Thanks so much Rctv28 and Elaine Espinola Keltz for hosting an important discussion this week on street harassment, including points like what’s a compliment and what’s not, how to deal with harassers & men’s roles in stopping harassment! It was great to be a guest alongside Noorjahan Akbar of Free Women Writers & Women for Women International and Jessica Raven of Collective Action for Safe Spaces.Share on Facebook
For the past few years, I’ve mainly worked from home and that’s significantly reduced the amount of street harassment I face because I’m not out in public alone that much. Typically, I “only” experience street harassment every few months. So, facing it seven times in the past six weeks has been jarring, even though that is still way less than other times when I have faced it that many times in a given day or even a given hour. I hit a new life record today though when two different men harassed me within about a minute of each other. So that’s prompting this post.
(1) The first of the seven incidents of street harassment occurred six weeks ago in New Hampshire, literally after I had given a talk at the University of New Hampshire on street harassment. I stopped in a shop on my way back to my hotel and the older white male store manager saw my “Stop Street Harassment” pin and felt it was okay to interrupt me to demand how he’s supposed to respond to people who “accost” (his word choice) white people and tell them that wearing a sombrero is racist (there had recently been several publicized incidents of racism at the university including white students wearing sombreros). I suggested he could listen to that person and hear WHY they are upset by it and try to understand their point of view. That was not the response he wanted and he began arguing with me. I can’t recall all the ins and outs of this conversation but one thing I said was that as white people we needed to consider our privileges and listen to other points of view and be open to changing our behavior. His response was so typical: “I’m not privileged!” I said, “You’re a white man, of course you are.” After originally being polite to him, I got fed up and chose to leave the store. As I walked to the door, this man, who outweighed me by 100 pounds and loomed over my 5’2″ frame, followed me out of the store, continuing to loudly argue with me. I felt anxious, upset and unsafe. This was not explicitly gender-based harassment, but I doubt he would have become so aggressive if I were a man. So then, in that sense, it was. (Also, would he have been even more aggressive had I been a woman of color?!)
(2) The next week, I was harassed by a Safeway truck driver while I walked my dogs near my home in Virginia right after I did a media interview about street harassment.
(3 & 4) A week later, I was in Texas and during a morning run near my hotel, I had to run alongside a busy road for four minutes before I could reach a quiet neighborhood… and men in two different vehicles harassed me during that short time.
(5) One day last week, I was walking my dogs near my home again, looking down at my phone to start a podcast, when a man in a car I had never seen before yelled out, “Did you get the text I just sent?” He stopped the car by me and he and his friends laughed and looked expectantly at me. I smiled weakly and hoped they’d drive on and thankfully, they did.
(6 & 7) Today, I was standing to the side of the entrance of my local Harris Teeter grocery store, quickly answering a few texts before I went in, and a man walked by me and said, “You shouldn’t be texting!” He said it in a joking, maybe trying to be flirtatious way, and stopped and smiled at me, expecting some kind of response. I guess he wasn’t expecting me to glare because then he walked on. Then literally within the next minute, another man walking by me said, “Oh hey honey, how you doing?” He slowed down and as I glanced up, he kept looking back at me, giving me a big smile, waiting for me to say something positive back to him. I glared at him too and returned to my phone. He walked into the store. I stood outside for a few more minutes, nervous to go inside and possibly have to see him again. But I bolstered my courage and fortunately, I did not encounter him a second time.
No doubt these all sound relatively benign and they are far from being the worst experiences I’ve had, but in each case, if I were a man, I bet I would have been able to go about my day uninhibited. I could go into a store (by the way, I put back the items I was going to buy so I could get out of there faster), go for a run, walk my dogs or text in front of a grocery store in PEACE. Each of these men knew they were interrupting me from what I was doing and they didn’t care. They felt that saying a “witty” line or honking and whistling at me was more important than just letting me live my life.
It’s an interesting contrast to see my personal experiences of street harassment rise over the last few weeks at the same time that millions of women have been speaking out against sexual harassment and assault with the #MeToo hashtag, and as many high powered men are FINALLY facing consequences for past sexual abuse they’ve committed. Perhaps it’s no coincidence. The more women push back against harassment, perhaps the more men will “punish” us by harassing us. I just hope that eventually we can win out and they will stop. I hope that one day, I — and everyone else who wants to — can walk down the street without being needlessly interrupted or worrying about a man’s underlying intent.
