Public enemies

We'd be remiss to not comment on the Washington (D.C.) City Paper's series (one, two) published this week in which one woman unveils her year-long diary of street harassment, accompanied by a male reporter's take on her experiences (complete with a YouTube video). The City Paper doesn't have a particularly pro-feminist history (quite the opposite), and Feministing already dissected this week's stories, but since we only publish here on Wednesdays, we're gonna dive in even further after the fact, which seems fitting.

What we find first appalling about the entire Feministing conversation is the idea that we're somehow self-labeled "humorless feminists" because we don't want to be touched, followed, and yelled at in public. Ladies, there's no reason for us to be down on ourselves. Those of us that write for HollaBackTALK have remarkable senses of humor in everyday life, but our existence also comes with legitimate fear in the streets and difficult harassment, which is never a laughing matter. Using humor to deflect how hard life can be is one of many useful strategic coping methods, but we draw the line at talking about harassment in any way other than as part of the spectrum of sexual violence, an issue that effects us all. We know we're not alone in this, either.

In response to the City Paper articles, perhaps most troubling in the Feministing comments section, were the race and class assumptions made about men who harass and the women they bother - not to mention the explicitly stated areas of various cities and communities they seem to inhabit. Let us be clear: we continue to see class and socioeconomic status ignored as part of the deconstruction of this problem, despite our own statements on the subject. Unfortunately, street harassment lies at the intersection of a variety of social identities, and simply speaking about race - especially in generalized terms - is overlooking the real issue. By then generalizing who is harassing and who is harassed more, we totally ignore the real problem: that this is happening in the first place. In most cases of street harassment, race and class do not and should not matter. Unless these traits specifically pertain to your harassment account, calling out publicly offensive folks based on innate or circumstantial (and many times mistaken) characteristics fuels racism, classism, and hatred in counterproductive, hurtful ways. It divides communities and stereotypes predators the same way we wish to not be. Harassment is about power and domination, and if we want to end those models for oppression, we must also stop oppressing those who subordinate us. To additionally try to call harassment a cultural problem is to deny that any of these things - gender, race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status - are related, which they inherently are. To call harassment "cultural" is also to assume that women in any culture enjoy being harassed, which is inconsiderately false speculation.

In the same way, we also found people's ranking of personal street harassment encounters to be a fascinating exercise. While I for one could probably name some of the "worst" encounters I've experienced - from being followed by an unknown man in a car while I was on foot on a deserted road, to having a male acquaintance reach up my dress in public - I've not only experienced far too many to fully rank at this point; I don't feel any of them were particularly benign. For me, street harassment is about what makes me feel unsafe, not what is so silly that it becomes humorous - thankfully, there are the occasional yells from passersby I am able to shrug off. But more often than not, I am reminded that any of these encounters could escalate to physical violence, so I don't want to spend even more emotional and psychological energy on deciding who bothered or offended me the most this month, let alone in this lifetime. While it is a sure sign of the degree to which we internalize these accounts if we are able to name them years later, and I also believe in the solidarity found in knowing you are not alone in your harassment experiences; I want to move forward by discussing this issue as a widespread societal problem that is more than my own.

There are a couple of ways to prevent racist and classist behavior surrounding public discussion of street harassment, which seems like an important piece of dialogue considering prospective actions are typically left undiscussed unless there to blame the victim. We do not advocate any particular action, nor do we believe that it is ultimately a woman's responsibility to defend and keep herself safe in the world beyond normal expectations. Even we, the ladies of HollaBackBoston, are constantly renegotiating our personal stances on the best way to combat harassment that we regularly face. Rather than advice, we can only offer some strategies that may be of potential success.
  • If a harassment situation arises in public, if you are in a crowded area, identify your harasser. Speak loudly and firmly and describe the action.

  • If you see others being harassed, say something - even if you are the only one. Don't let the power of numbers take away the power of the few.

  • Talk to the men in your life. Many times, men don't know that they hold a lot of power to end street harassment. By helping them understand the power dynamics implicit in any type of harassment, they may be able to also call out bad behavior in public in addition to monitoring their own.

  • Listen to women and other marginalized folks when they share their experiences. For many, street harassment is a constant problem, yet one that is not taken seriously. Be sensitive when stories are shared, and believe and support those who are trying to find solutions to this multifacted problem.

  • Most importantly, know yourself and listen to your inner voice. Don't invalidate yourself for feeling unsafe or listen to those who tell you to "just ignore it" or "not let it bother you." It's fine if it bothers you. It's fine to maintain an expectation that you can live in a world where you feel safe and respected.
What ultimately concerns us - beyond our personal accounts, anecdotes, and what neighborhoods some deem tolerable - is safety. Sure, sometimes harassment is just annoying, but for us, experiences of threat and verbal abuse in public are frightening because of the unknown actions a perpetrator could take. At the end of the day, we don't think safely walking while female is too much to ask.

By Brittany Shoot, Creative Commons 2.5.

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