Many victims of sexual harassment don’t report it – because priorities differ

Shocking as it might seem, ­people who are sexually ­harassed often don’t report it. In fact, five out of six people who are the target of sexual ­offences don’t go to the police, the Crime ­Survey England and Wales found. Why should this be?

Well, University of Exeter research has revealed there’s a gap between how people imagine they’d act if they were sexually harassed and how people act if they have been targeted.

Exeter researchers compared answers from a confidential online survey from mixed genders.

They discovered people who have experienced sexual harassment have various important needs – and seeking justice was not the top one.

Their need for safety, personal control and social support were ­prioritised over formal actions, such as talking to police.

Those who had not encountered sexual harassment anticipated taking more actions, especially formal ones.

Professor Manuela Barreto, from Exeter University, said: “We found there is a widely held belief that quick and formal reporting is the correct response to sexual ­harassment.”

“Yet most people who are sexually harassed don’t report it formally and those who do, often report the offence a ­significant time after it happened.

“There’s a focus on procedural barriers with police and other ­authorities as to why this is, but less attention paid to the actual needs of the person who has experienced sexual harassment.”

“It’s important to consider that the feelings and actions of someone who has experienced sexual harassment might be very different from those who have not,” Professor Barreto added. “Instead of asking: ‘Why don’t people come forward more often?’, perhaps we should ask ‘What is the best action for the individual?’”

Those who had been targeted also reported a strong desire for life to return to normal.

“Of all the needs that people expressed, the need for justice was not the highest priority,” says lead author Professor Thomas Morton, of ­Copenhagen University.

“This might explain why people don’t take the kind of formal actions, like reporting to police, that others expect them to.”

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour that makes someone feel upset, scared, offended or ­humiliated, or is meant to make them feel that way.

There’s a commonly held ­assumption that people don’t come forward because the offence isn’t serious enough.

Exeter research suggests ­that assumption is often wrong, or at least does not reflect what the people who have experienced sexual harassment really need.