Should Australia Outlaw Catcalling?

France is blowing the whistle on wolf-whistles, but what do Australia's laws say about it?

As of next month, catcalling on French streets and public transport can result in an on-the-spot fine of up to €750 ($AU1180) following the introduction of legislation to outlaw sexual street harassment this week.

The new laws were approved just days after a viral video of a 22-year-old student being slapped by a man for responding to lewd noises he made at her outside a Paris cafe sparked public outrage.

France joins Belgium, Portugal and New Zealand on the list of nations where gender-based harassment in public places, including the age-old wolf-whistle, is now a punishable offence.

But what does the law say about catcalling in Australia?

Under state and federal discrimination laws, an action is deemed sexual harassment if it is "unwelcome sexual behavior" and it is reasonable that the person would "feel offended, humiliated or intimidated by the behaviour".

However, while wolf-whistling and shouting out lewd comments on the street may fall under this definition, not all areas of the public are not covered by these laws.

“There are no laws that expressly state that it is illegal to whistle at women in the street,” Head of Shine Lawyers’ Abuse Law Department Lisa Flynn told ten daily.

“The discrimination laws in Australia that would cover this type of behaviour only afford protection to those being sexually harassed in their workplace or in any of the other areas of activity covered by discrimination law.”

Other areas covered include at a social or sporting club, when applying for a job, buying or selling goods and services, or looking for a place to live.

As for shouting out lewd comments, Flynn says, “Our sexual discrimination laws would not prevent this, however it may be that such behaviour could constitute a breach of the criminal laws if the language involved obscene communications that would meet the standard of a criminal offence.”

While a study released by the Australian Institute revealed 87 percent of Australian women had experienced at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment in their lifetime, the prospect of introducing legislation similar to that now seen in France is a contentious and complicated issue for many reasons.

“The legislation that’s been introduced in France is for things that have to be observed by the police for someone to be fined and most perpetrators are a bit smarter than that,” lecturer in criminology Dr Bianca Fileborn told ten daily.

“But then the other reason is that a lot of this behaviour--not that it’s ambiguous for a lot of the people on the receiving end-- is stuff that could be excused or explained away like "Oh, I was just trying to be nice and I didn’t know." So that kind of ambiguity and the fleeting nature of a lot of harassment makes it difficult for police to hold perpetrators to account.”

Since the introduction of Belgium’s anti-sexism laws targeting street harassment in 2014, only one person has been prosecuted as a result. In March, a man was fined €3000 ($AU4730) for insulting a police officer because of her gender.

During a survey of almost 300 people in Melbourne, Fileborn found that many Australians were not only “ambivalent” about outlawing street harassment, but doubted its potential effectiveness.

She said the main benefit people saw in having legislation of this nature was that it served an almost symbolic purpose by sending a clear message from the government that this type of behaviour isn’t acceptable.

“Most people wanted a focus on actually changing the norms and the power structures that underlie street harassment so we’re stopping it from happening in the first place rather than someone getting a fine after they’ve done it because it’s too late at that point,” Fileborn said.

"A lot of people were very concerned about the potential for this type of legislation to be used to harass or over-police really vulnerable groups of men... a lot of people thought in an Australian context that it could be used against homeless men, Indigenous men or people with mental health conditions."

In terms of addressing street harassment with Australia’s current legal landscape, Inspector Everett Moutsidis from Victoria Police's Sexual Offence and Child Abuse Team explained to ten daily people who feel unsafe as a result of someone else's behavior should still contact police.

"Sexually harassing behaviour that makes anyone feel uncomfortable, frightened or threatened is unacceptable," Moutsidis said.

"Even a small act or comment can call out sexually harassing behaviour and stop it in its tracks. If someone’s behaviour is making you feel unsafe, please come to police and know that you will be supported and believed."