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Opening up fields of awareness, Part 2
Last week this column talked about the need to become more aware in public, in an effort to avoid being the target of unwelcome interactions with strangers. If we keep in mind that the people around us everyday on public transportation and out on the street could be in any mental state whatsoever, we can more easily pick up signals that something is wrong before we are victimized. But many situations that women in particular face are unavoidable, because the predator has singled us out for one reason: that we are women moving through the world alone. Today we’re going to talk about premeditated violence, in contrast to being “in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” One situation that many Hollaback! readers have experienced is being stalked.
Stalking is defined as “the willful, malicious and repeated following and harassing of another person,” and can occur in public or private spaces, over the phone, or even at work. Today we’re going to isolate our discussion to the kind of stalking that many women experience, which is being stalked by someone who you either don’t know at all, or someone with whom you have only very superficial contact. But first let’s discuss what stalking is, and what it isn’t: stalking is about power and control over the target, and it’s not simply about being fascinated with someone. Think back to a circumstance when either you, or perhaps a friend had been stalked by somebody, male or female, it doesn’t matter ~ you probably felt harassed, and that you were definitely giving the harasser clear signals that you didn’t want that interaction. I can remember being stalked by a security guard in college, and erroneously thinking that I could ignore the unwelcome advances ~ until the night came when that person entered my dorm at around midnight, banged on my door repeatedly, and slipped a picture of a place where that person wanted us to go on vacation together. I remember standing frightened and frozen inside my dorm room, which was locked, thank God, and then going to security the next morning to report the incident. The guard was fired, which I felt badly about, but considering the violation of boundaries involved, I now think it was a good idea. But I digress ~ you too probably have your own stories, and that is just one concrete example of how someone who knows you only in passing can not only get the wrong idea, but can take that idea to the extreme.
As a very young woman, I didn’t really know how to handle it at the time, and “nip it in the bud” so to speak, as I would now. If you have at least a superficial relationship to your harasser, give them a direct and firm rejection, immediately letting them know that no further contact is welcome or even permissible. This is often the safest approach. If they persist in their advances, you can then go to security, human resources, and so on. But what if you are stalked in public, which means that you don’t know your harasser? Many women are followed down the street, while they’re out jogging, or even in the grocery store. This is really the scariest situation, because your harasser is a complete unknown, who conceivably has the power and intention to do you great harm. So how to identify a stalker, and what to do about it: A stalker can look like anybody, but the feeling they give is one of menace, that they are the predator, and you are the prey. You often know when you’re being followed, either just with someone’s eyes, which can be uncomfortable, or if someone is literally going everywhere you are, no matter what your pattern of movement. The best way to determine this is to change direction suddenly, going in the opposite direction, or into different stores if you’re in a shopping district. Usually four to five direction changes would give you an accurate read on the situation.
If you are unable to avoid the person, and they start to catch up to you on foot in a public space, use the power of your voice. Turn around and yell, “I don’t know you! Why are you following me?” Make sure that others are within earshot, and can see that you are in distress. If you call attention to yourself, it will also call attention to the would-be harasser/attacker, which they definitely don’t want. Many victims of stalking would prefer not to have to “make a fuss,” but when someone systematically invades your personal space, you’ve got to assume the worst is yet to come, and get LOUD. If you make a mistake, so what ~ you probably won’t know, because the typical predator reaction is to deny that they were stalking you/harassing you/touching you in the first place. Picture a man’s hands going up in the air, saying, “Hey lady, calm down! Don’t flatter yourself, you crazy b____!” And fortunately it doesn’t happen that often, but wouldn’t you rather be called a crazy b for a moment, so you can get out of the situation safely? I know I would, and as you already know, I’ve already had to make that decision. Many times, standing up for ourselves is not easy at all, which is what a sexual harasser or would/be attacker knows and uses to his advantage. This isn’t a pleasant thought, and I certainly don’t advocate going around paranoid, but as women we’ve got to realize that there are malevolent individuals out that we need to be aware of, and act accordingly for our self-protection.
