Half of all Australian women sexually harassed: survey

One in two Australian women has experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, with inappropriate comments about their body or sex life the most common complaint.

An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found 5 million women (53 per cent) and 2.2 million men (25 per cent) have experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment.

Thirty per cent of Australian women had experienced unwanted touching according to the ABS survey.Credit:Nic Walker

The disturbing analysis follows two recent landmark reports into sexual harassment by Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

Last week, Ms Jenkins’ excoriating report into parliamentary workplace culture revealed one in three staffers had been sexually harassed.

Her 2020 national inquiry into sexual harassment [email protected] has only been partially implemented. One of the key recommendations – an onus on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace rather than rely on complaints from victims – has not been adopted.

The Bureau of Statistics analysis found a third of women had experienced inappropriate comments about their body or sex life, while 30 per cent had experienced unwanted touching.

The Sexual Harassment report draws on data collected in its 2016 personal safety survey.

The prevalence of sexual harassment for both men and women has increased between 2012, when the survey was last conducted, and 2016.

The report says this could reflect changes in the prevalence of sexual harassment, as well as changing attitudes, which meant people might be more likely to recognise the behaviour and more willing to disclose it to survey interviewers.

In the survey, sexual harassment is defined as someone being subjected to behaviour they found improper or unwanted, which made them feel uncomfortable or was offensive due to its sexual nature.

This included indecent phone calls, texts, emails or social media posts; indecent exposure; inappropriate comments; unwanted touching; distributing sexual photos or videos of the person without consent; and exposure to sexual content the person did not wish to see.

Sexual assault is defined as an act of a sexual nature through the use of physical force, intimidation or coercion, including attempts to do this.

Lower life satisfaction, financial stress and cash flow problems were all associated with higher rates of sexual harassment.

Those who had difficulties meeting basic living expenses were more than twice as likely to experience sexual harassment.

Gender Equity Victoria CEO Tanja Kovac.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The analysis, based on data collected in 2016, also found women and men who had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetimes were more likely to have also experienced sexual assault.

“We found 30 per cent of women and 14 per cent of men who had experienced sexual harassment had also experienced sexual assault,” said Will Milne, ABS director of the National Centre for Crime and Justice Statistics.

“This is compared with 2.7 per cent of women and 1 per cent of men who had not experienced sexual harassment but had experienced sexual assault.”

Gender Equity Victoria CEO Tanja Kovac said she was not at all surprised by the report.

“I’m also one of those statistics, I experienced it when I was a young lawyer.”

Ms Kovac said there was a blueprint on how to address sexual harassment in the workplace – fully implement the [email protected] report.

“[Kate Jenkin’s] report made it pretty clear what governments and what workplaces need to do. If there is no obligation or duty on workplaces to ensure that their staff modify their behaviour and take gender violence as an occupational health and safety issue, we’re not going to see the change that we need,” Ms Kovac said.

“It’s just not on for there to be some workers in the workplace who think it is appropriate – to use my own example – to drop their dacks in front of a young woman lawyer.”

Sara Charlesworth, Professor of Work, Gender and Regulation at RMIT, said the ABS finding that inappropriate comments were the most frequent form of sexual harassment of women was consistent with Human Rights Commission surveys.

“We’re starting to build up a picture of a hostile culture, particularly towards young women, and particularly young women who are seen as being uppity or sure of themselves. You can bring them down by asking them a question in front of a group of people about their sex life or make a comment about what they are wearing,” Professor Charlesworth said. “It’s truly depressing.”

The ABS report was the second in a series exploring the prevalence and characteristics of sexual violence in Australia.

The first – Sexual Violence – victimisation, released in August – found nearly 3 million Australians over the age of 18 had experienced sexual violence but only 13 per cent of sexual assault survivors reported it to police.

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