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BY KC WAGNER AND EMILY MAY, reposted from Women’s eNews.
The community around fighting street harassment is growing stronger and has pointed to its pervasiveness. K.C. Wagner and Emily May say more research is needed to lay the groundwork necessary to end this type of harassment.
(WOMENSENEWS)–The rape allegations against former International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and now Egyptian former bank chair Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar by two hotel maids have refocused the world’s attention on the risks that women face by going to work.
Comments about someone’s body, assumptions based on race or sexuality, inappropriate touching, gestures, or sexual requests–it seems that everyone either has a story or knows someone that does. And we never know when these situations will escalate.
As egregious as the allegations are against Strauss-Kahn and Omar, there’s a fundamental difference between harassment in the past and today. Today, a name exists for what has happened, systems of accountability are in place and laws protect those who are victimized.
Even this limited progress has not extended to the streets though. Today a silent epidemic rages on. Street harassment–or sexual harassment in public spaces–is fast becoming the flashpoint issue for an emerging generation of activists, just as workplace harassment was in 1980s. And like in the 1980s, a solid coordination of activism, research and analysis is needed to move street harassment from the background to the forefront.
In 1991, when the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas case captured the public’s attention about “sexual harassment,” activists, academics, legal scholars, legislators and practitioners had been at least a decade “in the trenches.” They had already been developing vehicles for women’s voices across the country, analyzing crisis counseling and hotline records, conducting scientifically based studies and writing academic articles, articulating a feminist jurisprudence, defending women in court and beginning to influence workplace prevention and policies and challenging workplace norms. A strong platform from this decade of academic and activist work was in place to challenge the victim-blaming and vilification of Hill and to continue the fight.
Street harassment is no different than workplace harassment in its purpose and its effect. It is meant to put victims in their place, to remind them that they are objects and that their safety is a privilege, not a right. As a result, people change jobs, leave apartments or whole cities and suffer long-term stress and anxiety orders.
Now young activists internationally, at nonprofits such as Hollaback! and in projects such as Stop Street Harassment, Blank Noise Project and WomenSpeak, are beginning to stand up and say “no more.”
In 2005, a group of young friends, men and women from ages 21 to 24, were telling their stories of street harassment. When they walked alone, they felt vulnerable and powerless; when they would yell at the instigators of the harassment, the situation escalated; police did not seem to respond to their concerns. One of the men in the group said to his female friends: “You live in a different New York City than we do.”
They did what many youth would do when faced with a similar challenge: they started a blog. Called Hollaback!, it was intended to bring awareness to street harassment. They were quickly inundated by others’ stories and supporters. Today 24 Hollaback! sites are up and running, from Croatia to Argentina to Atlanta. This newly forming community of voices combines story-telling with on-the-ground activism. And with coverage in The New York Times, the BBC and NPR in the past year, the world is clearly listening. We believe the time is right to tackle this long overdue issue once and for all.
However, the leaders of the movement to end street harassment face a challenge similar to the early days of the workplace harassment movement: little data.
Activists working to end street harassment have responded by collecting crowd-sourced data. With the more than 2,000 stories collected and mapped on ihollaback.org through Hollaback!’s iPhone and Droid applications, we know that no one is alone in his or her experiences. Street harassment impacts young women in particular, with factors like race and sexuality tending to increase the frequency and severity of the harassment. A study conducted through an online survey tool by Holly Kearl, published in her 2010 book “Stop Street Harassment,” indicates that between 80-100 percent of women have been harassed at some point during their lives.
But knowing that crowd-sourced data is self-selecting and cannot paint a broader, more complete picture, street harassment activists are asking for more.
In October 2010, over 100 activists crowded into a standing-room-only city council room at New York City’s first ever hearing on street harassment, hosted by Councilmember Julissa Ferrarras, and sounded a call for more research.
During the hearing, advocates called for a study that would produce the data needed to address street harassment in New York City. The study would look at the long-term impact of street harassment and the effectiveness of both formal and informal solutions in making people feel safer in their communities.
It would be the first of its kind at a time when governments internationally are searching for solutions. In this ever-tightening budget year, a study on street harassment is a relatively inexpensive method for New York City to lead the way. More important, such research provides an opportunity to provide concrete solutions to a deep-seated social issue.