Targeting Women in Upper Washington Heights, and Inwood
As a longtime resident of Washington Heights, I had become almost inured to the constant reports of shootings, muggings and other random acts of violence which take place in my neighborhood every day. Until a few months ago, most of those attacks were drug-related, and happened quite a few blocks south of where I live. However, now it seems that attacks which specifically target women are on the rise, and happening right on my doorstep. This not-so-new danger has hampered women’s ability to come out and enjoy their neighborhood in the warmer weather, and to feel safe even in their own homes. The threat of violence is very real, as three sexual assaults have occurred within hours of each other here, over one brutal weekend. One woman was dragged into Dyckman Fields of Inwood Hill Park, another attack happened out on the street as the victim was walking on 184th Street and Bennett Avenue, and the third attack was in the woman’s apartment building, where she was dragged to a higher floor and sexually assaulted. From personal experience in this neighborhood, I’ve observed that although the 34th police precinct is only blocks away from where all of these attacks occurred, there is definitely not enough regular police presence on these streets.
I can personally attest to the fact that there is a quiet (read: desolate) nature to the residential sections here, which although happily removed from the bustle of downtown, can at times be oppressive and dangerous, and an invitation to crime. Just a few months ago, I myself was attacked by a group of male teenagers, who saw fit to punch me in the back of my head as I was entering the 181st Street subway stop, on my way to teach a Tai Chi class. At first, I felt like a glass bottle had been thrown at me, it was so hard, but then I quickly realized that it was the group of three “kids” standing across the street, laughing at me, while I stood there holding my head in pain. I yelled and in my rage, started to run after them, but it was probably a good thing that I couldn’t catch up to them. Moments later, another woman walking toward the station reported the same thing had just happened to her. I reported it to the police immediately, but they were never caught. I’m sad to say it, but there is definitely a problem in this neighborhood with violence that targets women.
Crimes of this nature are born of a predatory instinct married to opportunity, and if there are less cops on the beat, there is simply more of an opening to take advantage of a woman walking alone. In response to the heinous sexual attacks, and the outcry for more law enforcement, police have finally taken to the street in droves, handing out flyers with a profile sketch of the Inwood attacker, and they’ve also released a video of the man who attacked a woman in her building. But I and the other women in the neighborhood have been wondering how long this increase in numbers will last. It’s like using roach baits or a roach bomb to get rid of an infestation ~ when you stop putting the baits out, and your building still has them, the roach population will immediately bounce back, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a problem again. What we need is a stepped-up, long-term presence in this neighborhood to make it clear to attackers that they’re no longer operating in a safe environment to do their evil business. City Councilman Robert Jackson has formally requested just that in a letter to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and other elected officials have also joined their voices to the chorus of people calling for more protection. This is all a step in the right direction, but for the women who’ve already endured assault, way too late.
There are those who’ve responded to these crimes by saying that we should not focus on how women can avoid rape, but INSTEAD teach men not to harass or assault women. This is all very well and good for a long-term solution that has as it’s goal the total transformation of gender relationships, but the brutal fact is that rape has been used as a way of dominating women for millennia. Which is not to say that we should’nt raise our boys up to be respectful men, but for the protection of women NOW, we’ve got to keep our focus on personal self-defense and the support mechanisms in our society which can help keep us safe ~ with groups like the Inwood Safety Patrol, a volunteer pedestrian safety group, as well as more women willing and able to fight back against their aggressors. Whether we like it or not, we must take the necessary precautions to keep ourselves as safe as possible. And it’s NOT always possible, even when we take every precaution in the book, but we can drive down the odds that something bad will happen if we remain alert and sensitive to our surroundings. I agree that it’s a shame we are (again) placed in this defensive posture, but the cardinal rule of self-defense is awareness. And this means modifying you’re personal behavior to keep you from harm, like running in pairs, not jogging late at night, early in the morning, in desolate surroundings, etc. I know it’s not right, but we’ve got to do what’s necessary to fight again another day.
Sexual Harassment as a Daily Work Hazard
Imagine having a job that exposes you to sexual harassment everyday, merely because you are wearing a certain uniform ~ and probably not a very revealing one, either. It’s the symbolism of it, that seems to attract the unwanted attention. If you’re a maid, you might have to put up with all sorts of inappropriate behavior from your hotel guests. Just look at the major cases in the news lately ~ former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar, former chairman of Egypt’s Bank of Alexandria both accused of similarly heinous crimes involving maids. Both of them powerful men, who no doubt felt a sense of boundless entitlement, especially in the presence of a “lowly” maid.
