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Written by Liz Dolfi, one of Hollaback!’s freelance badasses (or, as some people call them, volunteers)
Many kinds of gender-based violence are still are part of our culture. While tremendous progress has been made in women’s rights in the last century and many forms of violence against women are illegal, rape, domestic violence, and discrimination are still frequent occurrences. We condemn these things through our legal system and education and awareness programs, but resources for survivors are far from sufficient and many people still deal with shame and stigma after experiencing gender-based violence. The various forms of street harassment that many people experience as a part of their daily lives are indicative of this culture.
Women in the United States are often raised to be deeply afraid of sexual assault in public places (despite the fact that you are much more likely to be assaulted by someone you know), and as a result, most of the women I know go through a mental checklist before they leave their homes. Do I have a cell phone and mace? Does someone know where I will be? Can I afford a cab home or find someone to walk with?
Personally, I throw shapeless, baggy clothes on before I go outside, even on hot days because creeps on the subway seem to think that I get dressed for them in the morning. I’ve woken up my partner and my roommate to walk me from the subway at 2:00am when I have gotten stuck with the late shift at my job. I won’t do laundry without a friend because of the lecherous men who sit on the stoop by the laundromat, spending the day groping and hollering at women. I peer into windows as the subway rolls into the station to make sure that I get into a car where other women are sitting.
I think that many people who experience street harassment frequently deeply internalize these compulsive attempts to keep ourselves safe. Some of us learn these behaviors through years of harassment, and some of us were raised with a deep sense that we are unsafe in public spaces and our parents spouted nonsense safety tips like “always have your keys in your hand when you are walking through a parking garage – you can use them as a weapon and get away quickly.”
I would like to think that some of the victim blaming that seems to occur every time someone shares a story about sexual assault or harassment is the result of the safety rituals we perform. When we hear than someone was assaulted when walking home alone at three am, our response is a horrified “what?! Why were you ALONE? And at 3am!!!”
This response is understandable, given how deeply we have internalized the idea that it is UNSAFE (picture that in five foot letters and orange flashing lights) to walk alone at three in the morning. But, and listen carefully here because this is important, WE NEED TO CUT IT OUT.
Today, right now, everyone who thinks that street harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable needs to make a commitment to curb that culturally imprinted response and make sure that the first that thing comes out of our mouths when we hear about an incident of harassment or violence is “this is WRONG.”
Harassment and assault are the fault and the responsibility of the person who decided to treat the person they harassed or assaulted as less than human, end of story.
This is not about what we wear so we need to stop telling our stories by saying “I wasn’t even wearing anything cute,” “it isn’t as if I looked slutty” etc. If I choose to walk down the street naked, that does not negate my rights over my own body or somehow imply that I am walking past you for the sake of your sexual satisfaction (I’m talking to you creepy Laundromat guys). This is not about why we are on the street in the first place. We need to stop staying “I was just trying to get to work” as if we need to justify our existence in public places. If I am a sex worker looking for consensual sex at a negotiated price, I am NOT asking for unwanted sexual advances and harassing me is unacceptable.
If we allow our own fears to shape the way that we talk about incidents of gender-based harassment in public places and sexual assault, we end up blaming victims, and ultimately ourselves, for something that is not our fault, and we encourage the people who genuinely do blame the victim to continue to discuss these issues in that way.
So, I would like to recommend being careful with our language and ditching the qualifiers when describing assault and harassment as the official small feminist activist action of the day. Let’s cut out the language that can imply victim-blaming and put blame where it is due.
We got on the N Judah MUNI line at around 7:00PM. The woman sat in front of me. The harasser sat across from the woman. He started to verbally harass her immediately and another woman beside him. The second women got off the train immediately.
The woman ignored him at first then made a comment in hopes of him stopping. I did not hear her exactly but she politely said no to his request. He called her a racist and other words when she did not respond favorably. He continued, NON-STOP telling her how pretty she is, then giving her the finger, and saying rude comments. Sticking his hand in her face and against her wishes taking her picture with his cell phone. Much of this happened very quickly.
Mind you this train is packed full of mostly people in business attire going home from work. Most were men. Several much bigger than the harasser and in a perfect position to assist the woman.
The woman beside me spoke up first. She asked him to leave her alone. The guy turned on her and said a few rude things then returned his attention to the first girl. A minute or two went by and the guy gets more agitated and verbal. Several times I though he was going to actually physically assault her. Then I spoke out to the entire group of men around us. That there must not be any men with any balls on this train to say anything. Not a SINGLE one of them even tried to help that woman. they simply watched the guy verbally harass and stick his hands and camera phone in her face.
