I'm shouting back at street harassers

New research from the Australia Institute shows 87 per cent of Australian women have experienced harassment on the street.

New research from the Australia Institute shows 87 per cent of Australian women have experienced harassment on the street. Photo: Stocksy

Last year, for the first time, I intervened when I witnessed a particularly nasty case of catcalling along the footpath of Sydney's inner city.

Rather than saying nothing, I found myself scuttling through the traffic and shouting at a group of men who hurled obscenities at a young woman. All of them. Right up close.

The poor young woman ran off.  Partly, I'm sure, to escape the deranged old woman shrieking at her attackers.

New research from the Australia Institute shows 87 per cent of Australian women have experienced harassment on the street. One in ten, near enough, has to put up with this rubbish on a daily basis – and for a very long time.

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One-third of Australian women experienced their first episode of street harassment before they were even 15. Just young girls.

Ebony Bennett, deputy director of the Australian Institute, a public policy think tank, says she was surprised by the young age at which harassment first started.

What happens?

Wolf-whistling. Leering. Ridiculous finger gestures. Graphic comments. It's honking from cars - as if the sound of horns blaring is sex music. Repeated unwelcome sexual advances. And that's before they've even tried to lay a hand on you.

So, what about those who try to actually get close? Two-thirds of women in Australia have experienced blokes getting physical on the street.  Blocking your path – and then, as you move away, they move to block you. Hands on our bum on a bus. Been flashed. Been kissed without consent. Been threatened after you've knocked back those delightfully inviting sexual advances.

This is all happening on the street in full view of others. At a festival last month in St Kilda, one young woman reported to police that a man had masturbated on to her back. In a moshpit. 

What's worse is that the majority of us have this experience while we are alone but the offenders mostly travel in packs.

So how should we respond? Plenty of women try to make smart remarks, or even to shout back. Some try to challenge.

But as Amelia Paxman, a 26 year old Brisbane filmmaker says, most responses don't make you feel any better.

"It just gives you a sense that someone else has control over you. I've tried lots of different responses but none of them ever work.

"I've stopped and I've challenged them. I've engaged in dialogue. Then it just escalates."

But she points to the real problem, that she doesn't feel her safety is guaranteed, no matter what she does or says.

"It just happens so quickly, they are the ones with the power, they are the ones in a big group."

Bennett, of the Australia Institute, says that fear of street harassment directly impacts what women do.

Nine out of ten Australian women aged between 18 and 24 change their behaviour on a daily basis  to avoid being scared by harassers.

We are not reclaiming the night. Instead, we don't walk alone at night because we are frightened. We organise to text a friend when we get home safely. We walk under street lights. We hold keys in our hands like weapons. We cross the street. We pretend to be on the phone. We catch cabs even when it's just a short walk.

Lauren Hutchinson, 30, a medical science student in Canberra, has had the experience of being physically attacked. Now she actively avoids street abusers by keeping away from certain areas. And Brooke Hunter, 25, a travel writer in Perth, lives just 20 minutes walk from the station. She catches a cab to get home.

Bennett says this is yet another gender gap. Women feel unsafe and her research shows men feel much safer. More than 60 per cent of women won't walk home alone at night, compared to just 20 per cent of men.

"Fear is a constant companion," says Bennett.

Anyhow, as you get older, women become invisible to the street harassers. Which is brilliant. But after my banshee attack on these young idiots, I began to fantasise about what would happen if someone like those blokes ever shouted at me: "Show us your tits."

I think I'd be tempted. And then I doubt they'd ever shout at another woman again.

Follow me on Twitter @jennaprice or email jenna_p@bigpond.net.au