Street harassment zone: a hot and safe art installment

Earlier this summer, the ladies of HollaBackBoston gathered with members of NOMAS-Boston and other community allies to discuss men's role in ending street harassment and to create an art installation. After an enlightened discussion and exchange of practical tips, those assembled took up their markers. Armed with spools of blank yellow zoning ribbon, activists created mock caution tape as an illustration of the problem of street harassment. Intertwined with parts of a real construction site on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, MA, (and notably not removed for several days) HollaBackBoston co-founder Michelle Riblett explained the installment, "We're creating a street harassment zone because there isn't one already!" And yet, street harassment knows no zoning boundaries.

Written, taped, and produced by Brittany Shoot. Protected by a Creative Commons License 2.5. Music "Proceed with Caution" by The Dillinger Escape Plan.

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OUCH! Body Narratives: Gender, Disability, and Harassment

An ally in New Zealand recently pointed us towards a like-minded website that documents disability parking space offenders: CaughtYa.org.
I have a "hidden" chronic illness disability (although now, not so hidden...). Links to such websites can be useful in beginning to trace certain intersecting narratives about gender, disability, and harassment. Here is another resource that is absolutely Hot And Safe: ChronicBabe.com. I was hardly surprised upon perusing through this site to discover a richly insightful post:

The Question of the Day: May I Touch You?
November 23, 2005, by Jenni Prokopy, the Editrix.

In Jenni's words, "The answer today is: no, you may not. But unfortunately, you probably won't bother asking anyway. Sounds like a bad date, right? Wrong." Jenni has chronic physical pain due to fibromyalgia. She describes an incident of Bad Touch that occurred during a bodywork session, when the practitioner refused to listen to her admonitions "Oh, no, stop that," and then defensively argued that Jenni was the one who wasn't pliant enough. Jenni concludes that if the practitioner had just asked the simple question:May I Touch You? - and set up ground rules for consent - the negative experience of completely disrespecting her body and space could have been avoided.

Thank you, Editrix of ChronicBabe.com!

HollaBackBoston is committed to reclaiming public safety and respect for ALL women. And when we hear suggestions like - "JUST ASK" - it resonates loud and clear with our mission.

To think further:

Street harassment, a form of gender discrimination, may stand in stark contrast to disability discrimination for any myriad of reasons, since both terms, "gendered" and "disabled" are laden with historical, social, and ideological contingencies. For some, to be gendered a woman does not mean the same, monolithic experience as to be designated disabled. In the first-world, Euro-centric tradition (codename: "West"), however, equating gender to disability has purportedly been common.

Aristotle defined women as “mutilated males,” and described them in much the same way the disabled are described now, as a “departure from type,” who have “improper form” (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Re-Shaping, Re-Thinking, Re-Defining: Feminist Disability Studies, 2001, p. 7). It is hard to forget Freud's pronouncement of women's castration and our subsequent need to fill such feminine lack with his rendition of the “penis-baby” (See Freud’s Three Essays on Femininity). Then there's menstruation taboos and sickness, and women considered to be overtly and obsessively emotional; due to our wandering uteruses inducing hysteria (according to Garland-Thomson, we are accused of suffering from "either excess or lack," both making us freaks), and we must surely be burned at the stake or hanged for having birth “marks of Satan” or being accused of any abnormal behaviors indicating Witchcraft.

More recently, feminists have controversially claimed we've been literally disfigured and distorted by sexist practices and thinking (i.e. anything from corsets to foot-binding to female genital mutilation to Gender Identity Disorder in the DSM IV), and theoretically crippled by our predilections towards feminine materiality, embodiment, and prosthetic and plastic surgery.

Finally, as Garland-Thomson pinpoints: “Beauty contests, girlie shows, freak shows, telethons, and medical theatre all testify to an appropriating to-be-looked-at-ness that supposedly inheres in the female and/or disabled body. Leering at women and gawking at disabled people are historical practices that constitute the female and disabled personhood throughout the social world” (For full discussion, See Barbara Waxman Fiduccia Papers on Women and Girls With Disabilities, Center for Women Policy Studies, 2001, p. 9).

