Small acts of safety: dealing with street harassment

I stand on the street dizzy with shock. It is only when I reach for my phone that I realise I am shaking. My fingers are frantic, landing on the wrong digits. I glance up and double check that I am alone. Shadows loom. I need to start moving. I need to get out of here.

‘Come on, come on,’ I cajole myself.

I manage to call one of my brothers. My words are soaked in sobs as I try to tell him what happened. Eventually he deciphers what I’m saying — a man grabbed me from behind and groped me.

‘Where is he?’

‘I dunno. I screamed, and he ran off.’

My brother jumps in the car to pick me up.

I stand waiting. My heart canters as I stare into the dense dark. I softly hum to fill the silence.


A few weeks ago, a run-of-the-mill council meeting in Melbourne became heated. The funding of nine CCTV cameras on Sydney Road, Brunswick was up for debate. They were installed following the murder of Jill Meagher in 2012. By the end of the meeting, Moreland Council voted to review the maintenance costs. The public outcry was swift and scathing. So much so, the council released a statement reassuring the public that funding for the cameras would be guaranteed until 2019.

My friends and I gathered when news broke that the police had found Jill Meagher’s body. We comforted one another. We raged. Fear clung to the corners of mouths, causing lips to be dragged downwards. We discussed protection tactics at length; nobody was bothered with fake bravado. Finally, we tentatively tried to broaden the conversation, desperately seeking some way of distancing ourselves from the sharp sadness. Someone cracked a joke. We latched onto it and laughed like children do while playacting, shrill and ringing with falsity.

The public reaction to the Moreland council meeting also points to the sense of unease people have about their own safety. Research conducted by the Australia Institute found 87% of women surveyed had changed their behaviour to protect themselves during the last twelve months. Women catch taxis instead of walking in the dark, hold their keys as weapons, text friends when they get home safely and cross the street to avoid strangers. This is not unreasonable behaviour, given that nine out of ten Australian women have experienced street harassment.

What is street harassment? Tuerkheimer (1997) describes it as ‘when a woman in a public place is intruded on by a man’s words, noises, or gestures … he asserts his right to comment on her body or other feature of her person, defining her as object and himself as subject with power over her.’

For months after I was grabbed, I felt anxious. The memory of it would spring up and shock me. It happened just outside my workplace, near my home. My sense of ease evaporated. Going to and from work became an effort and I worked split shifts so I was often there alone in the dark. I shrunk with the fear of it.

I berated myself for my reaction, gobsmacked that I didn’t react with fight or flight. I thought I would be a fighter, considering my black belt in taekwondo. I knew how to retaliate with my feet and hands. I was able to punch through stacks of tiles and split planks of wood. I sparred against men who were two to three decades older than me. I could duck and weave. I could also land blows that were strong and sharp enough to wind another person. I vividly recall standing in my sweat soaked dojo about to receive my new belt and feeling physically spent yet completely unstoppable.

It only took a few seconds to extinguish that sense of head-high, long stride invincibility. I felt small scuttling from street lamps to street lamp, small islands of light in the darkness. I started to double check things. I would track my surrounds with fingers curled into fists. I would scratch each nail on the palm of my hand, checking if they were long and strong enough to use.

This was not the first time I had been groped; it had happened at music gigs, festivals and while walking down crowded streets overseas. I’d lost count of the other forms of street harassment, the cat calls and lewd comments. I bristled but brushed off each incident. This time I was completely rattled. Unfortunately, this sense of unease, while less acute, still occasionally nags me despite that I now live in a different city.

My reaction is not unusual. In one study researchers found that, 20% of women who have experienced street harassment reported that they still felt ‘afraid or upset, even though, in some cases the harassment took place years or even decades ago.’ There is nothing trivial about street harassment; its ramifications can be long lasting and life disrupting.

How can we solve the issue? How do we create safer communities? With state and federal budgets rolling out recently, the City of Melbourne announced that they have allocated $5million dollars towards LED street lighting. They explained that the ‘upgrades will bring additional benefits including reduced energy consumption and operational costs, increased city amenity and community safety.’ This seems to be a logical if not prudent measure. However, there is no evidence linking reduced lighting and crime. This approach simplifies the complexity of what it takes to create a safe community, after all, incidents such as street harassment are not constrained to night-time.

Following an extensive research project VicHealth concluded that bystander action is important for creating safer communities. This encompasses much more than physically intervening in violent situations. It involves ‘responding to behaviour, attitudes, practices or policies that contribute to sexism, discrimination or violence towards women.’ This includes calling someone out if they make sexist comments at work or in social situations, or asking someone if they are ok if you see that they have been harassed.

After that night fear seeped into my life, and it felt safer to shy away. Ultimately, this did little to make me feel safe. According to the VicHealth report, ‘where sexism, discrimination and violence go unchallenged they are effectively condoned.’ I will not stay silent. I want to feel safe in my community. For every small act of defiance, I feel like I am returning to my former self. I may not be using my hands to fight, but I am using words to break down discrimination. Kindness can reverberate further than fear; each member of society can make a community safer.

Image: Zach Savinar


Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.

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