Durham Academics Q&A Five

Dr Kelly Johnson

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology


Emerald: Given the tragic murder of Sarah Everard and surrounding events of the past week in Britain, coinciding with the release of the figure than 97% of women between the ages of 18 and 24 have been sexually harassed, it is quite clear that public spaces in Britain need to be made safer for women. To what extent do you think that changes to the law and policing can achieve this, on balance with the need to change society’s view of women and men’s behaviour?

Dr Johnson: That’s a really good question. A lot of my work looks at trying to improve the way that the police in the criminal justice system respond to domestic and sexual violence, which we know women disproportionately experience, and there is so much work to do in that area. There have been amazing campaigns led by women, in a range of different organisations to try and improve responses. But still, the figures that we are seeing in terms of the rate of prosecutions and domestic abuse prosecutions are declining to the point where I think less than 1% of reported rapes are successfully prosecuted at court. It just demonstrates how much work we need to do to make sure that women and all victim survivors have access to justice and redress in criminal justice settings.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the past 50 years around how the law has traditionally been created for and upheld by men, and how we need to bring more of the law into women’s lives or bring more of women’s lives into the law, that’s the famous quote from Katherine McKinnon. I think it’s really important that we can update the law so that it speaks to the experiences of women and also update criminal justice responses, including policing, so that women can report. They need to feel that they will be taken seriously, that their experiences matter and they’ll be believed and treated respectfully, having successful and positive engagement with the police that could lead to a positive criminal justice outcome, and that’s not happening – it’s really concerning to me.

More broadly, law can only be one part of the answer. So much of the sort of discussion that’s happened over the past couple of weeks has been focused on the sense of fear and safety that we have in public spaces: how common sexual harassment is, how common public street harassment is and if we’re thinking 97% of women and girls experience street harassment, not all of those women will want a criminal justice outcome. They won’t have reported to the police maybe because they don’t think the police would take it seriously, or that these actions aren’t against the law, but also maybe because that’s not a response that they think sits with their experience or how they want to react to that. So we need to have a range of ways in which women can report and respond to these experiences. We also need to invest hugely in prevention and education initiatives so that we stop this abuse happening in the first place. We’ve seen a big focus in government recently on trying to improve the letter of the law but not backing it up with a holistic response and so we really need better sex, gender and relationship education in schools, we need to be working with men and boys. We need charity campaigns, support for victim survivors from the third sector, including buying for services. We need a massive holistic change.

Emerald: Picking up there on what you were saying about the law needing to reflect women’s lives, do you think there is anything specific or different about this problem in Britain compared with other countries?

Dr Johnson: My area of research recently has been how evolutions in technology have intersected with domestic sexual violence and how that is reflected or not in the law. In England and Wales we definitely see that the law just hasn’t managed to keep up with the way in which technology has evolved and then how sexual violence and online abuse directed at women isn’t being covered. There’s a range of ways in which the law just hasn’t managed to keep up with the way in which technology has evolved, and then how sexual violence and online abuse directed at women isn’t being covered. There’s a range of ways in which the law doesn’t cover really harmful sexually abusive behaviour that’s taking place through digital technologies. Things like so called revenge pornography, we call it image based sexual abuse, like ‘upskirting’, although there is a law based on that it is quite limited. Also, more recently I’ve been looking at the issue of ‘cyberflashing’, as it’s currently illegal to indecent expose yourself on the street, but it’s not illegal to do it online or send unsolicited penis images. And all of these are non-consensual and potentially harmful sexual activities that just aren’t covered by legislation currently. That’s really concerning because we know these can have significant impacts, both in terms of distress, humiliation and fear, but also in terms of impacting women’s sense of equality, freedom and safety in public spaces.

Emerald: I think that the crisis of domestic abuse, during Covid-19 lockdowns particularly, suggests that further action is needed to protect particularly women from such abuse. What do you think the current shortcomings in laws surrounding domestic abuse are in Britain and how do you think they can be strengthened to better protect women?

Dr Johnson: We’ve seen a lot of fantastic campaigns around trying to improve the law going through Parliament and the House of Lords now with the Domestic Abuse Bill. These are highlighting the shortcomings in the law, such as there not being a clear law around non-fatal strangulation and threats to share intimate images, which is being taken forward in a domestic abuse sort of setting. Also, coercive control, the new legislation trying to criminalise patterns of domestic abuse which formerly didn’t apply to ex-partner relationships, even though we know that abuse carries on, so there’s definitely a lot of ways in which we need to think about law reform to make it possible to respond to these harmful practices for victim survivors that want to report to the police. But beyond that, a lot of my work has looked at how some of these new laws coming in have been implemented in practice by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, particularly the coercive control offence. And again, I’d go back and say that while it’s all very well that we have a law in place, it’s important that we strengthen that law to make it usable but also we really need to have a holistic plan of implementation where the police understand what the law is and how to investigate it and what the Crown prosecution wants. At the moment we’re not seeing that really. Improvements are slowly being made, but what we hoped would be a revolution for criminal justice responses to domestic abuse really hasn’t arrived yet because of a lack of resourcing and training, so it’s really important that it’s supportive of that.

Emerald: Going back to what you said about women’s experiences not being reflected in  the laws predominantly written by men and looking at the House of Lords, which is largely male. Do you think that there will be improvement as there is greater female representation in making legislation, or do you think that will have less impact that we have hoped for?

Dr Johnson: I think that it is really important that we have more women making laws, being represented in Parliament and the House of Lords to be taking these issues forwards. We have been working with some brilliant MPs around how to get the law to speak to women’s experiences more, as well as the Victim’s Commissioner, for example. So it’s really fantastic to have women championing new laws at this level and improving representation but also we really need to think about the implementation of these laws. At the moment, the police are really at the forefront of deciding what crime is taking place, when and how to frame an offence. At the moment we know that’s still overwhelmingly represented by male colleagues and there’s been concerns in the media this week about the police being institutionally misogynistic and sexist. We really need to think about a wholesale change, not just at the top but we need it from the very bottom going forwards.

Emerald: So when you talk about institutional misogyny, do you think that this could be a movement which goes alongside tackling institutional racism within the police force?

Dr Johnson: Yes, I hope so. I think there’s some brilliant police officers and forces as well that we are working with who really want to improve domestic abuse and sexual violence responses. It is a really complex issue but I think that as part of this conversation there does need to be a wholesale emphasis on cultural change and the way in which domestic and sexual violence is prioritised but also culturally engaged with on a police level, I think there does need to be a lot of change there as well.

Emerald: Finally, do you have an example of a woman who you admire?

Dr Johnson: There are so many to choose from, but I want to mention our own Josephine Butler, because of her connection to the North East of England and our university, but also of course because of the remarkable achievements she achieved in her life, including her influential campaigns for improving women’s legal, voting and educational rights.

Conducted by Emerald McLaughlin, Editor

Many thanks to Dr Johnson for her time and sharing her knowledge and expertise with the History in Politics team for the purposes of this interview

Many of the key points Dr Johnson makes in this study stem from her work on image based sexual abuse and cyberflashing, which has been led by Professor Clare McGlynn, and conducted in collaboration with other colleagues. For more information, please see: 

  • McGlynn, C. and K. Johnson (2021) Cyberflashing: Recognising Harms, Reforming Laws. Bristol: Bristol University Press.  
  • McGlynn, Clare, Rackley, Erika, Johnson, Kelly, Henry, Nicola, Flynn, Asher, Powell, Anastasia, Gavey, Nicola & Scott, Adrian (2019). Shattering Lives and Myths: A  Report on Image-Based Sexual Abuse. Durham University; University of Kent.