Children younger than five experiencing sexual harassment, research finds

Victims of sexual harassment are being targeted “shockingly early” – with some younger than five years old, research has suggested.

The majority of those who experience sexual harassment encounter it for the first time during adolescence or childhood, according to a survey for Crimestoppers.

Some 1,800 people across the UK took part in the opt-in survey between December 2021 and January 2022, which was promoted on social media and carried out by the University of Suffolk. Not every participant answered every question.

Asked if they consider themselves to be a victim or survivor of sexual harassment, 68.7% of those who responded said yes.

Researchers noted the survey was self-selecting and that people who have experienced a phenomenon may be more likely to take part in research that is relevant to their experiences.

Asked what age they were when this first happened, 3.7% of respondents said it first happened before the age of five while 13.1% said they were aged between six and 10.

Similar proportions reported it first taking place when they were aged 11-13 (29%) and 14-16 (30.9%).

The survey, which focused on people’s experiences and perspectives of and about sexual harassment in public spaces, found less than 1% of victims felt flattered, attractive or desired after their most recent encounter.

Asked about a range of behaviours, more than three-quarters (78%) of female participants who responded said they had experienced unwanted questions about their sex life while two-thirds had experienced staring, leering and comments about their experience.

Some 38% had been followed, with 23% saying that had witnessed flashing/genital exposure.

The largest group of perpetrators were strangers, followed by classmates when younger, and then acquaintances and colleagues in later life.

Asked if they had changed their behaviour to feel safe, 14.6% of those who responded said they avoid isolated areas, 12.2% said they avoid going out late or in the dark and 9.8% said they shun outdoor areas where they previously were targeted.

One survey participant said: “I think a lot of the time, perpetrators are completely oblivious to how their actions are making the other person feel.

“Being sexually harassed makes me feel genuinely scared for my safety and scared to anger the person in case they get violent.”

Lydia Patsalides, violence against women and girls sexual violence lead at Crimestoppers, said “we must all play our part in helping change behaviour”.

“This research confirms that all forms of sexual harassment begin at a shockingly early age, which is completely unacceptable.

“It raises the question to those men involved: would you accept this behaviour towards those closest to you, such as a partner, female friend, or your daughter?

“Crimestoppers is taking its part in the conversation as these normalised behaviours can escalate, with some perpetrators going on to commit the most serious of crimes such as rape and child abuse.”

Mick Duthie, director of operations at Crimestoppers, said: “It’s important that we all understand the issue and take steps to educate ourselves on what is and is not appropriate.

“Our research shows that a large number of very young girls are being targeted, and therefore we must all ensure we take positive steps to protect them.”

Dr Katherine Allen, from the University of Suffolk, said: “In a post #MeToo era, these findings are shocking but unsurprising.

“Our survey underscores that sexual harassment is common, perpetrated across a range of public spaces and remains highly gendered, disproportionately impacting women and girls, and limiting their ability to exercise everyday freedoms.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We remain firmly committed to tackling all forms of child sexual exploitation and abuse and keeping children safe in communities and online across the UK and around the world.

“Our Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy supports frontline professionals, the law enforcement and international partners in preventing and confronting this horrific crime.”

Anyone who knows a colleague, friend, relative or neighbour who is involved in any criminal aspect of sexual harassment is asked to visit and fill an anonymous form, or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.