I don't think we need any more grandiose analogies that further conflate these identities. But, I also refuse to presume that one is first a "woman," and second, "disabled," or vice versa; two neatly separate identity categories, one inevitably less informative, informed by, or subordinated to another.

I will toast the day when gender theory and disability theory become rampantly accessible as intersecting scholarship camps, and one can in fact major in “Feminist Disability Studies” and still feasibly get a job upon graduating. Both the gendering process (never fixed, always in process) and disability, it seems, are still acting as constructivist artists, hard at work on and within the ever-troublesome clay of the body – and yes, we are still dealing with The Body (it’s just disguised in lower case, now, because in spite of the essentialist police, the performative show must go on...yes?). Instead of conceiving of disability as some inherent condition of cursed, marked, abnormal, unpredictable or outcast bodies that are thus deemed inadequate and wrong, what if we inquired: who makes and enforces the rules of what a normative body is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to properly move and behave in the world? If we are to take responsibility for this task - in other words, represent our own bodies as disabled women - how about we conceive of disability and gender as similarly forged by critical discourse out of their tense case-by-case interactions with harassment?

Disability is just beginning to be recognized as a civil rights issue. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 dictates that the public respectfully accommodate the corporeal differences in disabled bodies. These laws indicate that there still seems to be an overarching, threatening, power-hungry, social monster that is persistently at odds with bodies that don't quite seem to fit, relegating them as expendable, abject outcasts in their own neat little social camps, keeping them at arm's length (from each other even) under watchful eye and governance by a pedantic and condescending state.

When we hear "gender" AND "disability", the AND immediately conjures the harrowed list of their oft-discriminated-against corporeal cousins: identity markers indicating age, race, religion, sexual orientation, national status, AND ethnicity. This list is often repeated ad nauseum in activist and academic circles, resulting in all sorts of creatively deviant bodies getting too quickly subsumed and forgotten under the blanket title, "The Oppressed." Consequently, the invisible, imaginary Center is shored up and maintained, the Oppressed huddle in their dark corners, flipping off the majority. The unfortunate anti-climax is that the entire point of being a woman, who happens to have a pluralistic identity that doesn't fit, gets diluted, erased, and subsequently rendered politically ineffective.

I motion that this altogether sucks, because up until a couple months ago, I had no clue that I could even aspire to be such a thing as a Chronic Babe. I am by no means discrediting the exceptional folks who ARE out there, doing feminist disability work. But, disability theory still seems to exist in a nameless void in feminist politics, not to mention pop-culture, and so perhaps we should risk asking tricky questions to continue to “respectfully accommodate” tricky bodies.

Jenni's story opens up imaginings for convergence of gender, disability, and harassment queries, because she illustrates her own unique resistance to the process of being treated according to the restrictive terms of a physically stable, fixed, and homogeneous state of being. Surely, the normative definitions of a massage do not have to include psychological and physical abuse, nor the further stigmatization of those who are not "pliable enough." Her experience testifies to what Garland-Thomson characterizes as the “narrative of overcoming” about disability. This frustrating narrative perpetuates an ironic fabrication that bodies must rigidly fit into overly simplistic, modernist definitions of independence, individuality, and flexibility IN ORDER to conform and be normal.

Garland-Thomson writes, “the fantasy of the malleable body conforms to modernity’s notion that the body is a neutral instrument of the omnipotent individual will, an instrument of agency that is both pliable and invulnerable, that we can control and alter” (pp. 13, 14). Anyone else find the terms “instrument of agency” to be a little suspicious?? Do instruments ever have their own agency? I wager that the problem that needs to be "overcome" is not within Jenni's body, but within the power dynamic governing agency, within the representational system limited to "your body should be this way.”