And for the record, maids actually prefer to be called room attendants, and there are more than 10,000 of them working in New York City every day. Considering the way maids are still viewed by a certain segment of society, it’s probably a wise decision to distance oneself from that term. The maid profession and maids themselves have long been the object of sexual fantasy, and you can find myriad websites devoted to this fetish. Mostly the sexual images revolve around being a scantily-clad “French” maid, which would seem to preclude harassment of the modestly dressed, modern-day hotel worker. But erotic obsessions die hard, and this particular one is probably a throw-back to french theatrical farce. The master of the household would chase the maid around the bedroom, who would (of course) succumb to his advances, many times against her will.
This show of sexual dominance, in the form of a cat-and-mouse game, is still romanticized in popular culture. Go into any sex shop, and you’ll find racks of french maid outfits for role-play. And in movies and TV, there are plenty of examples of women getting into a maid costume to spice up their sex life, like in Friends with Money and 30 Rock, both with Jennifer Aniston. So the prevalence of these images, normalizing maids as sex objects, definitely does not serve the safety of room attendants.
Peter Ward, the president of the New York Hotel & Maid Trades Council, told The Wall Street Journal that while cases involving outright sexual assault are rare, sexual harassment is a daily hazard of the job. Room attendants often endure exhibitionism from male guests who decide to “surprise” them when they come in to clean the room. Propositioning is also a common problem, making workers feel degraded and unsafe. And there is something in the psychological set-up of it, of a woman coming into a man’s bedroom, that may subconsciously invite disaster: the bed is right there, the door may be locked behind you, and most hotel rooms are sound-proofed now. It’s a potentially dangerous work environment for women, and finally more is being done about it.
Legislation has been introduced to require New York State hotel owners to provide employee sexual harassment training, and establish a hotel employee bill of rights. It would also protect employees from retaliation if they speak up about abuses, which was a major reason why many room attendants did not come forward in the past. Many hotels are now issuing panic buttons as well, which will immediately alert hotel security of a threatening situation. It’s about time that the work force of room attendants, overwhelmingly female, can get the help they need to do their jobs in a safe and supportive work environment. It’s hard enough being the object of sexual harassment, merely because one is a woman in this world. It must be doubly hard when the image of your profession puts you at risk.
He said, She said, in New York City
This is the phrase most often used to describe the implied non-credibility of an allegation of sexual assault. It suggests that an accusation of this nature is either false, or dubious at the very least, because of a lack of evidence to the contrary. Now I must ask you, how many women throughout history have had to go through this special brand of humiliation after being targeted for attack? How many women do you personally know who have had to go through not just the trauma of the event itself, but then the callous aftermath? I know plenty, and thank the stars above that I was not numbered among them when I told my own story to law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office, back in September, and then the public, in November. But consider a recent event in our city:
A drunken woman was helped into her apartment by two New York City police officers, whom she later accused of raping her. Her incapacity aside, it was highly suspect for these two individuals to not only help her inside, but “cuddle” with her while she lay half-clothed in an altered state, and then to be seen (by security cameras) going back into her apartment no less than three times, with one of the officers accused of standing guard outside. Three times?!? I know I’m not alone in my disgust at this situation.
And say that the young woman did “come on” to one of the officers. We all know that inhibitions can slide when one is inebriated ~ but what were the officers’ excuses? As police officers, presumably in full control of their own faculties at the time, they needed to at the very least be concerned with even the appearanceof impropriety. In short, they left themselves open to this type of allegation by being alone with her, in the private confines of her apartment. So either A) The officers were obtuse beyond belief, or B) He/they did assault her. One of the officers did actually admit later in the trial to having protected sex with her, but witnesses who saw the young woman earlier in the evening said that she was extremely drunk and was not sober enough to consent to sex. In fraternity houses across the nation, there have always been young men who’ve seen fit to take advantage of their tipsy dates, and women know to be wary of going into a situation like that (which, by the way, still would not excuse an assault under those circumstances by one iota). But the young woman in question here was in the comfort and presumed safety of her own home. So what really happened here?
It seems to me, as well as prosecutors, that if she was that ill, an ambulance should have been called, or that EMS should have been present for the subsequent visits to her. While New York City police officers are highly capable in many respects, and do receive basic medical training, I think a hospital or at least a clinic would have been a safer environment in which to handle alcohol poisoning, if that was indeed the case.
I, as well as many others observing this case again feel afraid for being at the mercy of the “He said, She said,” and perhaps we will never know what really transpired. I know what I feel about it ~ and it’s not good. In my opinion, there is one more chance at justice here, with the woman’s $57 million dollar lawsuit against the city, and the officers.
