Research findings in many countries consistently indicate that rape and serious sexual assaults by strangers on women, although horrible crimes, are relatively rare; in the great majority of cases, the victim knows their assailant. While that is bad enough, it is only part of a wider issue, namely persistent sexual harassment.
A YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found in May 2012 that in London 41 per cent of women aged between 18 and 34, and 21 per cent of all women, had experienced some unwanted sexual attention in public spaces during the previous year; 4 per cent of all women had experienced unwanted sexual touching. Nearly twice as many women as men, 28 per cent to 15, feel unsafe when using London public transport; they want action on staffing, lighting, and policing, but street-level staffing is often the first to be cut. Under current law, it may be impossible to establish legal causation between such cuts and the insecurity women often feel in public places.
Sexual harassment of women is almost certainly worldwide. Jane Martinson, writing in the Guardian on May 25, cites Canadian findings that 80 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment; in New York City, 86 per cent of sexual assaults on public transport were not reported. The full extent of sexual harassment may be unknowable, though methods used in sociology and criminology, such as victim surveys, may well reveal figures far above estimates. Victims are reluctant to report harassment—or worse—for many reasons. One is the fear of not being taken seriously, or of being humiliated by the very institutions which are meant to uphold and enforce the law; another is the fear of reprisals. This means little is often done to change the many cultures in which grossly misogynistic conduct is apparently part of contemporary society, including, as Tanya Gold notes in the Guardian on August 17, recent Edinburgh Fringe comedy.
Some of the worst forms of harassment have, however, received attention from legislators, and many developed countries have laws on workplace conduct. Some employers, often in consultation with unions, have implemented codes of practice. Police forces in the U.K. now train officers in listening to women who report sexual assault or rape. While these moves constitute an advance, they cannot by themselves change centuries-old attitudes and habits. That in turn points to a central aspect of violence: the extent to which relations between the sexes are shaped by cultural attitudes, by the enormous inequalities in power, wealth, and opportunity between women and men, and by the very ways we bring up children.