Why we still have a long, hard road to be travelled

By Kimberley Price

FOR AS long as women can remember, windows have masked wolf whistles and car horns as we walk along our streets.

As women grow up, the cat-callers begin to show their faces as they make sly remarks about our looks, outfits and personalities. Most of the time, these comments are shrugged off — what else is there to do?

In reality, every name-calling, criticism, profanity or humiliation is verbal assault.

While these actions can happen to anyone, for some reason, they happen to women more.

On the street, from parks to pubs, in broad daylight and at night, in public or in our very own homes, verbal assault can happen at any time, anywhere.

And it can lead to other incredibly damaging and dangerous actions.

For Echuca woman Grace, it happened four times in one week.

In that timeframe she was repeatedly made to feel she was less than human.

“I go to the gym at the same time, every day. On Tuesday I was walking to my car – quite literally 10m away from the front door and there were two tradesmen,” she said.

“One of them wolf-whistled me and I just froze.

“I didn’t know what to do.

“I really wanted to yell at them and ask ‘why do you think that’s appropriate’ but I just couldn’t.

“I got in my car and drove off.”

You may be thinking – a simple whistle, what harm could that do? But a wolf whistle, to a 19-year-old girl from an older man she doesn’t know, who’s obviously intended to show his interest, is extremely daunting.

This man left his actions at a whistle but at that exact moment Grace didn’t know what could have happened.

And unfortunately we hear more and more people don’t just stop at a whistle.

The sound of a public wolf whistle, or worse, is too commonly known to women with 87 per cent of Australia’s having experienced at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment, according to the Australia Institute.

But for Grace it was the next attacks that left her with invisible scars; invisible yes but no less painful and hard to repair.

“I went to pick up my takeaway lunch and I’d parked on High St,” she said.

“I was on the median strip waiting for traffic to pass when a man was driving towards me with his music pumping.

“As he passed me, he slowed, turned down the music and said, ‘jeez you’re not too bad’ and drove off.’’

Shaken and embarrassed, Grace scurried to her car and looked around to see if anyone had heard.

“I was half hoping no-one had heard but at the same time I was hoping someone could stick up for me and say ‘I hope you’re all right — that’s not okay’.

“I was so in shock and I felt physically sick.

“I sort of thought I was insane to react in that way – but then I thought, ‘is this the new normal? Is this something people are allowed to do now?’

“I didn’t know if I was allowed to be mad at him.

“It wasn’t like he physically assaulted me; it was that he had gotten to me mentally.’’

Later that day, after attending a friend’s celebration, Grace decided to head out with a few friends.

“My friend and I were walking down some stairs and a male, in his early 20s, was walking up.

“As he passed us he looked at us both and said ‘f*** you’re ugly’.

“I’d never seen him before and I was pretty angry so I grabbed him and said ‘don’t do that, it’s not very nice’.

‘‘My friend just kept walking and said ‘it’s fine, I’m used to it’.’’

After shrugging off what had happened already in her day, she held her head high and continued to celebrate with her friends.

Later, as they all decided to head home, they stopped off for some food. As everyone else was ordering food she stepped outside to use the ATM.

“I noticed there was a group of about five guys sitting on the tables behind me,’’ she said.

“They started by wolf whistling. I reacted and said ‘do you really think that’s appropriate?’

“They all started laughing and continued by telling me ‘I wasn’t too bad’.

“Then one of them said he was going to “f*** me whether I liked it or not.’’

As those five boys all rolled around in fits of laughter at what they’d just said, Grace was left frozen, speechless, scared and alone.

“I told one of my male friends what had happened, he told me to stay inside and to get away from those boys, but there was nothing he could do,’’ she said.

“I went and sat in the gutter and cried.”

Grace has started to speak out more about this dreadful day. As she does so, she’s received a mix of responses, from people saying it’s not an issue to saying this is all too familiar.

Looking back, Grace knows what happened to her is completely unacceptable in society.

“When I got home that Saturday night, I went through my Instagram and deleted quite a few photos,’’ she said.

“It had taken me such a long time to build my confidence.

“I think I’ve built back some confidence, but I’m more cautious about what I’m wearing.”

The fundamental problem of verbally degrading others, not only are you hurting another person, verbal assault is often the beginning of much larger problems.

Education about how to treat others is crucial.

If people growing up saw other people act negatively, they’d assume it is the norm and continue the trend. The children who see their older siblings wolf whistle others and laugh, will think ‘that’s okay for me to do too’.

But if we started to stand up and say what may seem like a simple wolf whistle is in fact, not okay, then situations like Grace’s wouldn’t occur.

“All of those five boys on that table just laughed,” she said.

“If you’re just sitting back and watching these situations take place, you’re part of the problem too.

‘‘If you’re friends with people who say these things, you probably shouldn’t be.

“I think these issues have always been around but no-one was educated enough or decided to stand up and say no until more recent times.

“It’s 2019 – it’s time to start talking about it, even more urgently, it’s time to do something about it.”