The Summernats juggernaut has rolled in and out of town once again, bringing with it more than 100,000 visitors – the majority of them from interstate. It is now a Canberra institution but one that is working to shed its reputation as a hotbed for sexual harassment and intimidation, and signalling a wish to be viewed instead as a family-friendly and inclusive event.
After many years of concerns being raised regarding the safety and treatment of women attending the event, particularly given that it has been an environment where some patrons see the event as licence to engage in activity that degrades and harasses women, this is good news. The actions of event organisers demonstrate that there finally seems to be a real commitment to changing the event and creating an environment that better aligns with our community expectations around appropriate behaviour and how women should be treated.
The new owners of the event need to be commended for the real efforts they are making to create a much more positive environment. In spite of howls of protests, wet t-shirt competitions and the Miss Summernats competition have been banned, and there are no longer strip shows within the event. This year, patrons were required to acknowledge that this was a ‘safe space for women’ and asked to refrain from sexual harassment as a condition of entry.
While somewhat astounding that some of these practices were ever OK, there is a need to acknowledge that these were brave moves and are essential first steps that had to be taken if this event is to survive in the modern world.
Even so, the experience of many women who attended this year’s event highlight that there is still a long way to go, and event organisers need to be encouraged and supported to continue their work in cleaning up the event. A number of women who attended the event reported leering, sexual harassment and intimidation, and a need to modify their own behaviour to keep themselves safe. Many women still do not feel safe to venture in certain parts of the venue, and families tend to steer clear after dark due to alcohol adding more danger to the situation. Extremely disturbing was the reports that predatory activity had spilled outside the venue, and young women working close to the venue were subject to intimidation and harassment. One positive is that the consensus seemed to be that this type of behaviour seems to be less pervasive than it has been in previous years, but some patrons were still questioning actions taken, suggesting they were ruining the vibe of the event.
Catcalling, verbal harassment and intimidation are not ok in any environment. This behaviour is not ‘a bit of fun’ or ‘boys being boys’ but is an activity that creates an unsafe environment, puts women at risk, and erodes gains we have made in creating a more respectful and equal culture. Removing this type of unacceptable behaviour is far from ‘messing with the spirit of the event’ and rather about taking into heart what this event is supposed to be about – appreciating and enjoying street machines and creating an environment where all people can have fun and enjoy the noise and energy, without feeling threatened or intimidated.
I think that the event organisers should be congratulated for their actions in the lead up to this event, but encouraged to continue working towards stamping out anti-social activities that degrade and threaten women. What do you think?