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Sexual Harassment Is Far More Prevalent Than You Think

In the street, at work, while partying, at home...

25/10/2016 5:36 AM AEDT | Updated 25/10/2016 5:36 AM AEDT
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"We will address men's violence everywhere and against every woman and child, or nowhere and against no-one."

Is there a woman alive who has not been sexually harassed? This is not a rhetorical question.

Recent allegations by women that Donald Trump sexually harassed them follow a common pattern -- one woman breaks the silence about a man's violence, or one woman's accusation is finally acknowledged, and then many more women share their experience of his violence. The mirror question -- how many women have been sexually harassed, and how many men have harassed each individual woman -- rarely gets asked in our public debates.

Women know how ubiquitous sexual harassment is; in the street, at work, while partying, at home. Last year, The Australia Institute found that three quarters of the women they surveyed had experienced street harassment in their lifetime, 37 percent in the past year. Sixty five percent had been physically harassed, bringing the allegations against Trump to mind, and 42 percent had been groped, grabbed or touched sexually in the street by a stranger. A third were 15 years old when they were first harassed in the street. The study didn't cover harassment in other settings -- at school, at work, at home.

Young women are most intensively harassed. Indigenous women and immigrant women cop sexual harassment intensified with racism; women with disabilities have their disabilities used against them; a similar cocktail of hate is forced down the throats of working-class women and lesbians. This doubled-barrelled violence is as invisibilised as it is prevalent.

Like most women I know, I remember countless examples of sexual harassment, my own and those other women and girls have told me, from Australia and overseas, recently and decades ago.

Here are some: having a man sit next you in a movie theatre and masturbate; unnumbered men displaying their erect penis, outside your school, on the banks of the Yarra, at the station; countless men touching your legs, breasts, bottom in crowded trains, trams, buses, at gigs, at school, anywhere; strangers online sending messages saying 'your eyes are lovely', 'you're beautiful', 'why aren't you responding to my messages', 'answer me'; stopping going to local events because a community leader had shoved his tongue in your mouth and tried to kiss you.

Examples unforgettable because of who the man was: the community leader chasing your foot across the floor under the table while he smiled benignly and talked about human rights; an informal mentor who fondled your thigh, hours after his first child was born; a family friend who harassed you as a teenager shortly after the death of your father.

These are just some of the stories other women have told me or happened to me, without having to dig very deep into my memories. Of course men and boys are also targetted by other boys and men, bullied and terrorised. The difference is that women and girls are targetted simply because being female makes them prey.

On the weekend, I posed the question on my Facebook page: is there a woman alive who hasn't been sexually harassed? One after one, sorrowfully, angrily, matter-of-factly, scores of women, and many men, said no. In response, a handful of men raised their fear that they would be accused of sexually harassing a woman, perhaps by saying hello to her. There was a question about accidentally sexually harassing women. Some were legitimate questions by men thinking through the roles men and boys have been rewarded or punished into taking on.

But I was struck how some men focused on the 'minor' end of sexual harassment, where, they feared, a loose definition could harm them. Many of the women, in contrast, were focused on the other end of the continuum of sexual harassment -- for too many women, the grey area is not between flirtation and harassment, but between sexual harassment and rape. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood's comment: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."

It is akin to madness to live with this. Women and girls live in two realities, one where a man can be publicly professionally courteous and in another, unseen by any but her, show her how powerless she is by running his hand up her thigh in a meeting.

Mostly, the law and men in authority tell us it isn't serious. Historically, we've lived with the disequilibrium of something so egregious and disturbing being ignored or written off minor. But women are no longer mainly silent, from the thousands of women on social media to Donald Trump's targets to leading political journalist Karen Middleton. But while women speak out bravely, our leaders are mute and our policy responses incommensurate to the sexual harassment crisis.

While individual men's violence is being exposed, what is missing is an exposé of the policy and leadership failure in this area. There is irrefutable evidence that sexual harassment links to and enables sexual assault and domestic violence, the forms of violence that we are, finally, starting to take seriously.

Research shows that accepting 'minor' forms of sexual violence allows and excuses 'more severe' forms. It is fanciful to think we can stamp out family violence if men know they can sexually harass women and girls in the streets with impunity. Do we really think we can stop men abusing partners and ex-partners if work mates are fair game; that we can stop violence in the home if it's ignored in sports clubs, on the street and at church?

To tackle the underlying attitudes that enable family violence we need to talk about all forms of male violence. We will address men's violence everywhere and against every woman and child, or nowhere and against no-one.

So how many mentions of sexual harassment are there in the National Plan to End Violence against Women and their Children, the most important policy framework on violence against women in this country? Not a single one.

If it wasn't for the tireless advocacy of the Human Rights Commission and Commissioners such as Elizabeth Broderick, you could look at Australian policy and have no idea that a vast number of women in the country are subject to the malicious aggression of sexual harassment. Governments have refused to champion and resource the change needed to drive down the terrible rates.

As a result of this and other failures of leadership, progress has gone backwards. Too often, unions and businesses have failed to concertedly tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, instead tolerating the way men's harassment pushes women out of leadership positions and too often out of their jobs. If abusive men were told more consistently by our leaders to 'lean away' from women -- if they were stopped from leering, whispering, threatening, groping -- perhaps women could find their place in the workforce, and we could stop the lectures about how women need to 'lean in'. If our leaders are serious about ending violence against women, they need to act on sexual harassment.

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