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LGBT STREET HARASSMENT: A THREAT TO PHYSICAL SAFETY
“Faggot!” (Just ignore them.) “HEY! FAGGOTS!!” (Ok. I guess we should have known better, we shouldn’t be kissing outside.) “I like your watch, fag.” (Please don’t take my watch. Uh oh, they got his phone already! Where did all these other guys come from?)
My friend Rob recently told me how he was street harassed in France last year. A group of men targeted him with antigay slurs, and then immediately escalated into physically attacking Rob, hitting him on the back of his head and trying to pull his watch off of his wrist.
Unfortunately, this is a common pattern, because all forms of street harassment are a type of violence. For people who think it’s alright to invade another’s space with verbal street harassment, it can be a short step to a physical street harassment attack. What do these different types of attacks have in common? They all serve the purpose of making the target feel scared or uncomfortable, and making the harasser feel powerful. Street harassment is about intimidation— putting someone “in their place.”
Many LGBT people have experienced street harassment based on how their sexual orientation or gender is perceived. When an LGBT individual is harassed in this way, the harasser’s message is clear: “You don’t belong here, and this is not your street. I can enter into your space and deny your safety, because you do not fit my personal expectation of sexual orientation/gender.” This denial of the right to exist in public space is directly related to the physical safety of LGBT people.
In New York City, we have seen a scary rise in gay bias-related crimes in 2013, all beginning with street harassment. There was a murder in Greenwich Village earlier this earlier this year, as well as several additional attacks. These hate crimes impact the entire community, laying out a blanket of ever-present discomfort and anxiety. As Jae Cameron of Hollaback! described it,
just as I begin to shake off that sense of self-consciousness and dread that follows me into public spaces, I hear it….just what I’ve been expecting, a shout from the other end of the bar, “sweet, lesbians!”, followed by the usual personal space violation and an unrequested “can I join in?”
The good news is that you can help your public spaces be more LGBT safe. One way you can do this is to take the bystander pledge, and learn how to safely intervene when you see harassment happening. Feeling energetic? Join us in this year’s pride parade – we will have streamers! Let’s make our streets safe and fun for everyone.
Elizabeth Swearingen, a university student in New York City, recently made a film about street harassment featuring Hollaback. As part an assignment for her Feminism, New Media and Health class, Elizabeth created the short documentary to share her own experiences which also reflect the experiences of so many Hollabackers worldwide. Thank you Elizabeth!
I was surprised yet pleased to find that a site such as this exists. I have been experiencing street harassment all my life. It almost seems normal. From the time I turned 13 I’ve had to put up with cat calls. I’d hear them every day on my way walking home from school. I’d meet the same people and hear the same calls. ‘My sexy bow foot friend’ was usually the annoying mantra I endured for years at school. It still continues to date. Whenever I pass guys on the street, I hear ridiculous statements and lame pick up lines. It happens to all women everywhere. I try my best to ignore only to be cursed, called unmannerly and rude names when I don’t respond. If I’m in a bad mood, I snap and curse back. In a few cases, this has caused the other guys watching the exchange to laugh at me and further cursing from the offender. Feels like there’s no option out of this treatment. I just feel like a victim. Besides this street harassment, there have been several instances where I have been walking along a not so busy street and had a car slow down next to me and some idiot try to pick me up. Refuse to drive off even when I try their advances. This usually happens when its dark outside. The streets are well lit but it doesn’t help me feeling violated when it happens. Whenever it does, I wonder what if the guy doubles back and tries to kidnap me. On one occasion, I was on the bus coming home after dark from university. There was this guy who was not from my country I could tell from my skin colour and hair who kept staring at me. It was the second time I caught the bus and noticed the same guy staring. I got off the bus alone and started walking up a short hill to my home. I turned around and saw this guy following me. He was staring directly at me each time I checked. After a few minutes, I saw him make a turn behind me and disappear. I made it home safe but I was still very fearful. Since that night, I stopped catching the bus late at night and got a ride instead. I have not seen the creep since, not even during the day. I’ve lived in this same area for 24 years and have never seen this guy except that night. He does not live in my area. I believe that if I continued to ride the bus, the guy would have continued to stalk and tried to rape me. Another instance on the bus, I was sitting next to this jerk who was trying to chat me up. I ignored his advances and later got up and moved further down in the bus only to hear even more jeering. His friends also in the front of bus laughed out loud to every rude statement. There was a comment that women of my complexion have foul smelling vaginas. A few other women looked embarrassed but did nothing. I don’t blame them. Don’t think I would be brave enough to make a stance either. Luckily they got off shortly with even more rude statements, laughing and glances at me for my reaction. Maybe I stop catching the bus for I have just one instance to share which occurred there. Found myself sitting next to a middle aged fat guy who propositioned me to spend a day with him and he’d pay me as much as I get at work. I also get these propositions while walking the street. I work in the heart of town and one night the taxi while is usually on time was 30 minutes late. Every guy/group of guys had a dirty comment to make as they passed. I felt like I was losing a part of me with every comment. A bit of my happiness and piece of mind drifting away. I am fed up with feeling so alone and helpless just walking ordinarily and dressed ordinarily. What do guys think will happen if I or any other woman responds to their dirty comment? It certainly won’t land them in bed. Just go away jerks.