For, fleshing out the examples of social dilemmas that Jenni may encounter on a daily basis - the dilemmas that attempt to rigidly dictate the mores of disability identity – reveals how she (and other women) can possibly transgress across borders of such representational limitations, in order to negotiate consent and respect on her own terms, for her specific body-in-process.

Although Jenni was not sexually harassed, sexual harassment and violation definitely occurs and can be compounded within disability-related contexts. For example, in the recent award-winning film, Talk To Her, a woman in a coma is raped by her attending male nurse. From another angle, sexual harassment can be conceived as the direct cause of disability, such as significant and long-term forms of mental illness that fall within the federal category of disability, i.e. depression. There are also disturbing cases of those who interpret disability as a legitimizing excuse for sexual assault, such as this one reported in the ABC News: Expert Claims Sex Attack Was Pleasurable For Disabled Daughter.

On the home front, I will continue to intercept verbal missives such as "fragile," "vulnerable," "it's all in your head", "it's not that serious", and "you're oversensitive" -- because these words lace a double edged sword that serves only to invalidate my creatively deviant body.

Still wondering....

How and why have women with disabilities been so harshly ridiculed, intimidated, and abused by circulating stereotypes about fragility and sex?

In the struggle to reconcile gender and disability identifications, what are the terms of consent in your creatively deviant body narrative?

And finally, how have disabled women of all stripes experienced street harassment in Boston?

Written by: Michelle Riblett. Protected by Creative Commons License 2.5. Any copying, redistribution, or replication in any form of this work is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the author.

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Isn't she a little young?

HollaBackBoston focuses on street harassment as part of the spectrum of sexual violence. This wide scope includes all forms of disempowerment, abuse, neglect, coercion, and lack of consent. We believe in order to combat one end of the spectrum, we must confront the other as well. When misunderstood, we try to explain that when we participate in a dismissive, permissive culture, everyone suffers. Negligent, harmful attitudes about sexuality and the objectification of women carry over in disgusting, abusive ways, and much of this can be traced to base beliefs and core values about the worth of self and others.

Street harassment isn't confined to adult women and the immature boys who yell at them. Neither is assault, coercion, or domestic violence. While there are grey areas we all must navigate, as a grey area survivor, I know firsthand why the slippery slope of this violent spectrum is dangerous.

Take as an example the Virginia campaign to end the apparent widespread problem of young girls having sex with adult men. Though this campaign first surfaced in 2004, it remains an excellent example of the issues that lie along this weaving line of consent and appropriate behavior. Because many people do not always know or respect proper boundaries, this campaign, while seeming silly, does address a serious issue as young women become more sexualized in our culture and older men prey on this subordination.

Some further reading is available on Salon.com and on the state of Virginia's website, as well as the typical shrug-off from Boston's Weekly Dig, VA Does the Unthinkable.

By Brittany Shoot, protected by Creative Commons License 2.5

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Feminism Not Man's Field

Well, we're the ones dropping our breakfast toast and calling our friends over the latest effort from Harvey Mansfield, his new book Manliness.

Disclaimer: none of us have had a chance to read Manliness in full yet, but we found the content too remarkable to resist analysis. Besides, a simple web search reveals plenty to digest from interviews with Mansfield (not his real name, by the way) to extensive reviews of the said text. We are sure we will have more to say once we are able to cross Manliness off our to-read lists...

Our interest in Mansfield was piqued by the "On Point" NPR segment and an interview between Naomi Wolf and Mansfield on C-Span 2's BookTV (which Wolf was no doubt able to secure due to her celebrity and moderate feminist status). Katha Pollitt was on the line for the NPR chat, and she made a couple of nice retorts to the obscene arguments put forth in the book. We also give props to Wolf for repeatedly illuminating the aged nature of Mansfield's argument, especially his ignorance of 40 years of feminist theory that occurred while he was...well, wherever he was doing whatever he was doing. You can also read a great review of the book, Man Overboard, by Martha Nussbaum - one of our favorite pieces that really hits it home.

