Headphones in, I pace the familiar terrain of the Wangaratta Rail Trail. I'm feeling good, happy with the day's work, mentally mapping out the veggies I will pluck from the soil to use in tonight's dinner.
And then I see them.
Up ahead, a group of teens; maybe five of them; are loitering where the track meets the bridge. Skating up and down the small descent, they laugh, squeal, rough-house. They're only young, I'd guess the oldest at 17, but they're boisterous -- alive with budding testosterone. They haven't seen me yet, I don't think. I could still turn around.
"No!" I scold myself. "That's ridiculous."
Instead, I force my head up and stride forward. "Project confidence," I tell myself. I'm within 20 metres when the eldest of the boys looks up.
He tugs on the shirt of a friend, nods in my direction. One by one, the boys cease their mindless jabbering, feigning disinterest as I near the bridge. My breath catches in spite of myself; jaw tightens as I pass them. "Look at them," I tell myself. "You're not scared, for God's sake."
I know they won't start till my eyes are averted, till I'm a few more paces down the track. Maybe they won't start at all.
But then they do. "Nice ass!" It's one of the younger ones, his voice not even broken yet. Here we go.
"I'd like to tap that!" the 17-year-old cries and the gaggle break into hoots of approval. The rest of the words come thick and fast; the breathless, charged spluttering of horny youth.
And then it's over. It's over but I can't stop thinking about them congratulating themselves. I imagine the older one in bed tonight, his mother on the other side of the door as he heaves and gasps and imagines doing disgusting things to me.
I'm not afraid of them, of course I'm not. They don't even have the guts to yell that stuff at my face. But I am angry. Angry that I always have to be on guard, that I can't walk down the bloody street in peace and enjoy the path and the birds like I should be able to.
Angry that somehow, those boys got the idea that it is their right to take that simple freedom away from me. I'm sick of the ugly words, sick of my space being invaded and my privacy violated. And I am so, so sick of trying to figure out a way to make it stop. Nothing works.
There's a lot to love about Wangaratta. The surrounding environment is stunning, the small group of friends I've cultivated a pleasure -- but I'd be lying if I said it's been easy. When I moved here a year ago, I had no idea how sheltered I'd been in my hipster-filled niche of inner Melbourne. There, I would field the occasional beep from a passing car, a whistle here, long-look there. But I never felt truly unsafe. Coming to rural Victoria, I was in for a rude shock.
Here, navigating street harassment is a routine part of my day. As I walk between the library and the coffee shop, or down the bike path in the evening, I'm faced with comments so vile and menacing they don't bear repeating here. The only thing more alarming than the prevalence of the abuse is the age at which boys are 'initiated': the worst catcalling invariably comes from squeaky, sing-song voices. It's a rite of passage.
If you ever wanted proof that street harassment is about power and control, come to Wangaratta. Here, boys are being preened by older friends to taunt and disrespect women; taught that any public space is their space: any woman who enters it theirs to solicit.
But this isn't really my problem. As uncomfortable as street harassment makes me feel, I am a strong, educated woman who is a good percentage of the way through her feminist awakening. I also have the means to leave anytime I want and flea back to my liberal sanctuary. I can cope. But I worry about the girls who are being conditioned to believe, one sneer at a time, that they deserve this.
And we know that street harassment is only the tip of the iceberg. It's the socially palatable end of a spectrum which encompasses sexual harassment, violence against women, and rape. It's the 'harmless' convention which conditions boys to view women as passive vessels on whom to project their sexual desires. And, despite sparse statistical data, my experience in 'Wang' would suggest street harassment is more prevalent in rural areas than the city. But why?
To understand that, I think we need to understand the disadvantage faced by those in country Victoria. In recent months, there has been a welcome shift in focus toward various types of disadvantage: feminism is beginning to embrace intersectionality, highlighting the complex problems faced by women of colour, queer women and women with disabilities. The LGBTQ community are enjoying tentative representation within mainstream culture, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is making inroads into spotlighting entrenched inequities in the States. Yet we hear very little about the immense disadvantage faced by those who live in the 'bush'.