“I said there must not be a single man on this train” rather loudly to the woman that had confronted the guy. The guys in the seat right beside the woman and her “attacker” turned and gave ME the dirty look and then continued to ignore the situation.
While the guy was still for a few seconds I took his picture. The girl very quickly exited the train I made sure he was not going to follower before exiting myself. As the train sat there I went up to him and took a picture as he looked right at me. Just as he had done that girl. I should have done more.
NOT a SINGLE man on that train lifted so much as a finger.
I discussed reporting it to another passenger. They said the MUNI security would do nothing and likely would not even care. I have only been in this city 9 months. I have been verbally harassed before and did stand up for myself. It is freaking scary since you do not know if the people around you will even bother to help. Likely they wont from my experience.
The picture is of the guy, in a red jacket, who was harassing the other woman. I have a second picture but not as clear of him looking directly into my camera. I got home still shaking and disgusted.
Submitted by Nichole
I’m a sucker for a good TEDtalk, but this one from TEDwomen takes the cake. Thanks to Erik Kondo who writes the Street Harassment Disruption blog for passing it along.
This happened when I was 16 and in Montreal for the Just for Laughs Festival. It was crowded on the streets, more crowded than any concert I’ve ever been to. We all seemed to be migrating to the same place. I thought it was sort of funny and some older guy behind me was laughing about it. I turned around and smiled since it was nice we both found the humour in it. He had olive skin, was probably 25 years older than me, dark hair, a few inches shorter than me (I’m about 6ft). When I was facing forward I felt his hands feeling my ass, tickling, trying to get up my skirt. I was in such shock that all I could think to do was tell my twin sister who was directly in front of me. She turned her head around, glared, and told him to stop it. He stopped and acted put off like it was some innocent misunderstanding. I’m so thankful my sister was there, it made me stronger.
I’m proud to say I was raised by very strong female figures and men who respected women. Even with that, though, I still questioned what I did to get that unwanted attention. Was I wrong to be in a good mood, to smile at a stranger, did I invite the behaviour? I dismissed these ideas but it made me cautious of who I gave any sort of attention.
Even now, as a 25 yr old living alone downtown in Edmonton, I purposely avoid eye contact, listen to my iPod where ever I walk alone, wear sunglasses as long as it’s sunny enough. I think it’s smart to be aware of ones surroundings, not make yourself a target for unwanted interactions and behaviour but it’s sad that I have to be so on guard at all hours of the day. It speaks volumes of the society women live in.
Submitted by Chantelle
About 10 years ago, my sister and I were traveling to Dubrovnik on a bus from Split. She was sitting in the back row with another traveling companion, while I chose to sit a few rows up to take advantage of 2 empty seats so I could stretch out and cat nap.
I awoke to the realization that the man (about in his 20’s) seated behind me had slipped his hand between the seats and was groping my ass. I, not to mince words, freaked out. I immediately stood up and began a furious diatribe at the man in English, my only tongue, making sure it was loud enough that the whole bus could hear what I was saying. Though many on the bus may not have understood all of my words, I have found through extensive travel that English swear words usually are understood universally in most of Europe, and so peppered my righteous screed with them. I’m a carpenter’s daughter and learned the skill of spontaneous and poetic strings of profanity from an early age. As I was doing this, and without thinking, I grabbed my almost full water bottle from the seat, unscrewed the cap and proceeded to pour it out all over my harasser, who was stunned into immobility by my reaction, and obviously embarrassed and ashamed. A couple more “fuck you’s” and “don’t fucking touch me again, asshole” and I sat down. At the next stop most of the passengers got out for a leg stretch including this still soaking-wet guy, who skulked away towards the end of the bus alone to smoke. I noticed several other passengers pointing and laughing at him.
The coolest thing was my sister telling our Italian male companion during the incident decidedly that, no, I didn’t need his help. The worst was his commentary (after I explained to him exactly what happened) in essence that I was overreacting; after all, harassment like this doesn’t really harm anyone, and most men in Italy and Croatia do it so it’s okay, also European women expect it. That pissed me off more than the groping.
But I bet the jerk who grabbed me will think twice about ever trying that again, if only to avoid another “crazy American bitch”.
