The beach, according to one view, symbolises much that is typically Australian. This theory says that where land and sea meet, people encounter one another in equality and good spirit. The beach lacks entry fees, grades of seating and clothing cues to class. Here, more than anywhere else, people gather to celebrate and enjoy Australia’s natural bounty. At “the beach” there is room for everyone to enjoy the sun, the sand and the water.
Unfortunately, some Australians see the beach as a place to exercise power over others. Some drop litter and some, citing vague claims to freedom, swim outside the flags in total disregard for the welfare of lifesavers and other swimmers. Some, at Cronulla recently, gave a violent demonstration of mob power.
Such behaviour threatens the vast majority of people who want to use the beaches in safety. When such power plays occur, the first to be deterred from using the beach are likely to be the elderly, women and children. It is shocking then, to find that one category of men seems to feel no obligation to behave courteously at the beach. These are the men who use mobile phones as cameras to steal images of women.
It is a sign of civilisation that people feel comfortable in public spaces. Essentially, public spaces are places we all own and value. Consequently, we treat the space with respect, and this expresses respect for other users. Littering, for example, is both an act of environmental vandalism and a direct insult to everyone else. It is not a victimless crime, but weakens those bonds of cordiality that bind the community together.
Despite rampant privatisation, most of us want there to be some public spaces that everyone can actually use. The ability to use such spaces implies more than a formal right. We want children, the disabled and the elderly to feel safe and valued and we do not want women to feel threatened.
It is always reassuring to see pregnant women feeling comfortable with their public image and enjoying places such as the beach, and to see babies being breast fed in communal areas. A nursing mother with such complete responsibility for a defenceless baby is herself vulnerable, and so the activity expresses confidence in the space and the people around. A society that discourages this practice is well on the way to surrendering its humanity.
A further sign of civilisation is that women can, without fear, use the beach for swimming or sunbathing “topless” if they wish. Like the breastfeeding mother, the “topless” woman on the beach takes a risk and makes herself vulnerable. Her willingness to do so implies a degree of trust in the courtesy of the rest of us. The test for us is to accept them and to avoid causing them embarrassment.
However, a few men seem determined to show these women that they have no rights in this public space. Recently, an incident on a Sydney northern beach showed that respect for women in public spaces cannot be taken for granted. Two women who were sunbathing topless discovered that a middle-aged man had sat on the sand near them for the purpose of photographing them using his mobile telephone. The women angrily replaced their shirts. Applauded by other women nearby, they gave the man a good “dressing down”. However, the harm had been done. The beach had become an inhospitable and dangerous area.
What is it with these men? Do they feel threatened by female sexuality? Are they beset by anxiety about reproduction? Or are they really nasty, cold calculating types? Within a few metres, tiny tots were dressing after their swims. It is disturbing to think that a man with such motivation could be operating near them.
With wireless technology available, unauthorised photographs of sunbathers, or of naked infants, could appear on some sleazy website within seconds. While mobile phones were implicated in the organisation of violence at Cronulla beach around Christmas 2005, so was talkback radio.
The technology itself is not to blame and many parents apparently feel safer knowing that their child has a mobile phone. It is a sad state of affairs however, when we continue to allow a deterioration in the hospitability of public places. If it seems there is never a police officer, a public guardian, available when you need one, perhaps it is because they have all become private security guards. Too timid to collect revenue sufficient to provide adequate policing, governments fail to provide leadership in community safety.
In the 19th century, women were hardly expected to appear in public places. Toilets were provided for men long before it was admitted that women might require such facilities. During the 20th century, feminists fought to ensure that architects, town planners and legislators were sensitive to the ways that spaces could be designed without a masculine bias.
Even MPs have noted the setting of air conditioning temperatures to suit trousered rather than skirted legs. Often, in drawing attention to these anomalies, it has been assumed that the discrimination was due to thoughtlessness rather than deliberate misogyny. In 21st century Australia, women should be able to enjoy shared places without feeling subject to discriminatory pressures and restrictions. All official policies and laws begin with and supposedly implement this assumption. Women who enter the public sphere do not thereby surrender their rights to privacy, any more than men do.
The behaviour of these telephone flashers, these mobile muggers, suggests that there is a backlash against the notion of equality of the sexes.
The Prime Minister has expressed concern about the teaching of Australian history, but sometimes seems oblivious to the way that our history is currently being made. As long as a tiny minority of men feel free to harass and intimidate women, the notion of the beach as an area of good old Aussie egalitarianism is not so much a national myth but a national farce.