgent user need for more data on harassment, we initially developed a suite of questions, which we rolled out rapidly in the flexible Opinions and Lifestyle (OPN) survey. We published the resulting measures of harassment and perceptions of personal safety in August 2021 and again in May 2022 following input from stakeholders including Department for Transport and the Government Equalities Office.

This gave an important first glimpse of the perceptions of safety, especially at night and on public transport but there was a need for more detailed insights – and observations over time – only the crime survey could provide.

Simultaneously, we developed a new module for the CSEW for the longer term gathering of information. Launched in April 2022, this covers the breadth of harassment by focusing on behaviour experienced and, covers sexual and non-sexual harassment experienced in any setting.

The CSEW module captures both single incidents of harassment and those that form part of a course of behaviour.

In fact, today’s findings show of those who had experienced any type of harassment in the last 12 months, three quarters reported at least one experience took place in person. A quarter of those who had experienced sexual harassment said they had experienced harassment at their place of work and 1 in 5 said they had experienced sexual harassment on public transport.

Users of our statistics should be aware harassment data from the CSEW are not comparable with previously published estimates on perceptions of personal safety and experiences of harassment from the OPN. The questions differed significantly between the two surveys as did the mode of data collection.

What next?

There is still more to do. Our work to date indicates that the full scope of harassment is wider than can be measured through the current survey module. For instance, at this stage of the work, the module cannot produce an estimate of the number of incidents of harassment.

While it does go some way to fill some of the major evidence gaps around the experience of harassment, the module is subject to further development work and review.  We will be building on the work conducted to date to explore whether measures of harassment can be incorporated into total estimates of crime.

We will continue to work with stakeholders and internal ONS network groups to ensure that the broad nature of harassment is reflected within the CSEW.

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Catherine Grant is Head of Statistical Production and Research - Crime Survey for England and Wales

Catherine Grant is Head of Statistical Production and Research – Crime Survey for England and Wales