By Sarah Merriman
As in most countries across the world, Russia has been conservative in its’ approach to stopping street harassment. Now, however, that’s finally changing.
Thanks to the guerrilla efforts of RosNahal, an anti-sexism group, the current ruling party of Russia seems to have realized the damaging effects that street harassment has on women in their cities. RosNahal recently released a video that depicts acts of street harassment to expose its’ aggressive and hurtful nature; and this time, activism worked.
Though a fine for harassers is still in the discussion stages and the harassment must be documented, this is a huge step in Russia, a country where there is no law against verbal harassment in the workplace or otherwise. The possible law is also potentially revolutionary on the global stage.
The Duma (Russia’s legislative body) is taking more of a feminist stance on harassment than most countries. The path to formalized legislative support appears to be informal proof that street harassment compromises women’s safety. Hollaback! is encouraging that “proof” through video and text documentation every day. In Belgium, a fine was just instated for harassers after a woman documented her “day of harassment;” and recently Saudi Arabia outlawed harassment. Slowly legislation and daily realities are beginning to match up.
We shouldn’t have to work so hard prove that a phenomenon which has been happening to our grandmothers, mothers, and now our daughters and friends is truly threatening. As long as we do though, we can continue to fight for breakthroughs such as Russia’s where the actions of our lawmaking bodies match women’s need for everyday safety.
For the full story on RosNahal, click here.
This blog, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series on perspectives about street harassment.
A man asked me the other day, upon learning of my years of training in Tai Chi movement and meditation, “Do you know how to fight?” I told him that I would do anything I had to in order to secure my physical and psychological safety in that moment, and so would anyone else with a healthy appetite for life, and that I’ve devoted more time developing training and awareness in that area than the average person. I think he may have been disappointed in this response, perhaps expecting me to flip him over my shoulder and prove myself to him, but I wanted to make clear the implications of what he was asking.
Do I have a repertoire of techniques practiced over many years which have become instinctual by now? Yes. Do I, or does anyone else truly have what it takes to react fluidly and appropriately the moment danger is there? Hopefully, yes. But even people with many years of training in this arena can freeze, so anyone without that training has got to realize that the equalizing factor in that type of stressful situation is not necessarily experience, but mindset.
Having what it takes to survive and even take control of a threatening situation is a matter of mental preparation. This doesn’t mean that you’re looking around every corner or over your shoulder all the time in a paranoid way. It just means that you know yourself, and that you’re willing to get in touch with something I like to call your ‘Inner Tiger,’ if necessary, which I’ll explain further in future postings. It also means you are willing to become even more open to the signals that your environment is sending you at every moment: who is close to you, who has their eyes on you, and what is the nature of their intention? Only an increased sensitivity to your surroundings will provide you with the correct answers to those critical questions, and ultimately give you the best chance of staying out of harm’s way.
This post, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series of posts that we call Nicola’s Got Nerve. You may remember Nicola from this incident caught on camera which was viewed by more than 1.5 million people and which sparked outrage from all corners of the globe, bringing street harassment to the forefront of women’s rights issues. We admire’s Nicola’s ability to turn a traumatic event into focused action through writing and activism, and we think you will too.
Let’s consider this word in all its power for a moment, not only by looking at the first Merriam-Webster definition, “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse,” but by another entry, which terms it as an “intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force.” The first one underscores the physicality of the act, but the second one gets to the heart of both definitions, with the word destructive. I think most people wouldn’t hesitate to agree that sexually abusing another person is a deeply abusive and destructive act; but if this is really the consensus of our society, why then the confusion in the court system today?
