“I had just finished work and was taking the train home. It was crowded, but I could see space.”
Twenty-three-year-old Grace is describing one of the occasions she was harassed in Melbourne.
“I asked a man to move, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t move, just stared at me,” she says. “[Then] he started saying things to me; ‘There’s no space for you. You shouldn’t be on this train. You shouldn’t even be in this country.’”
Grace, whose family moved to Australia from China when she was four, says she regularly experiences harassment in public spaces, and it is often of a sexual and racist nature. She was once told words to the effect of “you have a good chest for a Chinese woman” as she walked down a street.
And she’s not alone.
A report by the Victorian organisation It’s Not a Compliment, released ahead of International Anti-Street Harassment Week (19 – 23 April) on Friday, has shown how prevalent and traumatic unwanted attention can be for women in public spaces and how it can be layered with racist or homophobic abuse.
An overwhelming majority (86.6 per cent) of respondents to the survey said they had experienced street harassment in the previous six months. Seventy-five per cent experienced it at least once a month.
Those who were not white said they also experienced racist abuse, while women who identified or presented as queer said they received homophobic abuse, and those who had a visible disability said they were also targeted because of it.
The report, A Snapshot of Street Harassment Experiences in Victoria, gathered the testimonies of 343 anonymous responders between August and November last year. It seeks to record some of the levels and types of aggressions taking place against women, which the organisation says currently go unreported.
“Street harassment is definitely more common than people think,” says It’s Not a Compliment’s research and policy officer Natasha Sharma.
Eighty-six per cent of survey respondents had not reported an incident of street harassment. Of those who did, 91.5 per cent were either dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied with the outcome.
But rather than criminalise the behaviour, the organisation wants to gather the data to raise awareness and encourage councils to introduce bystander intervention training.
“They’re not particularly interested in police intervention,” Ms Sharma says of women who have experienced street harassment. “Those who have gone to the police in the past haven’t really had a positive experience. They’re looking for community-led intervention and bystander intervention.”
But for bystanders to intervene, there needs to be more awareness of what street harassment is and how to call it out safely. According to the report, it goes beyond sex-based catcalling and “into any form of unwanted contact or comments in a public space”.
“If it’s harming you, and making you feel uncomfortable in a public space, then it’s a form of harassment,” Ms Sharma says.
Survey responders also reported experiencing harassment at work, on public transport, while exercising, or from people in passing cars while out walking.
And it starts young. Fifty-seven per cent of survey responders say they first experienced sexual harassment between the ages of 13 and 17. Thirty-four per cent were under 12.
It also leaves a lasting impact. One responder said she was then too scared to walk to and from school for the next two years.
‘Histories of racism’
It’s Not a Compliment also wants to draw attention to the increase in racialised harassment, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maria Hach, senior research and advocacy officer at the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health in Victoria says it it a concerning trend.
“We know that migrant and refugee women experience sexual harassment differently because it’s tied to histories of racism,” she says. “We’ve noticed the rise in racial vilification of women of colour since COVID-19, here and across the world.”
“The drivers of this kind of behaviour occur at all levels. It’s about how women of colour and migrant women are discriminated against based on their gender, but also their race.”
Harassment is also impacting mood and changing behaviour. Seventy-four per cent of survey respondents reported feelings of anxiety or depression, almost 60 per cent changed their regular routes to school or work, and more than half (56 per cent) changed how they dressed or presented in public.
Grace says: “One time I was running just outside my house, on a main road, and I realised that a man was leaning out of his car window and had his phone camera on me. He was either taking photos or videos.”
“I haven’t run in public since.”
Remembering the time she was forced to stand near the abusive man on the busy train, feeling fear, anger and concern for her safety, she says she’s grateful to the other passengers who intervened.
But it’s left a mark.
“The message is: public space in this country isn’t for you.”
Fernanda Fain-Binda is a freelance writer based in Melbourne
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