(Also, I gave a talk to teenagers in a writing group in Maryland last night and while the focus of our conversation was on writing, since I write a lot about street harassment, we briefly touched on the topic. Nearly all the girls immediately nodded their head in intimate understanding of the behaviors I described street harassment entailing. This harassment begins SO YOUNG and it’s simply not okay.)
Location: New Hampshire, Texas and Virginia
Need support? Call the toll-free National Street Harassment hotline: 855-897-5910
Millions of people have tweeted #MeToo and Facebook shared that 45% of people’s friends have posted it on their timeline to indicate they have experienced some form of sexual abuse (rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment at work or school or street harassment). The hashtag was started in 2007 by Tarana Burke and brought forward again a few days ago by actress Alyssa Milano in the wake of women coming forward revealing sexual abuse they faced from Harvey Weinstein, a very powerful man in Hollywood who could make or break people’s careers.
I began receiving google alerts about the story before it really got going but it took me days to finally engage with it on my own social media accounts, let alone here for Stop Street Harassment.
I know that the hashtag has done a lot of good and it’s created space for more people to share stories and others to read them. But my knee-jerk reaction was not positive. This is what I wrote on my personal Facebook page two days ago, at the height of people sharing #MeToo online:
While I’m glad #MeToo is trending and blah blah blah people are paying attention to sexual harassment and assault again for a minute, I just honestly feel TIRED. Do any of my other activists allies who’ve been working on this issue for a long time feel similarly? I feel worn down from the accumulation of stories I hear daily and have heard nearly daily for 10 years and periodically for years before that and by my own 100s of experiences of sexual harassment (school, work, public spaces, online, interpersonal), including 3 street harassment incidents in the past 9 or so days. I just wish sexual abuse would STOP. Don’t make us have to keep telling our stories and living through this and then when the new cycle shifts, forget about us. I just wish and wish it would stop. Just STOP.
It received over 165 likes (one of my most popular posts all year) and nearly 50 comments, mainly from people who also work on sexual abuse issues for a day job or as a volunteer activist. So many of them voiced fatigue, too. Like literal fatigue of their bodies shutting down. Many said they were getting triggered by seeing so many stories and others just felt too overwhelmed to engage. Yes, they said, they too felt tired.
Those of us working on these issues know all about the problem and I know the hashtag wasn’t for us. But we’re still impacted. Who will be the ones continuing with the work once the hashtag fades away? Who will still be facing sexual harassment and abuse in our day-to-day lives and having to figure out ways to cope with it and keep moving through our day? Us. Us. Us. Us. Us.
Don’t get me wrong, at an individual level, I think story-sharing is the best way to raise awareness about this issue. But at a community, national or global level, I’m tried of us having to pour open our souls and then seeing the attention end there. WHERE are the policies that can actually make a dent in stopping this? WHERE are the male allies who are vowing to speak up and do something proactive to stop this?
Yesterday and today I noticed several articles asking similar questions and challenging additional action, like Jessica Valenti who suggested in her Guardian piece that we now call out the perpetrators.
Or wrote at BBC, “I’d love to see a counter trend of men posting ‘I’m sorry and I’ll do better’ if they feel they’ve ever made a woman uncomfortable, unheard or unsafe. This one’s on you, dudes, and yet I still see all the mobilisation and conversational labour being held by woman.”who
Or Wagatwe Wanjuki who wrote for Daily Kos, “If we really want to reduce sexual violence, we need more than social media statuses by survivors. We need more than just our stories of trauma to stop sexual assault. We’ve had many similar efforts (#BeenRapedNeverReported, #YesAllWomen, #IBelieveHer, etc.) in the past, but gendered violence remains a serious issue. It’s because we need more. Listening and believing survivors is great, but it should be the first step of many in doing our part to end sexual violence. We need everyone to participate in raising awareness and taking concrete actions against rape culture, rather than leaving it to survivors to do the heavy lifting.”
I agree with them. And I will add this:
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Our partner Safecity has just released their Safecity Mobile App! It offers resources, allows you to report sexual violence in public spaces and more. It’s available for free on the Google and Apple play stores and is available in English, Hindi and Spanish.
Watch this video to see the features of the app.Share on Facebook