Recently, the New York State Court of Appeals dealt a real victory to what law enforcement terms, “subway grinders,” by allowing another abuser, Jason Mack, to get off almost scott-free for his masturbating against a 14-year-old girl on a packed subway car in 2002. The Court of Appeals ruled that the perpetrator could not be charged with a felony as the action itself wasn’t deemed “violent.” Because the amount of physical pressure applied to another person’s body during a sexually abusive act like rubbing or fondling is “soft,” or “gentle,” does that mean that it isn’t a violent act? This justification is incredible, especially to anyone who has ever been the target of such abusive behavior. In fact, what Mack and others like him have done can actually be considered violent on more than one level: Physically: Doing this to someone on a crowded train, bus, etc. without another’s consent makes the action possible in the first place, especially if one cannot move away from the abuser. Emotionally: Whether the victim knows what is happening at the moment of the abuse, or when she sees her stained clothing in the aftermath. And finally, spiritually: Most targets of sexual violence do not feel comfortable coming forward and speaking about the experience, either to law enforcement or even their own families. Doing so can bring stigma and shame which in many instances, a woman or girl can carry with her the rest of her life, with serious effects to her self-esteem. To argue against any of these known facts is to turn away from the victim’s experience without empathy.
By international human rights standards, violence against women not only comprises obvious behaviors such as battering, but also includes acts of sexual abuse, whether perpetrated behind closed doors or inflicted out on the street. Why then, at the state level, are we once again parsing words? We, as a culture, continue to dance around the fact that sexual abuse, in the forms of street harassment, and most virulently, unwanted sexual contact with another individual, is at the core a deeply rage-filled, anti-social act designed either consciously or unconsciously to strip the target of dignity, power, and worth as another human being. To use someone like an object, in an abusive manner, is the very portrait of violence. And I believe that to ignore the fact that the vast majority of offenders are men, and that the victims of these crimes are women, points out the glaring sex bias in the court system. If the Court of Appeals has effectively taken the teeth out of prosecuting a sex abuser, what hope does society have to send a message to avert these traumatic situations in the future?
Violence. We, as Americans, have got to expand our understanding of this word to encompass the full definition of it, if we want to truly say that our great, shining society does not, in fact, condone violence against women.
The world is watching.
Sharing Hollaback’s! mission and encouraging the Save Club (Student Againts Violent Experiences) at Lompoc High School to be active bystanders in their school and community.
BY REBECCA KATHERINE HIRSCH
So, SlutWalk. A movement whose name makes me cringe. I joined SlutWalk for the same reason I join many things: Desire, fear, half-conscious longing for union. But let’s zone in on that FEAR. Fear of what? Fear of oneself? Well, yeah, sure, but what else? Fear of… Dudes.
Yeah. Dudes. The men people. The ones with the power. The ones whose power has been socially encouraged to be insecurely felt and hence violently expressed.
But wait! Not all men are repulsive, sleazy, insidiously creepy wannabe he-men, evil warring rapist babies with penises made out of spikes! That would be crazy! But that’s how society presented them to me! (And now, whenever I consort with a fellow who’s aware of his socialization and curious to know about social constructs and his personal history and sources that inspired adherence to “male” stereotyped behavior, I just fall over backwards and say Let’s have open-minded, potentially non-gender-normative sex! Or no? You’re not into that? Ok, let’s do it the boring way! So long as it’s consensual, no expression of sexuality is perverse!) Too many men are manipulated into the pervasive idea that male power is in need of constant re-affirmation. Their defensiveness is metastasized into cruelty.
But back to that fear…
Where there is fear there is also disgust. By what am I disgusted? Ladies. The popular conception of ladies. Women people. The ones without power. Women were presented to me (via all media and popular mythology so deeply entrenched it’s taken as “fact” and “natural”) as vindictive, slimy, conniving explosives that kill everyone in their paths. They were also put forth as pretty brain-dead princesses (who secretly want to kill everyone in their paths which is why we have to stop them by shaming them and calling them mean names—how about ‘slut’? Yeah, that’ll do). This was confusing for me. Because I was none of those things. Or was I all of those things? I wondered at these conflicting, woman-hating messages late into the night.
