Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault in a way that may be distressing to some readers. If you need support please contact 1800 RESPECT through their toll-free national counselling hotline or online. You can also reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia.
It’s my work break and I'm alone. I walk along the walls of the city, not daring to venture into the middle of the path. I dial a friend to seem unapproachable and maintain a keen gaze on the concrete passing under my feet.
Suddenly, I feel an aggressive grab on my bum. A figure I don’t recognise whizzes past on a bike, slipping between my frozen body and the wall. The man looks back. His half-grimace, half-pleasured face is cauterised in my brain; forever burnt in my memory.
I loudly swear. A desperate plea to bystanders who will undoubtedly provide comfort or reassurance. Instead, their eyes dart everywhere except at mine.
For the first couple of hours after that incident, I continued working while my emotions cycled. Initial anger quickly subsided into a plague of self-minimisation. “He probably didn't mean to touch me”, “These things happen all the time”, “There’s no point reporting such a small crime”, “I can’t leave work early”.
I confided in friends to ease my doubt. “Oh wow,” one exclaimed, “people just can’t get their hands off you!” As if my harassment was a compliment I should gush over. I wondered if it would be easier to pretend it never happened. To “take the compliment”. Maybe I was being dramatic. But no. I felt sick. I knew in that moment, a man had wielded his social power over me knowing there would be no consequences.
And yet the lingering doubt remained.
It turns out, I am not alone in feeling minimised. It’s Not A Compliment, a grassroots organisation raising awareness of street harassment, found that almost 87 per cent of people surveyed had experienced some form of street harassment. 34 per cent of those had their first experience before they were 12. Of the minority who sought justice, over 90 per cent were dissatisfied with the outcome.
43-year-old Annie Williams thinks that people believe harassment is normal. She describes her assault fifteen years ago vividly and prefaces her story by describing her outfit in detail. “I was looking at a toy [in a department store] wearing a nice denim dress … all of a sudden something was touching me in between my legs,” she explains.
Annie looks down and sees a man in his 60s crouched below her. “I looked at him, trying to digest what happened, and he said ‘I've just dropped my phone’. He was lying, there was no sound of anything dropping.”
When she asked store management to help her find the perpetrator she was met with a clinical response. The man had fled. There was no camera footage. There was nothing they could do. Not only was she groped, but she felt emotionally exhausted and dismissed. It broke her. “You question yourself. If you did something to trigger it …People plant that in your brain,” Annie says.
“I was terrified to wear a skirt and get dressed up. I wore pants for a long, long time because it was traumatising.”
While more public attention is being paid to violent crimes such as rape and domestic violence, seemingly minor behaviour like cat-calling, staring, and groping seem to be culturally appraised as “assault lite”. When stories of this kind of sexual violence are minimised publicly—from movies to talkback radio—it trivialises the seriousness of the crime. It normalises it. And in doing so, it prevents victims from seeking justice or working through their trauma. Instead, the memory festers in their subconscious, never quite abating. And the cycle continues.
It’s almost like women don't have the right to just exist in public spaces without being open to unwanted approaches from other people.
Doctor Bianca Fileborn, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Melbourne, says that it’s common for any form of street harassment to have serious psychological after-effects like depression, as well as impacting the way a victim dresses, travels, and socialises.
“I've spoken to people in my research who stopped using public transport or stopped going out by themselves at night. It limits people's lives and their freedom,” she says.
Dr Fileborn believes the immediate bystanders and initial response upon disclosure plays a powerful role in how a victim processes their assault. When bystanders don’t act in support, it can exacerbate the impact and the victim's sense of trust and wellbeing.
“Having any kind of sense of affirmation can be really important,” Dr Fileborn says. “It influences whether you label your experience as harassment or sexual violence and whether you tell other people or make a formal report to the police. [Minimisation] might mean survivors will blame themselves for what happened.”
20-year-old university student Maddy Johnson had headphones in when she noticed someone following her near a train station while she was travelling solo to a friend's house. The man approached, persistently asked for a date, and lingered despite Maddy’s polite requests to be left alone.
“I just felt like I owed him my time even though I clearly didn’t want to engage in the conversation,” Maddy says. “I didn’t know how to set boundaries without escalating the conversation into something aggressive ... It would've been hard for people walking past to know I needed help.” Dr Fileborn explains that what's at play is a socially informed sense of entitlement to women's time, attention, and bodies.
“It’s almost like women don't have the right to just exist in public spaces without being open to unwanted approaches from other people,” Dr Fileborn explains, noting that based on her research, victims overarchingly want a sense of allyship from onlookers, rather than an aggressive reaction that could increase the risk of danger.
“Instead, validate [the victims] experience, say you're sorry that happened to them, let people know that they're not alone … Avoid derailing the conversation to focus on your feelings like … getting angry [on the victim’s behalf].”
Intervening to check on a victim’s wellbeing and expressing genuine empathy and care can prevent secondary trauma and provide comfort in a situation too often relegated to whispers in bathroom stalls. And that is no longer good enough.
Excusing the actions of perpetrators of public stalking or groping only serves to fortify a culture that allows for more violent forms of assault. “Harassment forms part of the backdrop which enables, normalises and excuses, other forms of sexual violence [like rape],” Dr Fileborn says.
Sidelining and minimising street harassment means vulnerable people will continue to be judged (if not outright blamed) for simply wearing what they want, travelling where they want, and walking in the middle of the path. A path that’s supposed to belong to all of us.