By MELISSA FABELLO
A customer came in the other day and marveled at the fact that we got new company shirts. They say the name of the bar on the left side of the chest and our tagline on the back: worth the squeeze. I moved my hair out of the way so that he could examine the shirt, and he said to me, “I promise I’m not trying to check out your boob.” I laughed and said it was okay, and then I turned around to show him the back. “I bet you get a lot of comments about that,” he said. I rolled my eyes and said that yes, we do.
As I made him his smoothie, I started telling him about my time in India, about the instance when a man grabbed my ass on my way onto an auto-rickshaw, who then actually paid for my ride. I said that usually I wouldn’t have let someone pay for me, but I thought that a grope was worth the five rupees it cost to get from one major crossing to another.
When I handed him his drink, he started to pull out his credit card, which got a quizzical look from me. “Oh!” he said. “I already paid, didn’t I?” I told him that he had, but that if he wanted to pay me twice, I’d accept it. “I was so distracted thinking about groping you that I got confused,” he said.
At that moment, another customer walked in, holding one of our frequent buyer cards. “Groping? I’ve got a full punch card,” he said. “What can I get for that?” We all laughed, and the first customer walked out as I started to help the next customer, who is a regular.
“What was that about?” he asked. I explained the story. “That’s a little weird,” he said. “I mean, it was all a pretty normal, innocent conversation until he said he was thinking about groping you. That just took it to another level.”
Isn’t that the truth?
And this whole scenario, as well as others like it that occur at work, got me thinking about the concept of off-the-street harassment: when would-be street harassers come into a situation where they feel comfortable making lewd comments because the surroundings are different. For instance, maybe this man thought it was acceptable to joke about groping me because we were in the oh-so-intimate setting of me making him a smoothie. And I thought hard about my reaction: I had laughed it off, even though I was somewhat uncomfortable, but if someone had said that to me on the street, entirely unprovoked, I would have been livid. So what makes it different?
The same social injustices and power dynamics that cause street harassment cause sexual harassment in other arenas, too, and I think it’s time for us to take a stand against all of it. So the next time someone tells me that I am, indeed, “worth the squeeze,” my answer is going to be: Don’t talk to me like that.
We live in a world where pop icons make feminists furious. Straight from the pages of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and Susan J. Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, girls are constantly being fed an offensive image via music videos and lyrics: that women are supposed to be submissive, demure, and – above all! – sexy. So every once in a while, when a female artist makes a move (however small) toward making a statement, it should be commended.
So I’m here to talk about Ke$ha.
(I can hear you all booing already; hear me out.)
While Ke$ha might not be the poster child for appropriate behavior (anyone who’s seen her “TiK ToK” video can tell you that), she does arguably represent some facet of feminism: doing what she wants and not giving an F-U-C-K what anyone else things about it. But rather than starting a debate about whether or not Ke$ha’s party girl image represents feminism in a positive light, what I’d like to do is draw specific attention to one of the songs on her debut album, Animal, “Dinosaur.”
“Old man, why are you staring at me?” starts the catchy song. “Mack on me and my friends, it’s kind of creepy.” And while the song is specifically about older men looking for young girls, it speaks to street harassment in general with lines like “hitting on me – what?” and “come on, dude, leave us alone.”
As a high school teacher, I’ve overheard more than one female student quote the song and then turn to her friend like, “Seriously, why do they do that?” inadvertently inciting an entire conversation dedicated to the injustices of gender-based violence inextricably laced inside street harassment. They share stories, vent, and leave the conversation feeling justified and validated – this is a problem, and I’m not alone. And isn’t that what Hollaback! is all about?
Now, I’m a Ke$ha fan and will defend her to the death, but I think that even her haters have to admit that, with this track, she’s taking a step in the right direction.
Melissa A. Fabello lives in New England, where she volunteers for various feminist organizations and runs the lesbian blog and community ToughxCookies.
Dear Hollaback! Readers,
My name is Nicola Briggs, and many of you may have heard of me from this website. In late November of 2010, a video of me confronting a sexual predator on the subway was posted on YouTube, and Hollaback! published this video, which has now been seen by well over one million people. This recording, made by an anonymous bystander, was of a very intense and difficult moment for me. I had just realized that a man standing behind me had been trying to rub himself against me, and when I turned around, I saw that he was completely exposed, wearing a condom. At first, I thought I was seeing things, it was so surreal. “Could this stranger really be standing in front of me like that? This can’t be happening to me…” Then the creep tried to cover himself up with his messenger bag, but I needed to make sure I wasn’t going bonkers ~ so I grabbed the strap of his bag, and yanked it away from his body, and there it was again, in all it’s little glory.