And then I got ANGRY. SO ANGRY. That my options were the only options given every female since men realized they could band together and shame us down: Virgin or whore. Stupid victim who gets killed for her naiveté or evil temptress who gets killed for her lusty wiles. And the Everyman victor goes off to slay the dragon and live his untroubled life while I, the virgin or whore, die in the background wondering why the hell I was only given two lousy choices when I TOO could be the Everyman. Everyone is the Everyman. The Everyman is a myth that purports (white, resource-rich) men as normal and everyone else as abnormal, deficient, pathological.
Well, I am not down with these double binds! Society’s unfair and unrealistic breakdown of binary gender qualities and abilities presents MEN as strong, powerful creeps and WOMEN as stupid, pitiful harpies.
I am neither of those things and nobody is. I joined SlutWalk to smash gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes, after all, perpetuate rape.
The stereotype that men cannot control their sex drives and must violently penetrate, bloody and maim everything they want makes me murderous. That’s an unfair stereotype. It casts men as infantile hyenas and says women must resign themselves to violence. This is a myth. A myth akin to black people being stupid or gay people being sexually wanton. When you think about it, all negative mythology condemns the same thing: weakness. Sexual weakness, mental weakness. However you slice it, we all fear our humanity.
Because ALL people are sexual and ALL people are imperfect. Our society superficially values sexual control and the veneer of intelligence (instead of TRULY teaching and valuing sexual education, intelligence and diversity) and so assigns these incomplete and inhuman characteristics to the people it values most: Men. White men. White men with economic resources. But men don’t possess absolute power any more than robots do. Myths hurt everyone! If men who buy into the system constantly feel they aren’t measuring up (since no human being could) and take it out on those who are societally perceived as weaker and less deserving of sympathy, do we blame men? (A few times, but only on an individual, not systemic, basis) Or do we blame the overarching mythology and dualistic system that creates an absolute, essentialist, polarized division of FAUTLESSLY GLORIOUS (male) people and BAD, SNEAKY, PRETTY (female) people? (SlutWalk says we should.)
I’m so sick of being afraid of men (for some of their violent expressions of “power”). And I’m sick of wanting to be a man (so I can at least tangibly manifest my own desired power without being called names). I hate the system that assigns the quality of aggressive thoughtlessness to men and calls it power.
All myths that arrange people into artificial hierarchies are socially dangerous because they are emotionally devastating. You say a women has to wear the “right” clothes in order to fan the flames of alleged uncontrollable male lust (MY FEMALE LUST IS UNCONTROLLABLE, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Still I manage to avoid assaulting people! And it’s not because my lust is lesser; it’s not because I don’t “naturally” lust: these things were SYTEMATICALLY taught to women, expected and enforced via shaming and calling a woman a “slut” if she acts like a “man” as if men were one monolithic hulk that has no empathy and no real desire for pleasure, just power and control). A black man has to not be black in order to not get targeted and arrested. A gay person has to not be gay in order to not be harassed and humiliated by zealots. A trans person has to not be trans in order to live in safety.
No one is free until everyone is free! Sexism is racism is homophobia is transphobia is ableism is prejudice. It’s the fear and hatred of perceived weakness we ALL have in ourselves. Why run from it? Why not explore it? Why displace our anger at other people who don’t deserve it?
And so! I’m marching with SlutWalk on October 1st to do my small part in challenging this culture that condones rape by glorifying qualities artificially associated with maleness and belittling all things perceived as female and feminine. I’m marching to
materialize the radical notion that ALL people deserve to be treated like human beings.
As the start of the new school year rapidly approaches, some girls are dreading having to go back. They have been subjected to severe sexual harassment by other students in the form of explicit comments, slanderous graffiti, and inappropriate touching. As a result of this unwanted attention, they are often ostracized by other girls, and can fall into depressive and self-destructive behaviors. Sadly, this is not as unusual as it might sound, because girls today are living in a world that has forced them to become sexual much earlier than at any other time in American history. And by “sexual,” I don’t mean just making babies ~ as we know, girls were married at extremely young ages a hundred years ago, and already had large families by their late teens ~ no, instead, I’m referring to the exploitation of women’s and girls bodies as objects/commodities, and way before they have a chance to attain emotional and intellectual maturity. But I digress ~ there are so many underlying reasons for this problem, which we’ll have to explore at another time. Today’s discussion is about the prevalence of sexual harassment in public schools, and what can be done about it.
