Life, Opinion

“Hey Sexy” is not a compliment

11 Comments 17 June 2013

It’s Sunday afternoon. It’s sunny, and I’m taking advantage of the warm weather by wearing shorts and high socks.


I’m walking down a main street in Melbourne’s CBD with one of my close friends. I hear a group of men, probably in their 20s, walking behind us. They’re muttering something, and the only word I can really make out is “legs”.


I roll my eyes and try to ignore it. They start calling out, “Hey, Legs!” My friend and I just walk faster.


Eventually the young men catch up to us, and one of them turns to me and says with a smirk, “Hey, Legs! You can’t walk around here with legs like that!”


This wasn’t the first time something like that has been said to me, and I know it won’t be the last. But when I told one of my friends about it, she responded, “Learn to take a compliment.”


Street harassment is a growing problem, with girls as young as 12 being called to out of cars and wolf whistled at on the street. But what’s worse is this frankly insulting idea that street harassment is something to be happy about.


Countless surveys, available from, have been conducted all over the world. All of them seem to suggest that the vast majority of women, from 90 per cent to 99 per cent, have experienced street harassment. It’s an ongoing occurrence for most women that starts before puberty and continues for decades.


Many young women experience street harassment monthly, weekly, even daily.  We’re all familiar with the kind of “compliments” called to us by men on the street, and we know they’re not compliments at all. defines street harassment as: “unwelcome or unwanted verbal, non-verbal, physical or visual conduct based on sex or of a sexual nature, which occurs with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person.” This includes comments about somebody’s appearance, vulgar gestures, sexual invitations, following, touching, barking, whistling and catcalling.


Anybody who calls these actions “compliments” is suggesting that women should be grateful for strangers objectifying them and making them feel unsafe.


I took to my Facebook and sent out a message asking people to send me stories of their experiences with street harassment. The amount of responses, just from my circle of friends was overwhelming. More than 30 people responded, some of whom I’d never spoken to before.


Here’s just a few:

—“I constantly get beeped at while I walk to school in the morning. I’ve even had some guys try and get me to go with them ‘for a good time’” (Rachael, 16)

—“A 30–40-year-old man asked me whether I was cold and when he replied I wasn’t he said, “Eh, not a bad view anyway,” looking at my legs. I felt so yuck and it was ages before I wore a skirt again” (Iolande, 15)

—“[He was staring at me while] his hands kept finding their way to his clearly raging boner” (Tammy, 14)

—“This 30 or 40-year-old guy was smiling at me. It was making really uncomfortable, so I moved carriages, but he followed me and then continued to follow me when I got off the train” (Helena, 18)

—“I was wearing a dress to train it to a friend’s house. And I got about four people yelling crap. And I actually went home and changed into pants because I just couldn’t be bothered feeling that uncomfortable” (Sarah, 19)

—“I was walking through the crowd and I got groped. I felt so f***ing violated and it ruined my night” (April, 16)


These young girls all told similar tales of feeling scared, harassed and violated. What about that is complimentary?


We live in a society where a woman cannot even walk down the street without experiencing sexual harassment. It happens so often that people dismiss it, saying “Boys will be boys!” and telling everyone to just learn to take the compliment. But I, for one, refuse to feel happy because some person I don’t know deems me appropriate to sexualise. I refuse to accept this disgusting part of our culture that promotes the idea that unwarranted comments on a woman’s body are okay.


Hollaback, an anti-street harassment campaign, says that the only way to stop street harassment is to “change the culture that made it acceptable to begin with”. They encourage women, when the situation is safe, to respond firmly to their harassers—to tell them what they’re doing is harassment and that it makes them uncomfortable.


They will not question their behaviour until somebody forces them to. Until they are forced to take a good, long, hard look at themselves, everybody will go on believing in these so called ‘compliments’.


That Sunday afternoon, when those men called out that I “couldn’t walk around with legs like that”, I just turned away. Because I’ve been taught by society that all I can do is ignore it. But my friend did not. He turned to the men and retorted, “She can do what she wants.”


A harmless comment, but the smirks were wiped off the faces of my harassers and they didn’t bother us again. After that, I decided that I would not stay silent. I will not be the out-dated female stereotype. I will not be quiet, I will not walk away, I will not sit down and wait my turn.


I will pursue my right to go outside without strangers taking it as an invitation to make comments on my body. Whether I am a victim or a bystander, I will not ignore street harassment any longer.


I would hope, circumstances permitting, that some of you might do the same.

Your Comments

11 Comments so far

  1. Maddy Vickers says:

    Well written article and a very important subject to bring to attention.