Street harassment activists know they have many more battles ahead. But research is a critical early step as it allows us to move this issue from an individual to a collective experience. If we wait, we fear that yet another generation will have to endure the same harassing experiences.
Now is the time for City Council to take this small first step toward a day when street harassment is taken as seriously as workplace sexist behavior.
BY EMILY MAY
As a quick look at our global network of 24 sites will show you, street harassment is a global problem. Too often, governments are afraid to tackle it and resign themselves to tired old idea that there is nothing you can do about it. But not the UN. They are taking it on head first, UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet said:
Women, youth and children — especially girls — face particular risks in [cities]. Whether on city streets, public transport or in their own neighbourhoods, they are subject to abuse ranging from harassment to sexual assault and rape. This daily reality limits their freedom to participate in education, work, recreation, and in political and economic life — or to simply enjoy their neighbourhoods.
On July 1st I’ll be heading to UN Women’s Safe Cities Conference in Cairo, Egypt. The Safe Cities project has been doing some amazing work in five cities around the world, and now they are partnering with UNICEF and UN-HABITAT to expand this project to 20 cities internationally. From their site:
Potential interventions may include:
- Enabling women and young people to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives such as decisions on budgets and local infrastructure
- Establishing female councillor-led committees for effective response to sexual violence and crimes in communities
- Increasing street lights in high-risk areas, including the use of solar lights which are cost-effective and more resilient to damage and vandalism
- Training of community police units to prevent gender-based violence
The five-year initiative will be piloted with municipal leaders. Dushanbe, Greater Beirut, Metro Manila, Marrakesh, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, San José and Tegucigalpa are among the cities currently being considered.
Sounds amazing, right? But wait for it: it gets better. From UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet:
We will also promote data collection, build baselines and develop indicators through women- and youth-led initiatives and innovative efforts, such as mapping through text messaging and the use of Geographic Information Systems in women’s, youth and child safety audits.
Yes. You are not dreaming. The UN is looking into launching women and youth-led crowd-sourced data collection to incidences of harassment and assault!
We will keep you posted on the progress. But suffice it to say, we are oh-so-excited.
BY ALEX ALSTON
When we think of the great social movements of the twentieth century we often think of the great icons that appeared at the helms of these struggles. A charismatic preacher from Montgomery who had a dream, a Catholic commander-in-chief who asked us to ask ourselves what we could for our country, or a revolutionary journalist who told us women needed men as much as fish needed bicycles. From Angela Davis to Allen Ginsberg, we have no shortage of heroes and heroines to look back on. By the same token, when we think of these great movements and these icons, we can’t help but think of the historic protests they orchestrated: Greensboro’s first sit-in, the Stonewall Riots, draft card burnings at UC-Berkeley, the list goes on and on. From Mississippi to Vietnam and back our national memory is full of battlegrounds, theaters for resistance, and the stories they still tell unto this day. But as we look toward the future, we would do well to remember the cornerstones of these movements, the foundations for past protest. It has always, and will continue to be a reality that a movement will only ever be as grand, as powerful, as inevitable, as its stories.
As moving as a speech might be, or as crippling as boycott may become, only a story can harness the power, the passion, and the pain of a movement. As the NYPD quelled the uprising outside of Stonewall on that fateful summer night in 1969 with brute and hateful force, they were not aware that for every blow they dealt, a story was being beaten out of the long-oppressed LGBTQ community. When Bull Connor’s vicious police dogs and firehoses bore down on the child marchers in Birmingham, he had no clue that in killing this march, he was helping the blacks of the Deep South give birth to a story. These were stories that would be broadcast to the corners of the world. Ultimately the oppressor’s hand can only be forced in accordance with the proliferation of injustices. You see silence, is a movement’s greatest enemy.
And so I implore you, all of you, to never stop telling your stories. It is with our stories that we will speak back to and against oppression. It is with out stories that we will change the world. We cannot afford to keep quiet any longer.
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.
When I was 15 years old, I was volunteering in a soup kitchen, and got in a conversation with a particularly kind older man. He was eating a piece of slightly burnt garlic bread and drinking lukewarm water out of a used yogurt cup, and as I sat there, he told me that he believed in my potential and that he saw hope for a bright future ahead of me. Tragically, this same man also told me that he did not have any hope left for himself.
