Where is the line between normal behaviour and harassment?


Dr Bianca Fileborn

"Street harassment is not a compliment. It is a form of violence and abuse with serious consequences. It has to stop."

"Street harassment is not a compliment. It is a form of violence and abuse with serious consequences. It has to stop." Photo: Stocksy

Street harassment is, for many of us, a routine experience in pubic spaces. In fact, it's so common that almost every woman and LGBTIQ person reading this article will have experienced it at least once in their lifetime (and, let's face it, probably much more frequently than that).

Street harassment is a somewhat slippery concept. Catcalling, staring, unwanted verbal comments, car-horn honking and being followed are all common examples of this behaviour. Yet, it can be difficult to determine when something becomes 'harassment' or not. Some of these actions can also constitute perfectly normal interactions in public spaces, and it's not always easy to know where to draw the line between something being 'normal' and 'harassment'.

Perhaps this is part of the reason we frequently hear street harassment dismissed as being a 'compliment', as something to be expected in public life. What's the big deal, right? Besides, how will the human race survive if we can't make sexual advances towards random strangers on the street? (Because we've all heard the romantic tale of how a couple got together after one partner leaned out the car window and screamed "nice tits").

When we start to look more closely at the finer details of women and LGBTIQ people's experiences, it becomes harder to accept or interpret street harassment as any kind of genuine compliment or an attempt to meet a new sexual or romantic partner. My own Melbourne-based research with 292 people who've experienced street harassment sheds some light on the harms and impacts of street harassment and shows why we need to take it seriously.


To be sure, some of the people who took part in my research experienced forms of street harassment that could (from certain perspectives) be seen as a 'compliment'. Indeed, a small number of people even expressly stated that they occasionally found certain types of street harassment complimentary or flattering – although they also usually preferred that it didn't happen nonetheless.

If at least some individuals experience street harassment as welcome or 'complimentary' behaviour, this creates a degree of ambiguity regarding the legitimacy and intent of those who engage in these acts. This is reinforced by a cultural context that willingly (mis)interprets the actions of perpetrators as harmless flirting, regardless of the actual intent or lack of sexual ethics underpinning the behaviour.

Although, as many of my own participants pointed out, street harassment is rarely intended as a genuine sexual advance, often demonstrated by the perpetrators' complete lack of regard for the impact of their behaviour on their supposed 'romantic' interest. A supposedly 'complimentary' action would quickly transform into one of hostility and abuse if the 'wrong' response was given.

However, many of my participants more 'typical' experiences expose and challenge the idea that street harassment is a compliment. It is anything but.

Take, for example a non-binary participant who had their bottom squeezed so hard by a man in a large shopping centre that they were bruised the next day. Or the woman who was terrified after a man followed her in his car as she walked home. Or the countless experiences of being told to smile, or having to hear unsolicited comments about and appraisals of our appearance, dress, or 'fuckability'.

Street harassment often came with a distinct flavour of homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or racism and orientalism. For example, men called one woman an "Asian slut" as she crossed the road, while another participant with a disability was routinely referred to as "a walking head job".

Men were almost universally the perpetrators of these actions, acting alone or in groups.

The harms and impacts experienced by people in my research clearly illustrate that street harassment is not a compliment.

Participants would use words like anger, fear, shaking, vulnerable, powerless, uncomfortable, frustrated, panic, anxiety, scared, dirty, violated, unsafe, shocked, self-conscious, feeling inferior and small, ashamed, and sick to capture the harms and impacts of public harassment. Surely 'complimentary' actions should result in much more positive feelings than this.

Many felt unsafe, and unable to freely access and use public spaces and public amenities like public transport. Street harassment impeded upon the basic ability and right to participate in public life. It resulted in people limiting their movements – how and when they use public spaces – being wary and distrustful of unknown men, and changing their sartorial choices and corporeal presentation in an attempt to lessen the likelihood that they will be targeted. As one person in my study said:

"I feel very scared and small, I want to take up less space in the world and not be noticed... It makes me feel like I don't deserve a place in the world, that I'm just here for other people. I feel completely impotent, vulnerable and exposed, like I don't matter at all."

The world becomes experienced through the weary lens of hyper-vigilance, of never being able to just be. It left some participants feeling like they didn't have a right to exist in public. It is a constant reminder of who public spaces belong to: not you.

Sometimes these impacts were transitory – the initial shock of being jolted out of internal thought by a crude remark – and passed quickly. Sometimes these effects lingered on for days, months and even years after the event.

When seen in this light street harassment begins to look a lot more like a part of the routine objectification, oppression and social exclusion of women, LGBTIQ people, people of colour and people living with disabilities. It's not a compliment. It is a form of violence and abuse with serious consequences. It has to stop.

Find out how you can help put an end to street harassment during International Anti-Street Harassment week.