Written by Liz Dolfi, one of Hollaback!’s freelance badasses (or, as some people call them, volunteers)
Many kinds of gender-based violence are still are part of our culture. While tremendous progress has been made in women’s rights in the last century and many forms of violence against women are illegal, rape, domestic violence, and discrimination are still frequent occurrences. We condemn these things through our legal system and education and awareness programs, but resources for survivors are far from sufficient and many people still deal with shame and stigma after experiencing gender-based violence. The various forms of street harassment that many people experience as a part of their daily lives are indicative of this culture.
Women in the United States are often raised to be deeply afraid of sexual assault in public places (despite the fact that you are much more likely to be assaulted by someone you know), and as a result, most of the women I know go through a mental checklist before they leave their homes. Do I have a cell phone and mace? Does someone know where I will be? Can I afford a cab home or find someone to walk with?
Personally, I throw shapeless, baggy clothes on before I go outside, even on hot days because creeps on the subway seem to think that I get dressed for them in the morning. I’ve woken up my partner and my roommate to walk me from the subway at 2:00am when I have gotten stuck with the late shift at my job. I won’t do laundry without a friend because of the lecherous men who sit on the stoop by the laundromat, spending the day groping and hollering at women. I peer into windows as the subway rolls into the station to make sure that I get into a car where other women are sitting.
I think that many people who experience street harassment frequently deeply internalize these compulsive attempts to keep ourselves safe. Some of us learn these behaviors through years of harassment, and some of us were raised with a deep sense that we are unsafe in public spaces and our parents spouted nonsense safety tips like “always have your keys in your hand when you are walking through a parking garage – you can use them as a weapon and get away quickly.”
I would like to think that some of the victim blaming that seems to occur every time someone shares a story about sexual assault or harassment is the result of the safety rituals we perform. When we hear than someone was assaulted when walking home alone at three am, our response is a horrified “what?! Why were you ALONE? And at 3am!!!”
This response is understandable, given how deeply we have internalized the idea that it is UNSAFE (picture that in five foot letters and orange flashing lights) to walk alone at three in the morning. But, and listen carefully here because this is important, WE NEED TO CUT IT OUT.
Today, right now, everyone who thinks that street harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable needs to make a commitment to curb that culturally imprinted response and make sure that the first that thing comes out of our mouths when we hear about an incident of harassment or violence is “this is WRONG.”
Harassment and assault are the fault and the responsibility of the person who decided to treat the person they harassed or assaulted as less than human, end of story.
This is not about what we wear so we need to stop telling our stories by saying “I wasn’t even wearing anything cute,” “it isn’t as if I looked slutty” etc. If I choose to walk down the street naked, that does not negate my rights over my own body or somehow imply that I am walking past you for the sake of your sexual satisfaction (I’m talking to you creepy Laundromat guys). This is not about why we are on the street in the first place. We need to stop staying “I was just trying to get to work” as if we need to justify our existence in public places. If I am a sex worker looking for consensual sex at a negotiated price, I am NOT asking for unwanted sexual advances and harassing me is unacceptable.
If we allow our own fears to shape the way that we talk about incidents of gender-based harassment in public places and sexual assault, we end up blaming victims, and ultimately ourselves, for something that is not our fault, and we encourage the people who genuinely do blame the victim to continue to discuss these issues in that way.
So, I would like to recommend being careful with our language and ditching the qualifiers when describing assault and harassment as the official small feminist activist action of the day. Let’s cut out the language that can imply victim-blaming and put blame where it is due.