After an hour of speaking with him, I excused myself to go to the bathroom. And I started to cry. Angry, uncontrollable tears. This world, his fate, seemed so unfair to me. Here he was in a soup kitchen and there I was, never having to worry about where my next meal was coming from. And while I got in my car to drive home. He would come back tomorrow. Still hungry, still with this sense of hopelessness.
It was the first time I had to reconcile our country’s great creed, with our country’s harsh realities. Right here in the land of the free, right here in the home of the brave, this man had fallen so far that he couldn’t see his way out. And yet when I looked around in this face of this tragedy– the world kept driving, kept eating, kept laughing like it wasn’t happening. Like it was his pain, not all of our pain. And that really ticked me off.
My mom – the ever resourceful librarian – picked up on my developing sense of justice and directed me towards books about the turbulent sixties. I read them eagerly. The marches, the protests, Woodstock, Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinum, Rosa Parks, Vietnam. I started to see a world full of problems, a world full of injustice – from sexual violence, to war, and poverty and racism.
And I couldn’t help but to think: WHERE ARE MY GENERATION’S GREAT LEADERS?
I am here today to tell you I was looking in the wrong place.
My generations great leaders are re-wired, re-configured, and de-centralized. You see — technology fundamentally changed the way we work. Fads move faster. Information moves faster. Culture moves faster.
Today if you make the mistake of looking for leadership that resembles these great women and men of the past, you might think Lady Gaga or Ashton Kutcher is the best my generation can muster.
But Don’t let the news fool you. There is a lot more to my generation. You see, in the days before the internet, there was only one mic, one podium, one speaker. But now, thanks to the proliferation of blogging and social media everyone has a mic, we can all speak. It’s no longer about who speaks the loudest, or who rules the airwaves. We can all have voices. And I honestly believe that this is changing the way that movements happen.
I want to talk with you today about one movement – the movement to end street harassment – and more specifically my organization – Hollaback.
For those of you that have never heard of the term, street harassment is sexual harassment in public space. It includes verbal and nonverbal harassment, stalking, groping, and public masturbation. Street harassment unfairly targets young people, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) folks, and people of color. It is the most persistent and pervasive form of gender-based violence.
On our site, at ihollaback.org, we document stories of street harassment.
Just this week, we got a story from a girl named Kate. Kate and her friend Mia were grabbed from behind by a jogger. Kate was grabbed by the breast and choked as she began to fight back. “Get the fuck away from me!” she screamed. After the assailant let her go, he began sauntering as if he had done nothing wrong.
We also got a story from Kristin in San Francisco. Kristen was on a crowded bus when she felt a perpetrator’s genitals moving up and down on her thigh. As she moved away the larger man followed her, forcing her to get off at the nearest stop. Kristin now suffers from anxiety attacks.
And when a 16 year-old back in New York saw a man exposing himself to her she said, “I’ve been thinking about it, trying to forget about it because Idon’t want this to ruin my life. I keep saying to myself, ‘it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen’; however, as I type this I’m beginning to realize, ‘yes, it really did.’”
In the words of Chitra Nagarajan, the Director at Gender Action for Peace and Security, “you are either at the table, or you are on the menu.”
But historically an invitation to the table has only been handed to an elite few. A quick look at our presidents show mostly white, all male. A scan of Fortune 500 CEO’s shows that 5 are African American, four are Latino, and there are only 14 women. Out of 500 CEOs.
My parents generation broke glass ceilings and my generation has been left to climb through glass chards. What we thought was a world of opportunity turned out to be a bloody mess so, – a few of us gave up on waiting to be invited to sit at the table. And we started to build our own damn table.
The story of Hollaback begins in 2005, around the same time that cell phone cameras and blogs hit the mainstream. We were a group of friends – both men and women – and we were fed up with street harassment. We were specifically fed up with not having a response. When we walked on, we felt weak. When we yelled at guys the situation escalated. The police didn’t care.
So, using our cell phone camera and the free blogger platform, we started snapping photos and blogging our experiences to bring awareness to what was happening to us.
Low and behold, what was happening us, was happening to people around the world. In the US it’s called “cat-calls,” “in India it’s called ‘eve-teasing’” and in most Spanish speaking countries it’s called piropos. But no matter where you are the world, street harassment leaves you feeling degraded and scared to walk freely in your own community.
