Meet the sisters campaigning to make street harassment a crime and uni campuses safer

‘I’ve been harassed continually through my student life’

97 per cent of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed and yet some forms of street harassment are still completely legal in public spaces. Your arse can be groped on a night out, you can be spat at, have sexualising comments made to you on your way to school and all we can do is shrug it off, pretend it didn’t happen and try to get on with our day. It is a regular occurrence that nearly every woman will have an experience of and now two sisters are campaigning to put an end to this for good.

Gemma and Maya Tutton have been tirelessly campaigning for two years to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence.

A law stopping street harassment has been in place in France since 2018 and hundreds of fines were handed out in the first few months alone. Women were finally able to report a man slapping their arse and get some sense of justice. The law allows for fines up to €750 to be handed out on the spot.

Public sexual harassment consists of, but is not limited to, unwanted sexual comments, provocative gestures, honking, wolf-whistling, persistent sexual advances, touching by strangers, stalking and indecent exposure. Whilst there are laws in place for stalking and indecent exposure making it a criminal offence, the UK is crucially far behind on the rest of this type of legislation. The tragic case of Sarah Everard reignited an awareness in the daily fear women go through simply walking home.

Gemma and Maya, alongside their team, have been working on changing this and are close to reaching 500,000 signatures on their viral petition to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence. Back in March the government said it was considering making street harassment an offence and the sisters are aiming on handing their petition in to parliament once it hits the 500,000 signatures mark.

The Tab caught up with Maya, a final year uni student, who started the campaign alongside her 15 year-old sister Gemma. They set up the campaign group Our Streets Now after seeing the effect of sexual harassment on Gemma who, like many young girls, had her first experience of sexual harassment at age 11.

Maya said: “I have experienced harassment since my early teenage years, unfortunately, like two thirds of school girls in this country. But it was actually seeing the impact that it had on my younger sister, Gemma. Particularly on the way she felt about herself and the way she immediately blamed herself, and me having to say ‘I’m really sorry this has happened to you’.

“It was only in having that conversation with her that I realised how much I’d normalised it and how all my friends had. All the women and people of marginalised genders in my life had completely accepted that harassment was just a normal part of being a girl and a normal part of being a woman.”

Seeing the legislation in France and the possible changes that could happen here inspired the sisters to start Our Streets Now. Maya said it’s important to remember the prevalence of public sexual harassment and how it is not an event that happens just once to women.

She told The Tab: “This is not like it happens once in your life. This is an everyday reality that we’re having to fear and also plan our lives around.

“I think what we saw in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s death was hundreds and hundreds of women coming forward and sharing experiences of how they curtail their freedom, their basic human right of mobility, because of harassment or the fear of harassment.”

Raising awareness and educating people on public sexual harassment is at the core of Our Streets Now. A lot of the website and social media focuses on sharing information about the impact PSH can have on an individual.

“Studies show that in the short term, it’s linked to feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and impacts people who have eating disorders in terms of making them feel objectified. It’s incredibly difficult for survivors of sexual violence as well to be harassed, because it brings back trauma,” Maya said.

Our Streets Now’s work is also focused on the intersectionality of street harassment and how public sexual harassment is usually not just based on sexism but “very often, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, Islamophobia.”

Maya is keen to emphasise there is not one form of public sexual harassment and that “what can start as a sexist comment or slur can turn very quickly into a racist hate crime.”

The emphasis on highlighting the intersectionality of public sexual harassment has been spearheaded by Gemma who created the #BeABetterAlly Calendar on their website.

Each month takes on a different issue such as fat-phobia, Muslim allyship or intergenerational female allyship. Every day of the calendar is dedicated to a news article, video or some other form of content that allows people to educate themselves on the intersectionality of public sexual harassment by learning from people who have experienced it first hand.

The calendar was created to showcase the breadth of public sexual harassment experiences and to provide a dedicated space for people to learn how to be better allies.

The girls’ work doesn’t stop there. As two students themselves, one in her final year at university and the other studying for her GCSEs, Maya and Gemma put a lot of emphasis on transforming educational spaces.

In February this year they launched the “Our Schools Now: Higher Education” campagin to “raise awareness of the prevalence and impact of PSH on higher education students, and demand action from institutions.”

Public sexual harassment is common at universities with 84 per cent of students being subject to some form of harassment. The prevalence of lad culture and sports societies often creates a toxic atmosphere for many female and non-binary students.

As a student Maya knows first hand the impact public sexual harassment can have on students. She said: “I’ve been harassed continually through my student life. Whether it’s on your way to a lecture or whether it’s on a night out, you can’t actually fully engage with student life in the same way, because of threats of harassment or sexual violence.”

Like many students, Maya believes universities are not doing enough to combat public sexual harassment: “universities are falling far from the mark in terms of being leaders in this space, which is what they could do. They should be showing the way in terms of working with local transport providers, funding proper awareness campaigns, ensuring that every single student in their university has gone through a consent workshop.

“Universities very often focus on on reporting, instead of prevention. And I think there needs to be a shift where universities recognise that it’s not enough to just punish people who are doing this. It’s about preventing it from happening.”

Their campaign has very specific goals they would like universities to implement such as every institution having a full time sexual assault and harassment advisor. Maya believes this to be a crucial goal as “it can have a really big impact if you know that there’s someone in your institution whose entire job is to support you through that experience.”

As part of the campaign to end public sexual harassment at higher education institutions, Our Streets Now have ambassadors at universities throughout the country, originally launching with ambassadors at 17 institutions and within a month adding an additional 10. The ambassadors are students from the uni who are trying to work with their institution in order to create changes.

Two student ambassadors at Imperial College want to deliver consent and bystander workshops. And the ambassador for Manchester School of Architecture has already created a consultation board with police and universities around Manchester to generate conversations around public sexual harassment.

Since the death of Sarah Everard 25 more students have signed up to be ambassadors at their universities. Maya said this has been a small glimmer of hope amongst the trauma of the last few months.

She said: “It’s been really inspiring. It’s been a really positive thing to come out of this traumatic event and traumatic conversations that everyone’s been having and real action is coming out of it.”

To sign the petition to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence sign here. To find out more information about Our Streets Now and the university ambassador scheme head to their website

The Tab’s Do Better campaign is putting a focus on the rising student sexual assault problem. Universities need to do more to support students and the culture around sexual assault needs to change.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share with us – whether it’s about lack of support from uni, problematic sports socials, assault in lockdown or anything you think needs to be heard, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

Featured image credit: Joyce Colins/Plan International UK

Read more from The Tab’s Do Better campaign here:

As women we should be able to walk home safely, but these stories prove we can’t

Sexual assault reports at UK universities have more than doubled in four years

‘I need to be proactive’: We asked boys what they’re doing to change their behaviour