Can males still compliment females without the female feeling threatened? Can males still compliment females without being perceived as predators? The answer is yes, although this singular response is too elementary for a complicated issue. In a recent situation involving a male complimenting me, a female, complications arose as to whether I considered the situation threatening or not. The situation wasn’t a dramatic one; it was merely an exchange of a few words. However, inner conflict stirred within me as I tried to quickly analyse the words directed at me, ‘hey, nice car.’ My first glance was instinctive, to place a face with the words. And even then, I was already in defence mode. The triggers were two white strangers who were young adult males and whom I presumed to be heterosexual. According to a 2012 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of all women who had experienced one or more types of sexual harassment behaviours (4,221,100), 98% had experienced these behaviours by a male perpetrator. As I looked away with a strategy to simply ignore a few thoughts raced through my mind. Do they mean something else by ‘hey, nice car’? If I respond, am I offering a space for them to fill with something threatening? My plan was redirected as I responded with a simple thank you. The young man’s expression had been settled, his tone was grounded, there was no danger. By nice car, he had simply meant, nice car.
Preconceived ideologies surrounding the concept of strange men were a forefront of this experience. A population of sexist, misogynistic men have created negative stigma surrounding the concept of strange men randomly initiating communication with women. According to Ealasaid Munro, a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at Glasgow University, the existence of the most recent wave of feminism enabled by the internet has created a ‘call-out’ culture, in which sexism or misogyny can be ‘called out’ and challenged. The enabling of this wave of feminism would suggest that society is slowly moving towards an environment with decreasing cat calling, sexual slurs and sexually inappropriate statements. These actions mostly carried out by men seem to have become more frowned upon across all sexes. Over the last few years I have noticed that fewer men have directed uncomfortable lingering gazes at me. More men look at my face during our conversations rather than other parts of my body. However, reality challenges these assumptions and my personal experiences. According to a 2016 online ABC News article by Eliza Borrello, data analysed by workforce diversity specialist Conrad Liveris, shows sexual harassment rates have risen 12.8% since 2011.
The event I had experienced with the young men, although not threatening, was significant. My initial inner conflict as a result of ‘hey, nice car’ was influenced by another event that proceeded this one by a few days. I was at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), leaving a tutorial for a first year subject. After crossing two intersecting roads by foot I heard a deep voice call out. The first time it happened I fought my instinctive urge to turn around and assumed the words delivered were directed at someone else. After the voice repeated ‘hey you!’ for a second time, I decided to react. During the mere seconds it took for me to pause and turn around I thought that I had dropped something from my hefty backpack. I was met with a staining image of a middle-aged man dressed in an orange retro-reflective jacket. He was hanging out of the window of the drivers seat with a smug look on his face. After turning around I experienced an inappropriate comment, ‘hey you’re sexy!’ I took a breath and as oxygen filled my lungs, nausea filled my stomach. In that moment I felt as though the blood coursing through my veins had hesitated, throwing the inner workings of my body off balance. I felt disturbed. According to Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstances. On the Human Rights website, various forms of sexual harassment are outlined. Two forms of sexual harassment listed are: staring or leering and suggestive comments or jokes. The glaring, orange flaring man hanging out of his white van was guilty of sexual harassment.
Although the sexual harassment I had experience startled me, it is no surprise that it occurred on university campus. According to a 2016 online ABC News article by Dr. Nicola Henry of La Trobe University, Channel 7’s Sunday Night program investigated reported rates of sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities through freedom of information requests. They showed that over the past five years, there have been 575 official complaints of sexual assault and harassment recorded. Furthermore, according to the 2015 National Union of Students survey, only 5.5% of students reported incidents to their universities and 4.8% to police. I contributed to these percentages by not reporting the sexual harassment incident I experienced. As the perpetrator was a stranger, I didn’t have a name to report. Also the perpetrator was in a vehicle that faced away from me therefore, I had no view of the vehicle’s registration and did not feel safe to approach the vehicle to retrieve it. But perhaps my lack of reporting the sexual harassment incident was driven by an ideological assumption; that speaking out would further expose me to sexism, that I would be made to feel guilty. According to a 2017 submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘University Sexual Assault and Harassment’ Project prepared by End Rape on Campus Australia, ‘In many cases, universities seem to believe an adequate response to the prevalence of sexual assault is to publish ‘safety tips’ that urge women to modify their behaviour to avoid being sexually assaulted and perpetuate the idea that women hold responsibility for their own safety. Notably, such strategies fail to make perpetrators accountable for sexual assault.’
Can males still compliment females without the female feeling threatened? Can males still compliment females without being perceived as predators? The answer is yes, as long as the compliment is non-offensive and welcome by the female. According to Australian Law Reform Commission report 123, ‘harassment involves deliberate conduct. It may be done maliciously, to cause anxiety or distress or other harm, or it may be done for other purposes. Regardless of the intention, harassment will often cause anxiety or distress. Harassment also restricts the ability of an individual to live a free life.’ Males can compliment females, if the “compliment” is not harassment.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Experience of Selected Types of Sexual
Australian Human Rights Commission, “Sexual Harassment (A Code in
Practice) – What is sexual harassment?” (2004).
Ealasaid Munro, “Feminism: A fourth wave?” (2013).
Edwards, Daniel and van der Brugge, Eva, “Higher education students in
Australia : what the new Census data tell us” (2012).
Eliza Borrello, “Sexual harassment rate jumps across Australia by more than
12 per cent from 2011” (2016).
Federal Register of Legislation, “Sex Discrimination Act 1984, No.4, 1984 as
amended” (2014). https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2014C00002
National Union of Students, “NUS Women’s Department 2015 Survey” (2015).
Nicola Henry, “University sexual assault policies are often ‘inconsistent’ and
‘confusing’”, (2017). http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-01/university-sex-
Queensland University of Technology, “At a Glance”, “multi-year statistics”