“I almost FELL off my seat.” “This is excellent.” “Lump in my throat watching that.” “I've been in this situation more than a few times and it's terrifying.”

This is the type of commentary that accompanied the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan's new campaign ad when it appeared on his Twitter earlier this month, quickly spreading across timelines everywhere. 

Why has the 2-minute campaign ad caused such a stir? Because unlike many that have come before it (like the well-meaning lighting up of billboards in Paris at night to help women feel safer on the streets), it targets the perpetrators of gender-based violence, instead of its victims. 

The #HaveAWord campaign to combat gender-based violence aims to speak directly to men and boys, and encourages them to “have a word” with themselves and their friends to “challenge sexist attitudes and inappropriate behaviour”, according to the Mayor of London.

The short film shows a group of men on a night out leaving a corner shop when they spot a girl waiting for her taxi by herself. The group ringleader approaches the woman and stands in front of her, before trying to initiate conversation by offering her one of his crisps. He then continues to try and speak to the woman even though she looks clearly uncomfortable and tries to walk away from him. 

What the ad says is of course just as important as where it’s going to be played. It’s no use creating an ad that targets men if you’re not going to show it to men — which is why the campaign premiered during the match between Crystal Palace and Manchester City, and its message is being screened on public billboards and online, as well as in football and rugby stadiums across London.

The campaign comes after the first anniversary of the death of Sarah Everard earlier this month, which shook the country and sparked increased calls to tackle the threat of violence that women and girls face every day. Everard was abducted, raped, and murdered by serving Met police officer Wayne Couzens in March 2021. He is now serving a whole life tariff.

Everard’s death caused outrage and increased fears over women’s safety in the UK. Since her murder, at least 139 women have been killed in the UK, according to figures from the Counting Dead Women project.

While abduction, rape, and murder might seem like they’re miles apart from a “harmless catcall”, they exist on the same continuum and the latter feeds a spectrum of gender violence.

So while it’s great to see the #HaveAWord campaign conclude that “male violence against women and girls can start with words”, it would be even better if this was acknowledged in legislation. 

The week the campaign went live, the UK government announced that it intends to criminalise cyberflashing (basically unsolicited sexual pics or the digital version of trench-coat flashing in the park). Offenders risk being punished with the same maximum sentence as indecent exposure, although concerns have been raised about how effective the law will be. Analysis has found that only 1 in 20 cyberflashing reports in Scotland (where it has been illegal since 2010) result in a conviction.

This announcement comes after years of concern that cyberflashing was a widespread issue — a study in 2018 found that 40% of women aged 18-40 had received unsolicited pictures. In London, numerous women have reported being AirDropped dick pics while traveling on the Underground. In New York, subway riders have shared similar stories.

The fact that the UK government wants to legislate is a sign of progress. It helps show that such behaviour is in fact intolerable, and should not be normalised by inaction. But, at the time of writing, the behaviour shown in the #HaveAWord film is not illegal. Because in the UK, you can be fined for littering on the street but not for sexually harassing a child in public

There’s lots to love about the Mayor of London’s initiative. It draws a clear line between behaviour many might consider “just a bit of fun” and more extreme forms of gender-based violence. It focuses on what can be done to stop the perpetrators of this behaviour instead of focusing on what women and marginalised genders can do to prevent violence. And it’s being shown in the places that have historically harboured a culture of toxic misogyny.

But we need to make that behaviour not just socially unacceptable but illegal. Take action with Global Citizen now by signing the petition urging the UK government to criminalise public sexual harassment.

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

This Gender-Based Violence Ad Is Causing a Stir for Actually Targeting Men, Not Women

By Tess Lowery