  2. Austin says:

    Great article! It’s up to the young men and women of today to stop this degrading behaviour. 🙂

  3. poe b says:

    I made a similar commitment to myself recently. I have never ‘complemented’ a stranger and I now politely intervene if I observe overly enthusiastic complementing. It has not been overall positive as I am male, so my input should probably be construed as part of the problem, rather than the solution, but I feel every little bit helps.

  4. Sarah says:

    I TOTALLY agree, but I also think modesty is under-rated. We put a lot of ourselves on show sometimes, without thinking about the effect it can have on others- their response is definitely not our responsibility, but we need to show that we value ourselves and that not ‘just anyone’ has the privilege of seeing certain parts of our bodies. We all have a responsibility to treat each other with respect and dignity. And parents have a responsibility to help their kids realise when the clothing they wear is more sexual than they realise (and lots of kids clothes are very adult, it seems).

  5. Madison says:

    Are you serious, Sarah? It shouldn’t matter what a girl is wearing, it doesn’t invite anyone to come up and harass her. What if those girls were at the beach? Are you saying that because they are in bathing suits and showing more skin they value themselves less and society should to? If someone wants to show off their body to willing participants they should still be protected, your line of thinking still puts the blame on the victim. Women in burkas are raped and harassed every day, is it because they look too sexual? Value shouldn’t be defined your state of dress and it shouldn’t be defined by how much skin you’ve exposed to strangers.

  6. Kat says:

    Sarah I agree. It is that guy’s responsibility to control himself, but modesty is also undervalued. I see many very young girls dressed in very sexual ways, and they have no idea what signal they are sending to the many depraved men around them. As women we can take steps to make ourselves safe, and valued for things we want to be valued for.

    People make fun of Muslim women ‘having’ to wear the hijab, but most of my Islamic friends are excited about the fact that their husband will be the only one to share that part of their body, they talk about the value it gives them to not be showing their body for every man’s pleasure and to therefore not be judged on their looks.

    We have been trained to believe that we are valuable based on how people look at us, but we are not, we have dignity because we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God the creator, not because of what effect our skin has on a male.

  7. Sarah Ellett says:

    Sarah-who-isn’t-me, I think it’s important to recognise that a person’s self respect has absolutely nothiing to do with how they dress. People have the right to dress however they feel comfortable without being judged.

  8. Ann Henderson says:

    Modesty is about taking responsibility for oneself and taking as much care as possible to not attract attention.Men are visual thats how they were made. I am not excusing men I am saying we women need to figure things out a bit more. If you want to show off what you have, then grow up and take the flak that comes with it. If you want to grow a healthier planet then take some of the responsibility. It may just cut down some of the street harrassment. Education: – instead of the “I will wear what I want syndrome” think about “is what I am wearing having a negative impact on the community as a whole”. We are all part of that community. It won’t stop all of the street harrassment, but it will make a difference.

  9. Georgie says:

    Thanks for writing this article. It’s an issue that really upsets me, yet most of my friends label me as ‘sensitive’ or ‘stuck up’ when I bring it up.

  10. Sarah B says:

    Ann, what girls wear does not have “a negative impact on the community.” Street Harassment is entirely the harassers fault and we should be able to wear whatever we want without having to worry about being harassed. When I see a guy who I think looks nice/cute/hot whatever you want to call it, do I holler and whistle at them like they are a dog? No. So why are the guys allowed to? Stop treating street harassment as if it something that all boys do, and therefor allowing them to be excused from it. They CHOOSE to make those vulgar comments and wolf whistles and make girls feel unsafe. They control their actions and need to start understanding that is they’re actions which have a negative impact on the community, not girls showing some cleavage.

  11. Mikhayla says:

    Really good article on a very important subject. I live in the middle of the city and was walking home from the movies. I was by myself walking down Swanston street and I have never felt so alone and terrified. I was wearing a dress and felt disgusted with myself for putting myself in the position of being yelled fowl and yuck things. When I got home and started thinking about I got angry. Why can’t I, a young women, walk down a street in the evening without feeling anxious or worried. This is meant to be a free and safe country, but at the moment I was not free or safe. I have had enough of women being objectified for men entertainment. I’m with you, I’m not going to let this issue brush by anymore. I’m making a voice, and it’s going to be loud.

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Author Info

This post was written by who has written 7 posts on The Under Age.

Sarah Ellett is 15 years old and lives her life on the internet. She enjoys a variety of geeky TV shows and movies, and has a keen interest in climate action and civil rights activism. She considers sports to be a form of oppression. Her ideal evening would be spent eating pizza and blogging about her vast array of fandoms.

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