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A whole-of-community approach works best in shifting cultural attitudes and behaviours. Grigoriev Ruslan/Shutterstock

We want men to stop honking their horn at women because they respect them, not for fear of punishment

Most Australian women (87%) have experienced some form of street harassment, whether it’s whistles, stares, unwanted comments or being followed by strangers in the street – often before the age of 18.

Several countries, including Belgium and Portugal, have introduced legislation to tackle street harassment. More recently, a campaign and text-line has been launched in London to reduce harassment on the Tube.

Measures to address street harassment are overdue in Australia, but are these the best ways to tackle it?

Survivors of sexual assault have diverse justice needs, which require a diverse array of formal and informal responses. Feminist research in this area argues that, given the widely acknowledged failures of the justice system in responding to sexual violence, victim/survivors’ justice needs should form the starting point of responses to this violence.

My research with victims of street harassment shows they also have diverse justice needs, and desire a range of different responses. Formal criminal justice responses – such as the introduction of legislation – aren’t the only, or best, way to go.

What is street harassment?

Street harassment includes a broad spectrum of behaviours and experiences. For the people in my study, conducted in Melbourne, prolonged staring, verbal comments and car-horn honking were among the most common experiences. But many also reported unwanted touching, groping and sexual violations that would constitute physical or sexual assault.

Street harassment can clearly cause harm. This was reaffirmed by my participants’ experiences; they reported feeling angry, upset, frightened and unsafe. Many felt unable to freely access and use public spaces, wouldn’t go out by themselves at night, or changed how they presented themselves in public to avoid harassment.

Sometimes these impacts were fleeting; in other cases they could last for months or even years after the event.

What do victims of street harassment want?

Participants were largely supportive of the introduction of legislation specifically addressing street harassment. More than 80% of 292 survey participants said they would be extremely or very supportive of such legislation.

But they were less keen to take part in further justice processes. Most were unwilling to go through a court trial or mediation with a perpetrator.

The introduction of legislation and policy encouraging reporting and a criminal justice response to street harassment would undoubtedly hold great symbolic value. It actively names street harassment as harmful and as contrary to our dominant social values and norms.

Importantly, such an approach would provide a direct avenue for recourse, redressing the individual harm caused by street harassment, and for holding perpetrators to account in some way. Such aims were highly valued by some victims in some contexts.

Yet, for other people, the introduction of legislation was seen as highly problematic or limited. Many participants were concerned about the potential for street harassment legislation to contribute towards to the over-policing and harassment of (particularly) men of colour.

There are also serious questions about the extent to which legislation would actually be successful as a response to street harassment. Western justice systems were, by and large, not developed with this type of harm in mind.

The often-fleeting nature of street harassment does not lend itself to the collection of evidence or “proof” that Western criminal justice systems are (quite rightly) founded on. Pragmatically, this means there is very little law enforcement can actually do in response to reports of street harassment. For many of my participants, this meant a formal justice response to street harassment was not desirable.

Even in instances where the perpetrator(s) can be identified, it can only ever respond to the problematic behaviour of individual men. Yet, for many of the people in my study it was the repeated, cumulative nature of street harassment that was harmful, rather than individual incidents.

This does not mean that we should abandon the potential use of legislative approaches. It does, however, suggest other strategies are required to best ensure all victims’ needs can be met.

Social change and prevention

Legal ramifications for harassment were seen to do little to shift the social attitudes and power structures that underlie this behaviour. As one person said:

I want men to stop honking their horn at me because they respect me, not because they may be punished for it.

Achieving a sense of justice for victims of street harassment is inherently tied up in our ability to address the underlying factors that cause it. Justice, for these individuals, was synonymous with prevention through social change. As one participant argued:

We need a faster shift in cultural norms and values around gender, violence and harassment.

Justice can ultimately only be achieved by tackling the structural inequalities and power differentials that cause and enable this behaviour to occur. For many, this meant taking steps to challenge the prevalent notion that street harassment “isn’t serious”, encouraging others to step in as bystanders, and working to educate perpetrators about the harms their actions caused.

Many participants supported approaches such as educational campaigns and programs for this reason. Covering street harassment in existing respectful relationships programs may be one way of starting to address and prevent this behaviour.

Ensuring street harassment is included within government policy and prevention efforts addressing gender-based violence could help to shift perceptions of this behaviour as “not serious” and actively locate it as a form of harm.

Given many of my participants’ experiences were inflected with elements of homophobia, transphobia, racism and ableism (discrimination against people with disability), this suggests that we need to look beyond gender-based inequality if we are to prevent all forms of street harassment.

We know from other violence prevention and anti-bullying work that a whole-of-community approach works best in shifting cultural attitudes and behaviours. While efforts such as the London campaign and hotline are a good start, these types of actions cannot occur in isolation if they are to be effective.

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