Whistling and staring at women in the street is harassment – and it’s got to stop

87% of Australian women have experienced some form of physical or verbal street harassment. Elena Dijour/Shutterstock

You may not have heard the term “street harassment”, but if you’re a woman in Australia, you’ve probably experienced it: whistles, stares, unwanted comments, touching or being followed by strangers in the street.

According to research by the Australia Institute, 87% of us have experienced some form of physical or verbal street harassment, often before the age of 18. Internationally, this figure is higher, at 96%.

As with other forms of sexualised violence, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of street harassment and women the victims – although victims may also be targeted on account of ethnicity and or sexual orientation.

While it may be tempting to dismiss such occurrences as “minor” or “harmless”, there is a substantial body of research that tells us this is not the case. The impacts of street harassment vary depending on the context, and range from the immediate, visceral responses of anger, repulsion and shock, through to longer-term effects such as anxiety, depression and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Street harassment also has a very real impact on women’s use of and access to public spaces. Women consistently report that they limit their movements in public in order to avoid street harassment as well as more “serious” sexual violence.

While there is considerable merit in documenting the prevalence and impacts of street harassment, we need to ensure that this is not all we do.

Violence against women

Street harassment is part of the continuum of men’s violence against women, which includes what we might consider to be more “serious” forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual assault, rape and physical abuse. These seemingly vastly different forms of behaviour are interconnected, and all contribute towards women’s oppression and inequality.

A hidden video camera records the unwelcome advances a woman in Manhattan, New York, over ten hours/Hollaback.

Despite this, minimal attention has been paid to how we might prevent and respond to street harassment. There is little legal or other recourse for women who have experienced street harassment. And street harassment is notably absent from policy documents and discussions on the prevention of men’s violence against women.

Yet, if we are to eliminate all forms of violence against women it is vital that street harassment is included in our prevention efforts.

Avenues for prevention

So, what avenues are there for responding to, and preventing, street harassment?

Improving justice responses to street harassment is one option that could be pursued. Although some forms of street harassment are covered under current legislation, others, such as staring, are not. We know relatively little about victims’ experiences of reporting to the criminal justice system, although as with other forms of sexual violence it is likely vastly under reported.

However, a formal justice response may not be the best, or most appropriate, option for responding to and preventing street harassment. Certainly, it is an avenue that should be kept open to street harassment victims should they desire to pursue it. Yet, the justice system has a long history of responding poorly to violence against women – a problem that persists, despite efforts to reform the system.

The nature of street harassment makes it difficult to respond to through the justice system. The often-fleeting nature of street harassment means that perpetrators have moved on, often before women are able to identify who they were.

Additionally, the harm from street harassment may arise from the cumulative experience of repeated harassment and not from the action of individual perpetrators.

Internationally, public transport companies have run campaigns communicating that harassing behaviour will not be tolerated. Anna Jurkovska/Shutterstock

When it comes to responding to street harassment, we need think outside of the formal justice box.

Bystander intervention, for instance, is gaining increasing prominence as a response to gender-based violence, and offers much potential when it comes to the prevention of street harassment. Bystander intervention can mean directly confronting the perpetrator – where safe to do so – and other actions such as asking the victim if they are okay.

Speaking up when we see street harassment tells perpetrators their behaviour is not acceptable, while simultaneously offering our support to victims.

Internationally, public transport companies have run campaigns communicating that harassing behaviour will not be tolerated. Australian-based companies could easily do the same.

Continuing to challenge the attitudes towards women and gender stereotypes that underpin street harassment is also vital. While programs such as “Sex and Ethics” are increasingly being introduced into our schools to help achieve this, research shows that we still have a long way to go in shifting attitudes.

A lack of current responses to street harassment, while disappointing, allows us to develop responses from the starting point of victims’ needs and experiences. While some victims may prefer to access the traditional justice system, others may desire innovative or new responses such as voicing their experience online. A one-size-fits all approach is unlikely to be successful; we need a suite of responses.

Whichever options we ultimately decide on, one thing is clear: it’s time to stop just talking about street harassment and start taking some action.


Editor’s note: Bianca will be answering questions between 1 to 2pm AEDT on Tuesday March 17. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.