Claudia is a third year Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Melbourne, majoring in Politics and International studies. She has declared no conflicts of interest in writing this opinion piece. She would like to acknowledge Dr Bianca Fileborn's groundbreaking work in this field.
Street harassment hides in plain sight - considered not ‘violent’ enough, it is often omitted from conversations around gender-based violence. Recently, there has been increasing acknowledgment of street harassment as a legitimate manifestation of violence towards women and the unmet need for ‘both research and redress’.
The problem with addressing street harassment starts with the ‘catch-all’ nature of the term. It is defined as a diverse range of behaviours including ‘catcalling, wolf-whistling, prolonged staring or ogling, groping, following someone, and intrusive verbal comments’. This terminology is problematic, as ‘street harassment’ may occur in any public place including public transport. The term street harassment also fails to acknowledge that almost all perpetrators are men and victims are women.
Social media has facilitated activism and awareness around street harassment, identifying and highlighting analogies with other forms of gender-based violence such as sexual assault. Specifically, organisations such as ‘It’s Not a Compliment’ (based in Melbourne) and ‘Hollaback!’ (based in New York) highlight how street harassment functions to preserve and reinforce gendered power relations. However, not all women experience harassment in the same way. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality suggests that the nature and experience of harassment may differ according to the ‘social markers’ of identity, such as gender, age, race, class and racialisation. For example, a black woman may experience different and intensified forms of street harassment compared to a white woman. These identity markers create different constructed hierarchies that intersect to generate different experiences. Thus, the perception and manifestation of street harassment varies substantially, as it is experienced in multiple ways, ‘some of which are shared and some of which are not’.
Globally, almost all women have experienced street harassment in some form – many on a daily basis. In Australia ‘over 90% of women report physical or verbal harassment in public at least once in their lives’. This relentless harassment confers an enormous emotional, social, and economic cost for the victim-survivor and the wider community. For example, Victorian state budget allocated $400 million to address various forms of violence against women. Despite this, there is a lack of clarity around the prevalence of street harassment; when women’s experiences are unnamed, they remain ‘a dubious reality in the eyes of others’.
Women are also seen as unreliable witnesses to the male ‘objective’ reality. In 2019, the Melbourne Homicide detective Inspector Michael Hughes advised that ‘people, particularly females…shouldn't be alone in parks’ in response to the murder of a young woman in a Melbourne park. Consequently, addressing street harassment and gender-based violence is considered the responsibility of the women who experience it, who are simultaneously blamed for their ‘vulnerability’ and viewed as not ‘pure enough to evade harm’.
The criminal justice system is often 'unwilling or unable’ to meet the justice interest of victim-survivors. Whilst it is important to acknowledge that some victim-survivors feel that increased criminalisation will achieve justice, many disagree. Greater criminalisation of street harassment may provide a short-term solution but is likely to lead to racial profiling, over policing and greater incarceration of vulnerable populations. Sustainable change will require a paradigm shift in attitudes to gender-based violence across society and government.
How can we initiate this paradigm shift from a policy perspective? In for part two of this series we will discuss and review possible policy solutions for street harassment.