Six Graphs That Show Just How Much Australian Men Harass Women On The Street
It's a LOT more common than you think.
International Women’s Day has come and gone for another year, and while thousands turned out to events like the excellent All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House for the occasion, the thing most people will remember about it was Germaine Greer asking the Foreign Minister if she’d get her nipples out to save the Bali 2 on Q and A last night.
Relatively unheralded, though, was an in-depth report released by progressive think-tank The Australia Institute on Saturday. Considering “read an in-depth report by a progressive think tank” only makes it up to third or fourth on most people’s lists of crazy things to do on Saturday night, it’s understandable the report hasn’t gotten a huge amount of attention. But it’s also a shame given the report’s findings, and what they say about the state of Australian gender relations with another International Women’s Day behind us.
Australia Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett and researcher Molly Johnson surveyed over 700 women of all age groups on their experiences of being catcalled, groped, assaulted, made to feel unsafe and otherwise harassed while walking in the street, and compiled the findings into the helpfully-titled ‘Everyday Sexism: Australian women’s experiences of street harassment’ report. The findings are as depressing as they are predictable, and provide fascinating and deeply disturbing insights into the nature — and sheer pervasiveness — of street harassment in Australia, as well as the psychological consequences on those who suffer it.
The report defines street harassment, fairly straightforwardly, as “harassment in public places”. Respondents were asked about being harassed by boh men and women, but the number of respondents who said they had been was vanishingly small in comparison. Under that definition, the vast majority of women have been street-harassed within the last twelve months. Women under the age of 45 are roughly twice as likely to be harassed as not, and young women are especially vulnerable — an astonishing 83 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 reported men street-harassing them in some form in the last year. Considering one of Junkee’s largest audiences is women between 18 and 24, I can only imagine how many times the phrase “no shit” was just muttered at a phone screen.
Beyond actual incidents of street harassment itself, the report also gives some thought to the after-effects on its victims. The very real possibility of being harassed, assaulted or threatened in the street leads almost all women, across all age groups, to drastically alter their behaviour to try and prevent that happening — other studies have exhaustively outlined how the prospect of street harassment forces women to be constantly “on guard” by checking their surroundings, plotting alternate routes home and purposely wearing dull clothes to avoid attention. 93 percent of women under 24 have felt the need to do so in the last year, and even most women above the retirement age do. The graph that illustrates that fact doesn’t even bother to start at zero; it takes 50 percent as its baseline.
The age of women being harassed by men crops up again and again in the report, and the detail is profoundly disquieting. More than a third of women reported being under fifteen years old the first time a man harassed them on the street. More than half were first harassed by men before reaching their eighteenth birthday — one respondent recalled how a man approached her and her school-age friends at a bus stop and “told us how sexy we looked, asked his friends to look how sexy we are, and how hot our school sports uniforms were.”
The report also tries to give some insight into how prevalent different forms of street harassment are, from catcalling out of car windows to groping and threats of violence. Non-physical harassment was extremely common; men leering, making lewd comments and attempting repeated unwanted sexual advances were familiar experiences for the vast majority of women, with a solid minority reporting such instances in the last twelve months. It’s worth noting that “non-physical harassment” is a fairly euphemistic term; as an example from the report itself, one woman recalled how “a young man yelled ‘I’m gonna rape you’ from a passing car” while she was walking home on a busy street one night.
The instances of “non-physical harassment” are bad enough, but “physical harassment” under the report’s criteria overwhelmingly falls into criminal-behaviour territory, including men stalking women, groping them, exposing their genitals or masturbating in front of them, or kissing them by force. The least common response in this category, which detailed men threatening women with violence for rejecting their sexual advances, was still something that a quarter of respondents had had happen to them. Around half of women remembered a time when someone had begun following them.
If you’re a guy and all of this is news to you: firstly, talk to some women, son, damn. But this part could be of particular relevance for a guy trying to understand what this kind of treatment does to the inside of a person’s head by interviewing 700 men and comparing how men and women act on a typical night out. The end product highlights the lengths women go to to avoid getting harassed, often in ways that the vast majority of men simply never have to do, or even think about. Most guys have never worried about leaving their drinks unattended in a bar, or pretended to have a conversation on the phone so it doesn’t look like they’re alone — it wouldn’t even occur, really. But for a solid percentage of women, these are pretty standard tactics. If you’ve ever wondered why women put the rego number of cabs they’re in on Twitter, now you’ve got an answer — they’re genuinely fearful of what might happen if they don’t. Hooray! Life rewards the endlessly curious.
“These figures show how essential it is for greater recognition, across society, that street harassment against women is not only a serious issue, but also a common one,” Australia Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett said. She makes an excellent point — this isn’t a trend, or a concerning series of isolated incidents. It’s endemic. Street harassment isn’t something that just happens to people — it’s not the bloody weather. It’s a choice that large numbers of men consciously make — a choice to physically and psychologically frighten and intimidate women with the prospect of imminent violence.
The Australia Institute’s report doesn’t give much information on the kinds of men who engage in this sort of behaviour, although Bennett said she would be interested in studying that area in the future. Obviously, not all men street-harass — that point has been made a thousand times in a thousand different places, and it remains as irrelevant as ever. What a pathetically low bar that is to set ourselves — that there are plenty of men who don’t go out of their way to frighten and threaten women in public.
In any case, as these figures clearly indicate, the impact of those who do permeates throughout society, to the point where a substantial portion of the population regularly — and justifiably — feels at threat going about their business in public spaces. When most women can recall being leered at or groped before they reach their sixteenth birthday, the problem just might be more pervasive than we’ve been prepared to admit.