Survey confirms majority of Australian women experience street harassment


Street harassment affects the majority of Australian women. Photo: Blink O’fanaye (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Whistles, winks, honks and body-shaming comments have all been part of a growing culture of street harassment, which the overwhelming majority of Australian women have had to deal with.

An Australian platform fighting for the rights of all individuals to live free of the fear of harassment, It’s Not A Compliment (INAC) has released a survey showing that minority groups were more affected by street harassment, reinforcing how the harmful practice is more directed at people who identify as women.

Out of the 343 people surveyed, the findings revealed that 91.3 percent of individuals who identified as cisgender women, non-binary, or transgender experienced harassment due to their real or perceived gender.

International movements combatting street harassment like #MeToo, Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback! have been collecting information to raise awareness about this social issue.

Street harassment (known colloquially as catcalling) is a form of intimidation that involves unwanted verbal comments, provocative gestures, honking, wolf-whistling, stalking, persistent gazing or leering.

INAC media officer Vanessa Wong says catcalling is a form of gender oppression.

“The way that a woman feels in a public space is a reflection of one the largest social structures at play,” she tells upstart.

“Street harassment is in a way a more difficult and declined form of gender oppression that we see in the streets.”

The survey also showed that 81.3 percent of respondents identifying as gay or lesbian faced harassment, due to their sexual orientation.

For Wong, comments on sexual preference or gender identity can affect the mental health of a victim who has been catcalled.

“The incident can definitely affect their self-esteem and this may lead to guilt, depression and increased anxiety,” she says.

Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Melbourne University Dr Bianca Fileborn says that beyond mental health impacts, street harassment can contribute to negative emotional states such as fear and anger.

She says it can significantly limit how people from targeted groups use and access public spaces.

“Catcalling and harassment related to gender identity and sexual orientation also reinforced the notion that LGBTQ+ people don’t ‘belong’ and aren’t freely accepted and welcomed by mainstream society.”

Patriarchal society’s stereotypes have long been attached to women affecting their behaviour, such as being urged not to go out alone at night or dress inappropriately in public.

Even though women have the right not to be subject to such stereotypes, Wong believes the way they dress will still determine whether they will be catcalled.

“Today, there is an open dialogue about people wearing whatever they want and people have been getting more expressive ways in fashion but catcalling remains one of the unspoken social issues,” she says.

Jessica Wolfendale’s Dangerously Provocative tells a narrative of the woman dressing provocatively and describes a culture of victim-blaming.

The Associate Professor of Philosophy at West Virginia University explains that society viewed women’s emancipation as giving rise to the classic femme fatale-wearing revealing clothes to control and manipulate men.

Wolfendale argues that men became powerless while women’s promiscuity was pictured as dangerous and powerful.

She wrote that patriarchal societies have long decimated natural body sizes encouraging women to wear corsets, bras, “porn chic” shorts, and tight fitting clothes to enhance a woman’s allure.

Wolfendale states that once we unpack the narratives of the provocatively dressed woman, we perceive that a woman is not empowered “in contrast, her apparent dangerousness and sexual power is embedded in and reinforces disempowering and objectifying conceptions of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality.”

In 2014, a shocking video went viral where a woman spent 10 hours walking in silence in New York City getting catcalled.

The woman wore a black top and black jeans. She was judged on her physical features, asked by strangers to “smile” and followed by a man walking beside her silently for five minutes.

Dr Fileborn says that many forms of street harassment remain poorly regulated.

“There was often no tangible evidence of what happened, and for actions like staring or leering this would be incredibly challenging and problematic to regulate and police through the law,” she says.

To raise awareness of and help reduce street harassment, INAC has organised Bystander Intervention Training designed to help victims or a third party to confidently intervene.