Submitted by Jill C.
written by Liz Dolfi, one of Hollaback!’s many freelance badasses (or as other people call them, volunteers)
One of the most common points made about Hollaback! by critics is that it “doesn’t do anything.” “Ok well, so you took a picture of this guy and maybe if you are one in a thousand victims this will help the guy get caught, but nothing really changes.” This is a common refrain in blog posts and articles written by people who don’t really get what Hollaback! is about.
The toughest thing about this street harassment is that there is nothing to be done. Certain legal changes would be great, but it would be impossible (not to mention unwise) to criminalize many behaviors that characterize street harassment. Street harassment is a no-win situation for those who experience it. Saying something to the person harassing you, even something polite, can lead to escalation and potential violence, but ignoring it and walking away also have a price. In my experience, it can be really damaging to internalize this stuff day after day. What we need is a major cultural shift. We need to create a social environment where yelling sexual comments at people on the street is considered unacceptable, and people speak up when they see someone being harassed. For this kind of change, we need a movement, and that is what Hollaback! is trying to build.
I have spent most of my life in cities, and these things (men yelling on the street, groping me on the subway) started happening to me when I was very young. As a fourteen year old being groped on the tube in London, it was very clear to me that no one was going to help me, and so I internalized what was happening and learned to be quiet and get out of the situation. Now, as an adult, I have a really hard time even getting out the words “don’t touch me” or “leave me alone” because that instinct to be quiet and get away is so strong. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn last year, I stopped doing laundry without my partner so that I wouldn’t have to walk past the guys who sit on the stoop of a nearby building shouting at women all day. I wore jeans in 95 degree weather in the summer because I was more comfortable to sweat it out than to deal with the extra attention that came with shorts or a skirt. Street harassment is part of many women’s daily reality and it isn’t enough to ignore it and walk away day after day, week after week, and year after year.
So why does posting stories about harassment on a blog change anything? Well, if nothing else, Hollaback has changed my life and the way that I cope with street harassment. Using your camera or camera phone is subtle way to take some kind of action when you feel powerless. Of course, the Hollaback! blog is only part of what this organization is doing, but it is a powerful tool. Submitting your photo and story to Hollaback! connects you to an entire community of people who collectively say this is awful, it shouldn’t have happened to you, and it wasn’t your fault.
I may not always respond to street harassment the way that I want to, I don’t always manage to get out my cell phone, and being harassed on the street or the subway still feels awful, but just knowing about Hollaback! ameliorates the sense of powerlessness that used to be so overwhelming. Hearing other women and LGBTQ folks who experience harassment based on perceived gender performance tell their stories helps me to know that harassment is a cultural disease – it doesn’t have to do with me, the way I look, or the way I dress. I no longer blame myself for smiling on a beautiful spring day when some guy takes that as an invitation to ask for sexual favors, and I am getting better at overcoming the compulsion to be apologetic and polite.
Hollaback! has changed the way I experience street harassment and I am not the only one. It has made me an activist for this cause. So when people ask “what good does it do to post a picture on a blog?,” I say “are you kidding?! We’re building a movement!”
We found this little gem here. Maybe next time I’ll try handing this to the turds on the street.
I have two to share. First is molestation, second is verbal, but I’m filing this under verbal.
When I was 14, I was molested by (all I remember is) a very tall man who brushed against my groin while I was in the aisle of a gift shop. I was naive and thought maybe he didn’t do it on purpose but when he did it again despite the fact that I’d given him a lot of room, I just looked at him and kept looking until he hurriedly left. The thing is, I was so shocked that I really couldn’t recall what he looked like.
When I was in my early 20s, a man who looked like he was in his 50s or 60s was queueing at the supermarket with his family. Even though his wife and daughter were there, he kept leering at me and making remarks about me because I was wearing shorts. I didn’t do anything about it, but I wish I had.
I’m still not good at standing up to people, but I swear I’m not going to just do nothing if it happens again.
Submitted by caffeine
I was out with my friends at this pub in my hometown.
We decided to go out to the courtyard out the back, so we made towards a couple of benches.
As we were walking past, a man grabbed me by my wrist and tried to kiss me.
I pushed his face away, shocked and disgusted, I said “What the-”
but before I could finish he tried to kiss me again.
I pushed his face away. Then he tried a THIRD time.
This time I pushed his face away, slapped him and threw the rest of my drink all over is face and down the front of his shirt.
It’s men like this that make me think “Who on earth do you think you are? What makes you so damn special that common manners and sexual harassment law, doesn’t apply to you?”
My friends ended up clapping me on the back and saying “That was the most bad ass thing I’ve ever seen.”
I was really quite pleased.
Submitted by Desany