According to AAUW (The American Association of University Women), an astounding 83% of girls have experienced sexual harassment. Just think about that ~ When we walk out onto the street in New York City, or even take public transportation (known breeding grounds for harassing behaviors), most of the time we expect not to be harassed, and are rudely shocked out of our happy place/complacency by some jerk that sees an opportunity to take our power away. But girls in public schools, according to this report, might fullyexpect to be abused, just by showing up in that environment. It is one thing to endure a one-time violation by an anonymous stranger whom you’ll never have to see again (except maybe in a police line-up, or in court), but another thing entirely to endure repeat abuse at the hands of someone you have to encounter on a daily basis. Shocking isn’t even the word, and actually invites comparisons to torture. This summer, I completed a course in the Human Rights of Women at Columbia University, in which we exposed domestic violence and other forms of continual abuse as a form of torture, because of the ability to take one’s autonomy and power away through repeated episodes of sexual violation. I believe that if there was this understanding of the seriousness what girls are going through in the schools, more direct action could, and would, be taken against it at the school administrative level, if not higher.
So, in the absence of regularly enforced policies, what can girls and their parents do? For starters, it’s about setting boundaries. This blog, and much of the Hollaback! website seeks to empower women in all situations, so that they can escape, or ideally, prevent harm from coming to them. The same principles apply in the school environment, as out on the street. The word “No!” is a powerful ally in self-protection. Standing up to one’s aggressor/bully is never easy, and not always the safest thing to do, but in the right circumstance, can dissuade an abuser from seeing someone as an easy target, “worthy” of repeated acts of abuse. Since sexual harassment of girl students seems to happen most often on school buses (a closed environment, think “subway car”), changing classes (the “hit and run,” when a student is focused on getting to class), or obviously, in the gym and locker room environment, a girl must always be alert to who is in close proximity to her. Getting changed in a bathroom stall might not be convenient, but does work to allow some privacy. And as for riding on the bus, sitting closer to the driver is always the safest option for students being subjected to harassment. But just as in the case of harassment in the workplace, there should be some type of “paper trail” to describe the nature and time lines of individual complaints, if there are repeated incidents, even from different people. School officials cannot readily ignore written complaints without opening themselves up to liability.
Now, let’s look at a scenario where a girl’s complaints might fall on deaf ears, and her school, for whatever reason, refuses to bring a timely and appropriate remedy to the situation, by either limiting contact with the abuser, or taking disciplinary action. Sadly, name-calling and even inappropriate touching is seen as “normal teenage behavior” by many school officials ~ many of whom grew up in a very different, more sheltered time and place, and who therefore seem to lack the sense of empathy needed to protect a vulnerable student. If a harassment situation gets this far, parents have a powerful resource in the Title IX Act Education Amendment of 1972, which guarantees every child the equal right to an education. This has been used successfully in many instances, but not everyone knows about it to take advantage of it. The mere mention of invoking it may actually trigger the appropriate (albeit overdue) response from school officials. But at heart, this is a problem of education ~ just as there are now seminars and school assemblies that openly discuss the problem of general bullying, there needs to be more said about sexual harassment, which seems to be almost exclusively a problem for girls. Public school must be safe if learning and growing is to take place, and more and more girls in recent years have been driven out of this environment towards more expensive single-sex, private institutions. Let’s see how we can deepen our empathy for girls, not only by teaching them how to protect themselves, but by creating safer places where they never have to fear being violated just by showing up. Because, frankly, that should be the very last thing on their minds this September.
A new t-shirt marketed to tweens and teens contains this message:
“I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”
Hey, JC Penny: It’s 2011. Your sexist t-shirt messaging sucks. Big time.
That’s right, let’s keep telling young women that their looks are more important than their brains or than doing homework. Maybe they’ll just start believing it.
Sign the Change.org petition to let JC Penny CEO Mike Ullman III know that his paying customers don’t appreciate being disrespected like this and that our daughters will not be wearing sexist propaganda. Ask your friends to do the same.
Thanks to your quick response, JC Penny has pulled the offensive t-shirt from their website and issued this statement:
jcpenney is committed to being America’s destination for great style and great value for the whole family. We agree that the “Too pretty” t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale. Our merchandise is intended to appeal to a broad customer base, not to offend them. We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.