'What gives you the right to touch me?'

Branwen Jeffreys
Education Editor
@branwenjeffreyson Twitter

Media caption,
MPs are using the hashtag #StreetHarassment to get women talking about their experiences

MPs want to hear more from women about their experiences of unwanted sexual attention for an inquiry they're calling #StreetHarassment.

The inquiry has taken on a new urgency with a growing challenge to outdated casual assumptions that sexual harassment is nothing more than a "bit of banter" , or even worse, "fun".

The scandal that has enveloped the Presidents Club fundraiser at the Dorchester Hotel this week shows how cultural norms are shifting.

What's remarkable given the string of allegations that have emerged from the world of entertainment, and sport, is the organisers of the dinner don't appear to have given a second thought to how it would be seen in the cold light of day.

You only have to read the tapestry of testimony gathered by the Everyday Sexism Project to get some understanding of how pervasive unwanted sexual contact or innuendo is in womens' lives.

While the inquiry is concentrating on what happens in public places, for many women this is also an issue in the workplace.

And sadly, as the BBC has uncovered, for girls in school.

MPs on the Women and Equalities committee have already taken soundings from experts about what can be done to tackle sexual harassment.

Gather better evidence

Australia has been doing this since 2003 when its Human Rights Commission did the first of three surveys into sexual harassment.

The most recent in 2012 showed that 25% of women had faced sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the UK there is no similar evidence base.

Research by the TUC found more than half of women had experienced some form of unwanted attention at work.

That includes everything from sexual comments, jokes, touching or unwanted sexual advances.

Scarlet Harris from the TUC thinks the government should fund a survey similar to that in Australia.

"You can't fix a problem if you don't understand what it is and how it's changing. You can't see if the things you are doing are making a difference if you don't measure it. "

Changing the law

There is a growing debate about whether new criminal offences need to be created to reflect changing culture.

This week the Fawcett Society has called for "upskirting", illicitly taking a photo up a woman's skirt, to be made an offence in England.

Scotland included the illicit taking of photos under clothing as a category of voyeurism under its Sexual Offences Act in 2009.

The Fawcett Society also said misogyny, contempt for women, should be classified as a hate crime.

MPs heard this is an issue being considered by senior police officers.

The Women and Equalities Committee heard from Professor Clare McGlynn, who pointed out some other European countries have laws encompassing sexual harassment offences.

France is considering whether to introduce a system of fines for sexual harassment in the street.

A recent report for the government suggested these could start at 90 euros (£80).

But Professor McGlynn has reservations about seeing this purely as an issue of the law.

"If all we do is focus on criminalising more forms of sexual harassment that's all we'll end up talking about."

In England ministers have recognised the distress of victims of upskirting.

But the current government view is that existing laws on voyeurism, public decency and public order could be used to tackle it.

Nor are there plans to create a new category of hate crime, as existing laws are thought to be sufficient.

Changing attitudes

What everyone agrees is that no legal framework can do as much as shifting attitudes on what is acceptable behaviour.

As many as 50 to 60 universities are trialling an evidence-based approach to changing what is regarded as normal.

It's called the Intervention Initiative and is based on what is known as a bystander approach, which was successfully introduced on US campuses.

Dr Rachel Fenton, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, helped develop it in the UK following government funded research.

"It's all about a speak out culture, empowering people to understand, notice and feel responsible for speaking out."

It is being given different names as it is adapted on campuses, but the idea is that everyone can and should step in to stop inappropriate behaviour.

Dr Fenton believes it could also be used in schools, where there has been growing concern about sexual harassment and assaults.

Last year the government committed to making sex and relationships education a legal obligation for all secondary schools in England.

The opportunity for a generational shift in attitudes could depend on the quality of what is taught in schools and colleges.