Nussbaum points out our central issue with this book and its ludicris assertations:
"that a woman can resist rape only with the aid of 'a certain ladylike modesty enabling her to take offense at unwanted encroachment'! (How does he handle the well-known fact that a large proportion of rapes are committed by men with whom the victim has already had an intimate relationship, or with whom she currently has one?)"
Aside from the manner in which statements like this absolve responsibility for a violent, permissive rape culture, Mansfield also completely ignores many well-known facts about sexual violence. Existing as a dangerous spectrum upon which many acts of violation harm and diminish women every moment, rape sources from a place far too similar to behavior like street harassment. Like many of the HollaBack critics who believe women should "just ignore it", Mansfield places the blame and responsibility back on the women with his belief that violence is avoidable through simple demure, submissive behavior. He could not possibly be more out of touch.

A few other less blood-curdling assertions are made: that the definition of manliness is "confidence in the face of risk." A manly man is a "take charge" guy. One who displays courage. Now you may no doubt be thinking, "I know plenty of women who behave in such a way." Well, here's the kicker. Mansfield argues that for women to manifest these traits is inherently wrong. He does so because Mansfield is an essentialist, meaning he gives no credence to the way in which history has ascribed behaviors to particular genders, as well as the ability for these prescriptions to be circumvented and overcome. Instead, he supports stereotypical, genetic rationale for particular behavioral traits - i.e. a male's essence is manliness.

He attempts to emphasize that he does not intend to defend manliness as exclusively good, yet based on his critique of feminism we find this a little hard to swallow. Mansfield attributes manliness' dark side - as evidenced by absent fathers, war, and again rape - to feminism. Because women no longer "act" like women, men have been made to feel irrelevant. We won't even bother addressing whether this was the intent of feminist movement.

We get off of Mansfield's runaway train around the time he places the responsibility on educated women - his explicit audience! - to adopt a new feminism. Last time we checked, we didn't need or want men to define our work for us, and when they offer to be allies in a struggle for justice, we're thrilled to engage in partnership. But feminism is not responsible for defining men's existence in this world, despite the unfortunate reality that at times, women's self-actualization and self-determinism has not coincided with theirs. So Mansfield, do your work and we will do ours. And we will be happy to meet in the healthy, productive middle.

Basically, it appears we have a conflict of values with Mansfield. His assertion that the consciousness-raising technique of the women's movement was for lack of a better word, "soft"; and that grassroots community building and activism is irrelevant in a world of electoral politics is entirely contrary to almost the sum total of our life experience, not to mention our present work. Further, to say that women can prevent their own rape misses the entire point. We wonder if Mansfield would harass us on the train to assert his John Waynish manliness? Guess we'd better steer clear of his side of the tracks or have our phonecams ready.

Written by: Hilary Allen and Brittany Shoot. Protected by Creative Commons License 2.5. Any copying, redistribution, or replication in any form of this work is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the authors.

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For the long weekend...

We're taking a few days off for the long weekend, but we know the harassers won't. So in the meantime, here are a few bits of reading material for you.

One link we recommend is a short piece about what it means to be objectified: Definition: But Don't You Like To Be Objectified Sometimes?. Many people - women included - like to talk about how objectification is actually empowering. This article posits a contrary definition of objectification as a "forced loss of self" and outlines the difference between the valid enjoyment of attention and the disabling powerlessness of being made an object - something we are continuously clarifying for those who object (ha!) to our work.

And, from a fellow HollaBacker (PNW), here is another subject we have considered for a future editorial, which Luke has already covered quite well: T-Shirts: Street Harassment Without the Audio. Aren't vulgar, insensitive t-shirts just as he says: passive aggressive street harassment?

We'll be back on Wednesday to talk about Manliness as defined by Boston's own Harvey Mansfield. Enjoy your weekend Holla folks!

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