Countering Street Harassment: An Interview with Sexism in the City Guest Dr Bianca Fileborn

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Dr Bianca Fileborn

Crime rates in NSW are at a forty year low. According to NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures, over the 24 month period ending in March this year, only two of the seventeen major crime categories were on the rise.

But, while crime in this state is on the downturn, it’s the offences of a sexual nature that continue to rise. The two categories trending upwards were sexual assault, and indecent assault/acts of indecency and other sexual offences.

And although no official government department is tracking the figures, studies suggest that gender-based street harassment is all-pervasive in NSW. This includes the behaviours captured in the rising crime categories, as well as other forms of harassment that women and girls are subjected to in public.

Indeed, a study carried out earlier this year by Plan International Australia and Monash University found that 90 percent of young women in Sydney don’t feel safe after dark, and more than a third of respondents first experienced street harassment between the ages of 11 and 15.

And while France recently passed new laws to create a system of on-the-spot fines for street harassment, women on Australian streets face degrading behaviours, which are not only debilitating, but have no legal mechanisms in place to prevent them.

Sexism and the City

Girl’s rights organisation Plan International’s new podcast Sexism and the City explores the issue of street harassment, along with a number of other modern day gender inequality issues that women and girls are currently facing in Australia.

Hosted by SBS journalist Jan Fran, the podcast covers topics such as why the pay gap still exists, sexual harassment in venues and how these nightspots can be designed with women in mind, as well as how humanitarian crises can uniquely impact women and girls.

The seven podcast episodes feature a range of guests, including young women, experts and academics, comedian Judith Lucy and feminist icon Merle Thornton, who campaigned for the right for women to drink alongside men in bars.

Sexism in the City recognises that while the majority of people in the world are now living in cities, the experience of women can often be mired by entrenched inequality and the ever-present threat of harassment.

Unspeakable harm

UNSW School of Social Sciences criminology lecturer Dr Bianca Fileborn features in two of the podcasts. Her research has covered unwanted sexual attention and violence in licensed venues and the sexual assault of older women.

And the doctor also authored a recent report into gender-based street harassment. The survey-based study examines the harm that’s caused not only by the harassment itself, but by the subsequent silencing and trivialisation of the victim’s experience.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Dr Fileborn about the prevalence of street harassment on Australian streets, the gap in the laws against this type of harassment, and other non-legislative measures that can be effective in countering this behaviour.

Firstly, Dr Fileborn, looking at gender-based street harassment, how prevalent would you say this form of harassment is in Australian cities today?

It’s extremely prevalent. We’ve had a few studies now that have looked at how prevalent it is.

There’s the work that Plan International have just done. There was also a study from the Australia Institute a few years ago. And my own research that talked to people that experienced street harassment.

The higher-end estimates that we’ve seen suggest that 90 percent of young women have experienced street harassment at least once in their lives.

The people who I spoke to in my own research – it wasn’t a prevalence-based study, they had to have experienced street harassment to take part – all of them had multiple experiences.

It was usually something that started when they were quite young, so usually late primary school-early high school. And it was something they experienced repeatedly, particularly in later adolescence and early adulthood.

And what types of street harassment are we talking about?

It can take a wide range of forms. Probably, the most common would be things like verbal comments or shouting out car windows, usually quite sexualised comments about somebody’s body or appearance.

It can also include things like wolf-whistling, following someone, unwanted conversations, particularly on public transport – prolonged, unwanted conversations – all the way through to things that would likely constitute sexual offences under criminal legislation.

In my own research, I had people who were physically groped and touched, people who were sexually assaulted and a smaller number of people who were raped.

There’s really quite a broad range of experiences that can come under the banner of street harassment.

But, certainly the most common things are those that we tend to think of as lower-level forms of harassment: the verbal comments and wolf-whistling.

And even though, we tend to think of them as lower-level, they can actually be quite harmful and terrifying for women when they’re in public spaces, so they’re certainly still quite capable of and do cause harm.

What sort of laws are in place to prevent street harassment in Australia?

There’s nothing that specifically addresses street harassment. Like I said, some of these behaviours are covered under our existing sexual offence legislation. Obviously, it changes a little across states and territories in terms of what the definitions are.

Certainly, some of those experiences that are more serious and involve physical touch – sexual assaults and rapes – are obviously covered by legislation.

But, the stuff that is down the harassing end – the verbal comments and staring – there’s no direct legislation addressing it.