In regional Victoria, social services are insufficient and underfunded, employment is lower, incomes are less, and educational outcomes are worse compared to Melbourne. Systemic disadvantages of this nature are strongly correlated with increased social problems, such as high levels of alcoholism and drug use, and high arrest rates. But perhaps the most entrenched social issue faced by country Victorians is violence against women, along with the myriad of other dangers present where misogyny is ingrained in the culture.
The relationship between disadvantage and misogyny could exist for many reasons. Poorer educational outcomes mean there are fewer people to carry the feminist torch. Insufficient social services mean treatment options are sparse for both the perpetrators and survivors of gendered violence.
But perhaps the most common driver of misogyny in places like Wang is the prevailing cult of hyper-masculinity. Here, a certain type of 'blokey' male is fetishised. My partner, Ben*, who grew up in the area, describes the archetypal male as someone who "works hard, drinks Melbourne Bitter and doesn't sweat the small stuff". He also doesn't take shit from women. If he did, he would run the risk of committing the cardinal blokey sin: he would appear 'weak'. What has this got to do with disadvantage? Maybe nothing. Maybe the feeling of helplessness associated with lack of opportunity tempts men to seize control where they can find it. Either way, the blokey archetype is alive and well in disadvantaged areas.
Ben describes his initiation into blokey culture: as a teenager, he began attending raucous, alcohol-fuelled parties with mates. "The boys would have competitions to see how many girls they could pick up in a night," he recounts. "They would drink a shitload and then just approach every single chick until someone would agree to have sex. It was a numbers game."
Ben says he always felt uncomfortable with the tradition. "It just felt like to be successful, you would have to sort of forget about the girls being real people. They're just potential prey."
Ben did attempt to call his friends' behaviour into question. After one party, he asked a mate if he thought what they were doing was disrespectful. The friend simply laughed, "It's all just a bit of fun!"
Blokey men tend to view their catcalling and pick-up attempts as a lark -- nothing to be taken too seriously. But it's these seemingly innocuous interactions which subtly mould the status quo. As young men learn to feel entitled to women's bodies, the respect required for equality is eroded, and the seeds of misogyny are sown.
And it's not just men perpetuating the culture of misogyny. For a previous feature, I spoke to a local young woman who described the "slutty" behaviour of a school-mate. "She was just one of those chicks who got around a lot. She didn't have enough self-respect," Anna* told me.
The girl she described was subjected to a violent bashing at one party. Anna helped by holding her ex-friend down. As I've gone about my writing in cafes or at the local library, I've witnessed several similar conversations between young women. I'm always shocked by the venomous tone reserved for fellow girls. Unwittingly, the young women of Wang learn to self-police, ensuring they meet the sexist standards dictated by the local culture.
Misogyny is the nasty underbelly of Aussie bloke culture. So, what can we do about it? A good first step would be to start paying attention to the problem. Of course, with the championship of campaigners like Rosie Batty, there has been increased focus on the national domestic violence problem.
But it's not good enough to lump rural Victoria in with Melbourne when it comes to policy making. The challenges faced by those in the country are unique in their cultural and economic drivers, and will only be adequately addressed by policy which is tailored to these differences. The best approach would be one aimed at tackling the general disadvantage faced by those in the bush. 'Blokey' misogyny, like drug use and unemployment, is inextricably linked to rural disadvantage, and won't be fixed in isolation.
This is obviously a colossal task. But we can't just shrug and look away. Rural disadvantage isn't trendy or meme-worthy, but it is a huge problem, and it deserves a place at the internet table. In rural Victoria, misogyny cripples the self-esteem of young women, ice use at rates twice that of the city tears families apart, and unemployment leaves individuals destitute and depressed. It's time for us city folk to sit up and take notice.
*Names have been changed at the interviewees' request.
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