Hollaback is a hyper-local, hyper-personal response to a global issue – so, to address it we build a global community. We moved everyone onto the same wordpress platform, gave everyone complete control over their blogs, their projects, their media, their social media – and we connected through a listserve, and started provided trainings and running campaigns together. In short, we built a big, fat, table. And everyone is invited.
And what we’ve seen is that the people who don’t have traditional access to leadership – i.e. the people who aren’t usually invited to the table, are the people who are leading the movement to end street harassment. Our site leaders are 44% LGBTQ, 26% people of color, and 75% under the age of 30. These aren’t just the leaders of the movement to end street harassment. If we’ve built this table as well as we think we have– these will be the next leaders of the world.
Now, I know what we’re doing right now looks a lot like leadership of the past I’m one girl up here with a mic. But I want to be dead clear on this: it is our site leaders, not me, who are making this a movement.
Because let’s face it: I’m an English speaking, 30 year old, white girl. And I can’t represent anything other than my experiences – and you may or may not relate to them. There are some people in this room right now who thinking I’m rocking it now. Some of you thought the guy before me was way better. And some of you are just waiting for happy hour. I’m not going to hit the soul-chords of all of you, it’s just not possible.
But, with 100 site leaders in 38 cities in 14 countries speaking 8 languages — I’d be willing to bet you that one of them will totally knock your socks off. One of them will inspire you to actually sit at our table, to rethink your assumptions, and to hope for a world without street-harassment. As our website will tell you, that’s not the world we’re living in now.
But the beauty of movement building on the web is that everyone has a voice, an audience, for their triumphs as well as their tragedies. And sure, you still have to pick who you sit next to at this big fat table, just like you have to pick who you want to follow on twitter. But don’t worry, you can change your mind and move seats. The important thing is that you’re here. And you’re speaking.
AND THIS change in the way we lead – is changing the way we change the world.
So come. Sit with us. Hostess gifts are tax deductible and welcome, but not required. Just know that at our table you’ll have some the best conversations of your life, you won’t have to scream or shout, and you’ll always have a mic, and you’ll be sitting right next to some of our generation’s greatest leaders.
Join us. And thank you.
Our site in Tegus, Honduras organized a slutwalk in Tegucigalpa — and here are the inspiring results.
BY AISHA ZAKIRA, Director of Hollaback! Mumbai. (This piece is cross-posted from Hollaback Mumbai)
Our apologies for all the quiet on our end, but we’re back and ready for some serious snap, crackle and pop – HOLLAstyle. We have a lot coming up, but first, we wanted to talk about Umang Sabarwal’s initiation of SlutWalk Delhi, and the issues surrounding the first Asian protest of the movement against the belief that any aspect of a woman’s appearance might explain or excuse sexual violence. It’s an incredibly bold move. And before I start my spiel, I should say that my hat is off to Ms. Sabarwal for this incredibly brave leap of faith.
When a movement that was initiated in a Western country is brought to India, there will be an inevitable mélange of frenzied backlash, unbridled fervor and everything in between. Many a raised eyebrow have I seen. The main issue reiterated by the media is the use of the word ‘slut’ in the Indian context. As journalist Annie Zaidi said “on the street, it’s never thrown at you. You’re never called a ‘slut.’ It’s hard to reclaim a word that isn’t used.” She is absolutely right. The word is generally understood and used by those in the upper echelons of society who have a closer proximity to western culture. It isn’t like verbal expression isn’t used in the wide and wonderful spectrum of harassment (earlier today I was harassed by a group of men, one of whom called me a baigan, an eggplant) but the focus is generally on a woman’s body as a commodity in the present tense, rather than on her sexual history. It often feels like the focus is on how your body will be used, not how it has been used.
Moreover, SlutWalk is primarily about the desire to dress as one pleases, an issue that is often seen as irrelevant to the vast majority of Indian women in the face of more salient issues like basic workplace safety. The concern is that this will be a space accessible to wealthy women, but ideologically closed to women from every other strata of society. I also wonder about the accessibility of SlutWalk in a culture in which the honor and the – dare I say it? – morality of a woman is inextricably linked to the honor of her family and her community. I am concerned about the number of women who will not participate in SlutWalk out of fear of backlash from family and the wider community. To walk in public protest against attitudes that are so deeply ingrained into society is groundbreaking, but who has the power and space to actually participate? Will it be that the only women who can participate are those who have the economically privileged space to do so? What will that mean for those who do not feel they can participate? Journalist Bishakha De Sarkar argues that there is no reason why we can’t have many movements at different levels of society. I’m with her here; I do believe that different initiatives can act as threads that intertwine to form a stronger rope. My only concern is if one of the opening initiatives in this movement makes many women feel alienated from this discussion, then are we shooting ourselves in the foot from the get go?