When the perpetrator saw the expression on my face, he knew it was on, and hastily mumbled “I’m sorry.” But his sociopathic reaction, which showed no understanding whatsoever of the gravity of his actions, was the final catalyst for me to respond in the way I did. As many of you saw from the video, I announced to the entire subway car what he’d been doing, and let him know that he wouldn’t get away with it, and was going to prison. (Insert numerous expletives.) I also enlisted the support of other passengers to help me detain him, and shame him, all of us taking pictures with our cell phones. Upon exiting the train, the perpetrator was immediately arrested by transit police. He was then convicted, is now a registered sex offender for life, and was also deported at the end of his all-too-brief prison term.
Oh yes, oh fucking yes.
It’s about time that we show the sexual predators of the world that we will not accept “business as usual” anymore, and that we refuse to sit in silence and pain any longer, as we are victimized just because of our sex. When a woman is faced with someone trying to violate her personal boundaries, it is completely appropriate that she raise her voice and GET LOUD. In fact, her physical, psychological, and spiritual survival depend upon it. I’m writing you now to encourage you on that path ~ and to let you know that I’d like to share alternative ways of successfully defending yourself, if and when the need arises. I’ll be writing a weekly column, called Nicola’s Got Nerve, which will be a frank discussion of street harassment, dominance, awareness, and methods of self-defense for women in public. It will be a supportive forum where you can ask me questions, and where I will address your concerns about traveling through the city in safety and with confidence. My years as a Tai Chi instructor, and the fact that I’m only 5’ tall (and won’t take crap from anybody!) have prepared me well for this moment in my life. I hope to share with you what I’ve learned on my own journey, to make yours easier, and look forward to getting to know you!
Peace and Balance,
To submit a question to Nicola for next Monday’s post, please email it to her here.
Toronto Police representative Michael Sanguinetti’s words of wisdom to students at York University in January that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” was the basis for Sunday’s inaugural “SlutWalk,” drawing close to 1000 men and women fed up with institutionalized victim-blaming and shaming.
From the SlutWalk site:
Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated.
Watch MoxNews.com’s report here:
In a post yesterday about New York Times’ coverage of the corpses found on Long Island and the ongoing search for a missing woman, we looked at how reporters Joseph Goldstein and Tim Stelloh’s use of “missing prostitute” instead of “missing woman” in their lead sentence subtly casts a non-unbiased view on the article from the get-go, identifying the missing woman by her profession without good reason to do so.
CNN.com also reported on the crimes, using “four dead prostitutes” in their second paragraph prematurely before explaining how police believe the bodies are connected and why the women’s professions need be mentioned.
We are happy to report that CNN.com HAS CHANGED this sentence and it now reads “four corpses”.
Thank you, CNN, for fair coverage of a tragic story as it unfolds, and your prompt remedy of a careless mistake.
Update: Associated Press released an article by Frank Eltman, who goes hog wild with the word “prostitute,” which FoxNews.com appropriated and elevated to an even higher level of sleaziness by changing its headline to include the word yet one more time where it wasn’t already. Our favorite line, though, is this one:
“The four dead prostitutes were found amid a 4-foot-tall tangle of sea grass punctuated by scrubby pine trees.”
Four dead prostitutes…is that like three blind mice and four calling birds and two turtle doves?? Scrubby pine trees? How many?
You would think the most important part of this whole story is that the women involved sold sex for money, not that there is a serial killer on the loose whose private activities—we’re willing to bet—are gravely more controversial.
I want to ask if you have a category for non-gender/sexuality based harassment? Because I’ve seen a lot of the same general kind of power dynamic in the verbal harassment given by some able-bodied people to people in wheelchairs, people on crutches (except if it looks obviously temporary, like a leg in a cast), people with visible challenges of cognitive function, people with speech issues.
Is there a Hollaback for those folks? Because some of those stories need to be told, too.
Thanks for your awesome question! We totally accept and welcome stories about street harassment in all its forms. While we focus on sex and gender based harassment, we know that street harassment is one of the most basic ways our culture keeps oppressed people of all kinds down, and that we are all in it together. We’re basically interested in the way power dynamics play out in all aspects of life in the public realm.
In terms of other resources that are more specifically geared toward people that are visibly physically challenged check out our friend Eva’s blog that focuses on the way people treat her as someone who’s physically disabled. It’s an amazing blog!