Illustration: Michael Mucci
Earlier this week a friend went out for a couple of wines with some pals.
With a baby daughter at home, Rachel* didn't stay out ragingly late. By the time she had caught the train back to Coburg – about ten kilometres from Melbourne's CBD – it was about 11pm.
She began the ten-minute walk home through suburban streets as per usual, but halfway there, a carload of men started following her. Initially, she dismissed the slow-moving black sedan. But when it pulled into a side street in front of her and two guys – built like gym junkies – got out, she became less nonchalant.
As the men came down the street towards her, Rachel made a show of calling her partner, who was only a few minutes drive away. The men got back in the car and drove off, only to reappear a few blocks further up, getting out again.
In timing that could only be described as cinematic in its perfection, at this point, Rachel's partner arrived and she was able to get the hell out of there.
She does not want to think about what would have happened if he was even a minute or two later.
Rachel took to Facebook to warn friends in the area when she got home. As well as being flooded with messages of support ("what the f*** is wrong with people!"), others came forward with their own experiences.
"Some guy doubled back several times and rode his scooter up the footpath at me one night", one female friend said. "I had to walk into someone's house like I lived there and hide out in the garden," said another.
This is not niche thing. A survey released last month by the Australia Institute found almost 50 per cent of women polled said they had been followed, while 40 per cent said they had had their paths blocked.
More than 40 per cent had also experienced unwanted sexual touching by a stranger, while 36 per cent had been flashed. Almost 80 per cent had been honked at, 75 per cent had been leered at, while more than 60 per cent had experienced lewd or sexist comments.
La Trobe University sexual violence researcher Bianca Fileborn calls street harassment one of the "most pervasive forms of sexualised violence". As with rape and domestic violence, it is likely that the figures are even higher than suggested by surveys. Many women do not report their experiences. Some don't even tell their friends or family.
It's simply part of being a lady in 2015 in Australia. Or the United States, Britain or Canada, where similar figures are recorded.
In some ways it is easy to dismiss what happened to Rachel: sure, she was absolutely terrified, but she made it home safely in the end. And she can just get a cab next time, no? As for a bit of whistling or "hey baby!", can't women take a compliment? A joke? A loud noise?
But while there will be occasions for some women when a honking horn won't be seen as intimidating or offensive, US studies show that street harassment impacts on womens' perceptions of safety and their freedom of movement in public. More broadly, it can lead to anxiety, shame, headaches, disturbed sleep and appetite as well as other stress reactions. We are not in the realms of a little blip here.
There is not much research about the perpetrators of street harassment, but overwhelmingly they are understood to be men, who are more likely to harass strangers when in a group. This is not to suggest that most men drive around in cars scaring the bejesus out of women. The point is, enough of them do it to enough women – and the result is a culture that is unnervingly everyday in its violence against females.
There is also an unnerving lack of action to stop it.
Fileborn laments that there is hardly any policy or police response to street harassment. It doesn't help that much of it is fleeting. And very deniable. Who can prove that a guy staring at a woman for 30 minutes on the bus was harassing her? Can the government legislate against yobbos yelling out of cars?
"There's just a total lack of ramifications for people that engage in that kind of behaviour," says Fileborn, who would like to see public education campaigns to try to prevent street harassment.
What happens to women on the streets is not seen as a critical issue – it is certainly not taken with the same level of seriousness as the safety of young men at risk of coward punches (where laws were changed, new terms coined). "Street harassment" is not even specifically referred to in the federal government's much trumpeted national plan to reduce violence against women.
Perhaps this is why many of the responses have been informal ones: encouraging bystanders and friends to intervene if it's safe, as well as websites like Hollaback that collect and publicise examples.
But until street harassment is seen as a mainstream issue, worthy of tackling rather than ignoring or tolerating, the onus will remain on individual women to handle it. Women, who like Rachel are not only scared by what is happening, but in her own words, "pissed off".
"I'm just so angry. You should be able to walk in your local area at night."
*Name has been changed.