teens

When Yumi Stynes confronted a man harassing her daughters, his response was sadly telling.

Most women will know what it feels like to be sexually harassed. All it takes is a few words – a comment muttered as you walk by, hurled from a car window or slung on social media – and that feeling floods your body. Discomfort, disgust and yes, sometimes fear.

As a television presenter on Studio 10, for Yumi Stynes it’s been more than just a few words. Complete strangers would regularly write in or post comments about her looks, her body and what they’d like to do with it; some would even make violent sexual threats against her.

And sadly, her eldest children, aged 14 and 15, are learning what that feels like, too. Speaking to Mamamia, the mother of four said she’s witnessed the “salacious attention” and comments they receive from “gross” men, many of whom seem completely undeterred by her presence.

Just recently, she was walking behind her girls when a man, crouching with coffee in hand, started hassling them.

“I said, really aggressively, ‘What do you want?’ And the guy said to me, ‘Not f***ing you,'” Yumi recalled. “As if it would wound me that he wasn’t sexually harassing me. ‘Not f***ing you.’ I was like, wow. Again, it’s coming back to my appearance and my sexual currency. It’s just ridiculous.”

Video via SBS

It’s exchanges like this – and what they say about the place of women in our culture – that Yumi seeks to interrogate in Is Australia sexist?, a new documentary that airs on SBS tonight.

The program is based on the results of a nationwide survey commissioned by SBS and led by Macquarie University about experiences and perceptions of gender equality in Australia. With 3599 respondents, it’s the largest ever undertaken on the issue in Australia.

Among the findings…

  • Forty per cent of 18-25 year old women have experienced sexual harassment in a public place in the last 12 months alone.
  • Twenty-two per cent of men believe that women should take being wolf-whistled on the street as a compliment.
  • Eighty-six per cent of women say they do the majority of the housework.
  • And yet 37 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men believe that feminism has gone ‘too far’.

The show tests these statistics in real-world situations, from experiments on gender bias involving children’s toys to hidden cameras capturing harassment in the workplace and catcalling on the street.

In one particularly unsettling segment, Yumi signed up for a popular dating app – a platform on which sexual harassment is rife (according to the survey, 43 per cent of women believe that online sexual harassment is a greater issue than street harassment). Using a fake name but real, faceless photos, she was bombarded with explicit messages, including one which read, “I’d love for you to sit on my face, so I can eat my way to your heart.”

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As a married woman whose eight-year relationship pre-dates Tinder, this unsettling reality left Yumi in tears.

“It just scares me to think that my own kids will grow up and this is what they’ll have to deal with,” she said on the program.

Yet rather than let it slide, Yumi (going by the name Lucy) arranged to meet the man behind that vile message, and explain how it made her feel. Sat in a crowded outdoor cafe, in earshot of dozens of patrons, she began to read his own words back to him. His reaction was telling.

“He was like, ‘Shhh.’ He literally did the hand movement to turn the volume down,” she said. “I was like, ‘You said that to me! Why are you telling me to shush when I’m saying your own words?’

“It was so fantastic to see that [hypocrisy] illustrated there right in front of me, caught on camera.”

Though the result was gratifying, Yumi said it was a nerve-wracking situation to put herself in.

“I felt really quite queasy, sleepless, leading up to it, knowing that it was it was going to happen. And also knowing that I really had to stand my ground when my instinct and my impulse was to run,” she said.

“But because I knew the cameras were rolling and there was so much at stake and I had to try and represent this experience to so many women, I had to be probably ballsier than I would be in real life.”

Here’s the clip:

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The entire documentary is based on that same premise: that one of the key ways to combat sexism is to address the gap in understanding, to demonstrate the prevalence of such behaviour, what it looks like and what it means for the person on the receiving end. That gap can exist between cultures, races and generations, though it’s arguably largest between genders.

“The difference in the way that men watch this show to how women do is really, really acute,” Yumi said. “Women are nodding their head and feeling angry and feeling vindicated when someone gets called out for that behaviour. But men are genuinely shocked. They’re like, ‘Are you kidding? Oh my God.’ And they can’t believe it, even though we’ve been telling them for years.”

But it’s because of that response that Yumi is optimistic about what the future will look like for women and girls in this country.

“I think it’s really important to know that we’re all imperfect humans and we make mistakes and that we’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn,” she said. “My own allyship [for women] has changed a lot over the past few years, and my ignorance will never end – it’s practically bottomless. But I think that’s good to know. Because while you’re never going to have the complete picture of what’s right what’s wrong, you have to keep updating your information.

“And that’s called progress.”

Is Australia Sexist airs tonight (Tuesday December 4) on SBS at 8:40pm and will be available for streaming via SBS On Demand.

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