I think SlutWalk needs to be one thread of a multi-stranded rope. It needs to take place in tandem with other movements to give all women a number of options by which to make noise about harassment. SlutWalk is an incredible movement, but all movements need to be localized. They need to speak to the needs of people in different cultures and contexts so that they can be as useful as possible.
But even if SlutWalk is not localized in name, the movement is ultimately about fighting the attitude that perpetuates harassment. I keep coming back to a quote from Umang Sabarwal, “the way the men look at you, you feel like meat.” This is what it comes down to: feeling like meat. Feeling ashamed and powerless. Feeling like you are not the sum of your ideals, your opinions, your experiences and whatever else you decide, you are just the capacity of your physical body as a sexual object. India is too quiet about street harassment. The world is too quiet about street harassment. And even though SlutWalk is primarily focused on women being able to wear what we want without fear of harassment or abuse, I have a feeling that Sabarwal would remind us that this is one aspect of a wider struggle against the attitude that says that women are less than, and should stay that way. For this reason, I’m all about SlutWalk Delhi. There are issues with this, but we need to start somewhere, and the prospect of women taking to the streets of India’s capital in protest of an attitude that has for centuries served to silence is undoubtedly a beautiful beginning.
Last Saturday, on June 11th, the Lesbian Group Kontra, Iskorak and Domine (an NGO) organized the first Gay Pride in Split, Croatia. The theme of was the right for the protection of same-sex couples’ family life. Around the 150 – 200 pride parade participants between 8000 – 10000 people gathered and proceeded to insult, threaten, and throw various objects and tear gas at the participants. Approximately 600 police officers were on duty, but they didn’t stop the insults and throwing of objects that have hurt several participants. Before and after Gay Pride several hate groups have organized throughout Croatia, threatening the LGBTIQ folks using public signs and the internet, and now they are calling for a new wave of violence at the Gay Pride that will take place this Saturday in Zagreb. The safety of LGBTIQ folks in public spaces in Croatia is currently under question.
TO THE ORGANIZERS OF GAY PRIDE IN ZAGREB AND SPLIT
HOLLABACK! and the global Hollaback! community wishes to express its support to all organizers and participants of Gay Prides in Split and Zagreb. The Gay Prides represent a peaceful civil gathering aimed at raising awareness of the discrimination against LGBTIQ people and fighting against the discrimination.
HOLLABACK shares with the Gay Pride organizers the goal of making public spaces free of violence and safe for all people, where everybody is able to fulfil their right for a peaceful public gathering and statement of their causes.
We condemn the violence against the Gay Pride participants in Split and all other types of violence in public spaces, and ask authorities to carry out their duties in the same, responsible way for all citizens, as well as to secure public space for everybody, regardless of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race, beliefs or any other.
Please show your support for Hollaback! Croatia by leaving a comment on their blog.
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.
Q. Catcalled: What would you say to a young women who gets catcalled often during the summer? I live in the city, and as the weather gets warmer, catcalling gets more frequent. Although I dress normally (typically shorts and a blouse in the summer), I find that I’m yelled at by old men and young men, standing on corners, driving by me, etc. It makes me tense, and now when I walk down the street, I see every man as a potential threat. It’s annoying and demeaning, but I know I can’t haul every weirdo on the street to a sensitivity class. How should I deal?
A: Wait, my dear, just wait. When I walk down the street with my lovely teenage daughter, men passing in trucks will honk their horns and make appreciative kissing sounds at her. They apparently think the prune standing next to her is deaf as well as old. Yet, their catcalls spark a vestigial memory in me—a couple of decades ago I used to hear vocal judgments from men. At the time it was annoying. Yet given their absence, I have to admit it wasn’t all bad.Since today is apparently the “men are pigs” day at the chat, this also falls in the category of there’s nothing you can do but ignore it. And maybe a catcall is better than finding you’re being photographed and your image swapped around by horny married men.