Why are 96% of women not reporting sexual harassment?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Mar 12, 2021

Why are 96% of women not reporting sexual harassment?

A survey from UN Women UK found that 97% of 18–24-year-old women have been sexually harassed, yet 96% did not report the incidents. Here, with the help of experts, we explore the barriers that keep women quiet, and what we can do to bring them down

The UN defines sexual harassment as ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.’ Catcalling, sexual comments, inappropriate gestures, jokes, teasing, intrusive questions, innuendos, non-consensual touching, flashing, being followed, being photographed, physical intimidation, groping, being pressured into dates, wolf-whistling – the list of examples goes on, and on.

Facing sexual harassment is the reality for the majority of women – 97% of women, in fact – according to a poll from UN Women UK that surveyed women aged 18–24. And while sexual assault can happen to people of any gender, the prevalence among women cannot be dismissed. In addition, 80% of women of all ages reported that they have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. And yet, despite this, 96% of respondents did not report the incidents to the authorities.

In the survey, 45% said that reporting the incident would not make a difference, and it’s easy to see why they may feel that way. Sexual harassment and assault is a spectrum and yet, when you consider that conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes – with just 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator – it speaks to a culture of systemic complacency, in part responsible for the sense of despair and hopelessness that many women experience when faced with harassment and microaggression.

And, as forensic behavioural criminologist Alex Iszatt sees it, this is an attitude reinforced at cultural touchpoints throughout our lives.

“Women have been manipulated to expect some kind of harassment, and just get on with it. From cartoons to movies and TV shows, women see others like them getting catcalled, coerced into dates, and are seen as weak and in need of a love interest. When the things you see on screen happen in real life, most just shrug it off and continue on their way,” she explains.

Considering the pipeline from harassment to assault, Alex notes how there is currently an academic blindspot, with little research on the topic available, and yet explains how it’s vital to treat the former with severity in order to prevent the behaviour from escalating. Ultimately, if we become complacent with everyday sexism and harassment, we’re not only telling women that they should accept this treatment, we’re also leaving the door open for future violence.

Woman marching

45% said that reporting the incident would not make a difference

One in three women will experience violence from men in their lifetime, something that Dr Lina Abirafeh – the executive director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University – calls: ‘The most egregious and longest-running human rights violation today.

“As women, when something like this happens, it challenges everything around us and, most importantly it strips away our fundamental human rights,” Dr Abirafeh explains. “It can take away our right to life, our right to personal security, our right to protection, and sometimes our protection under the law.

“When something happens, women are told ‘don’t walk at night’, ‘don’t wear headphones’, ‘don’t speak to strangers’, ‘don’t wear that’, ‘don’t look up’ – the list goes on. But men aren’t told ‘don’t rape women’, ‘don’t abuse your power’, ‘don’t hurt women’.”

The imbalance that Dr Abirafeh highlights here is inevitably a key player in the conversation on why more women don’t report sexual harassment. It puts emphasis on a woman’s behaviour, teaching her that if something were to happen, that it would be her own fault.

“And once women start blaming themselves for someone else's act, they reduce their identities, and their spirits, and become less of themselves, and this leads to events going unreported, and severe mental health issues,” adds Dr Abirafeh.

Diving deeper into the reasons why women don’t report these cases, Dr Abirafeh explains that culture and background are also significant factors – at which point it’s important to note that racialised sexual harassment creates additional challenges and that a study, published in the journal Gender, Work and Organisation, found that Black women are four times more likely to be sexually harassed at work.

“Women don’t report assault or harassment for several reasons. Firstly, your culture or religion may not allow you to, as women are told it will bring shame, and further problems – some women are even subjected to further torture for even admitting they have been attacked to their family – so, why would you? Also, as women, we are told over and over to ‘be good’, ‘be kind’, ‘be nice’, ‘be ladylike’ – and being assaulted, or raped doesn’t fit into these boxes, so women feel shame and guilt about reporting situations,” Dr Abirafeh explains.

“Also, reporting attacks come with a lot of baggage, and can prolong trauma, and stress, and you can’t guarantee a positive result. Women have to face their attacker again, and many simply cannot bring themselves to do that. There are so many issues within the system, and many women feel that they’d be set up to fail, so simply choose not to report.”

woman marching

Have you been affected by sexual harassment or assault?

“The first step to recovering from trauma, and PTSD surrounded by sexual assault is to understand that it isn’t your fault, and that there was nothing you have done wrong,” says Dr Abirafeh. “If you find it difficult to confide in loved ones, speak to a therapist or support worker, who will listen with open ears, and no judgement. This is especially important if you no longer feel safe, or your mental health has been greatly impacted. Talking to someone also allows you to process what has happened, and gain new perspectives around it. It takes time, and don’t put pressure on yourself, it’s a tough road to recovery, but it is possible.”

The reason behind the 96% of women’s decision not to report sexual assault is vastly complicated and deeply personal. But the question of whether they are at fault is simple: they are not.

It is wrong to ask women to be more vigilant without taking steps to eradicate the threats they face. It is wrong to ignore the part that systemic misogyny plays in silencing women. It is wrong to blame women for not coming forward without challenging the shame and barriers that they face, first. And it is wrong to remain complacent. We must do better, and we must do it together.

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