Some of it could potentially read into some of the public order offences, such as offensive language. But, it’s unclear if that would comprehensively cover all types of street harassment.

So, there’s no laws in place to prevent street harassment, unless we’re dealing with the sexual assault side of things.

Yes. That’s right. We have seen some other countries, such as France and Belgium, introduce legislation that more explicitly addresses street harassment, and particularly those types of verbal comments.

So, we are seeing some countries beginning to introduce some legislation around it.

And for women and girls who are subject to street harassment what sort of mechanisms are in place to deal with it?

Not very many. At the moment, there’s mostly informal mechanisms.

For example, a number of online activists groups, such as Hollaback and the Everyday Sexism Project, encourage women to write and share their stories to help document the prevalence and pervasiveness of this type of experience. And to help build an evidence base.

Actions that would constitute a criminal offence people can report to the police. But, for things that fall outside of the criminal law, there’s really very little formal recourse at the moment.

Again, we have seen some examples. Say someone is harassed by a trade person when they’re going passed in their work vehicle. And they call that person’s employer and tell them that this is what one of your employees did to me in a public place.

But, beyond that kind of informal stuff, there’s really very little formal recourse.

How effective would you say the police response is to street harassment?

Not very effective, unfortunately. This is something I looked at in my own research. I asked people if they’d reported to police and if they had what the response was.

Firstly, and this is the case for most sexual offences, most people just weren’t reporting in the first place, because they didn’t think it was illegal.

The other issue with street harassment is that it’s often quite fleeting. So, it might be someone driving passed, shouting something out the window, and there’s not really a lot you can do after that.

Even if they decide they have a right to go and report this to the police, they think, “But, what would I say to them. Someone drove passed in a red car. I didn’t see what the licence plate was. They shouted something at me. And then they were gone. I don’t know what they look like.”

So, there’s often not a lot of really tangible evidence or something that the police could use to track that person down. It makes it seem kind of futile.

The other issue was that at least for individual incidents, they weren’t always perceived as serious enough to go and report to the police. It’s often the fact that women are experiencing these things repeatedly over time that make them harmful.

And again, that’s not something the police or the justice system can deal with. They can only really respond to individual perpetrators and individual incidents.

For people who did report, they were often told there was nothing that could be done. They were often dismissed or told to go away.

There were a few people who had experienced more serious sexual assaults, who’d reported and had a better experience, or it was treated seriously and steps were taken.

For the vast majority of people, it wasn’t being reported. And most participants thought there was very little the police could actually do in response to these incidents.

Besides strengthening the laws around street harassment, as they have done in France, what are some other measures that can be taken to prevent gender-based street harassment?

We need to be looking at the bigger picture issues that actually underpin street harassment, so gender inequality, limited gender norms and sexism.

We need to be challenging the ideas that this type of behaviour is OK. That it’s just trivial or not harmful. Because that is demonstrably not the case.

We need to be tackling the attitudes that tell young men and boys that it is acceptable to engage in this type of behaviour towards women in public spaces.

Ultimately, tackling and dismantling structural and cultural factors is going to be much more powerful, particularly because it is such a difficult behaviour to respond to after the fact.

And lastly, you feature in the first Sexism in the City podcast. It explores the role of the witness in incidents of public sexual harassment and how they often don’t step in.

Dr Fileborn, what would you say the role of the witness should be in these types of cases?

Bystanders have a really important role to play. Certainly, if it’s safe to step in and challenge behaviour that can be really effective. But, it’s not always safe to do so. That’s really important to stress.

I spoke to people in my own project who said someone turned around and told the guy to leave me alone and then they got punched in the face, or the perpetrator turned on them and started abusing them.

It can be difficult to intervene and it’s not always safe. But, where people can step in and challenge this behaviour it can be really important, because it sends that message that actually this isn’t OK, it’s not behaviour that’s socially acceptable and we’re not going to tolerate it.

Stepping in to support the person who’s being targeted for harassment can be really powerful as well. If someone doesn’t feel that they can confront the perpetrator, they can at least step in and ask the victim if they’re OK and if there’s anything they can do to help them.

Let them know that you saw what happened. Let them know that you are not OK with it. And let them know that you want to help to support them and make sure that they’re alright. Those types of actions can be really important.

Also, recording incidents if it is safe to do so creates tangible evidence to show something has happened if people want to go to the police.

And most importantly, particularly for young men, challenging their mates who engage in this type of behaviour. Letting them know that it’s not OK and it’s not something that is accepted in the friendship group, so that it becomes against the social norms.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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