The Ladder Has No Rungs

Miss the latest in the blame game that you just can't win? It's that if you don't want to be harassed, stop acting like a man. As University of Toronto's Jennifer Berdahl's latest research reveals, women who defy traditional gender stereotypes at their places of employment experience more sexual harassment than their more deferent colleagues.

Berdahl does a nice job highlighting (and then debunking) the public's perception that women who exhibit typically feminine appearance and behavior (think Dolly Parton a la Nine to Five) are the more frequent victims of sexual harassment. But we'll say it again, and for definitely not the last time...harassment is not always about sex. It's not always about gender. It is about POWER.

Not saying your breasts, hair, dress, makeup, legs, and other body parts don't get an inordinate amount of attention at the water cooler and conference table, but your decision to pursue occupations historically reserved for men and your ability to exhibit behavior traits traditionally attributed to masculinity are far more provocative.

The harassment Berdahl describes is not just a by-product of our attempts to transgress gender essentialist behavior and performance, but in fact is a reaction to our very existence as thinking, performing, accomplishing beings - which is in direct opposition to the misogynist culture which upholds men as the sole achievers. Our ability to have an identity threatens theirs. Berdahl offers, "Women threaten male identity when they blur distinctions between men and women and thereby challenge the legitimacy of these distinctions and the status they confer men."

This is no surprise to us at HollaBackBoston.com since there is a well-documented body of experience among women which cites spikes in street harassment when wearing business suits. It is well known that this type of harassment is about putting women "back in their place." Berdahl simply proves that this activity is alive and well in the workplace.

Luckily, she also makes it clear that her findings are not to be interpreted as putting the responsibility for preventing harassment on the women themselves - this time, gender deviants. She argues, "the onus should not be on victims to avoid a wrong but on those in charge to create structures and incentives to prevent it." She continues, "women are already navigating these social conflicts to the best of their ability. But ultimately, it's not their responsibility, nor is it in their control."

Thanks Jennifer. Now, we've just got to convince our male bosses.

Written by Hilary Allen. Creative Commons 2.5.

Labels: , , ,


Finnishing harassment

Street harassment happens all over the world, all the time. Without getting into the online anonymity breeds hate speech conversation, it's (sort of) worth checking out the comments section of this video. If anyone has ever questioned why women don't speak out more, these comments serve as a perfect example of the continued blame, threat, and abuse that can result for merely voicing your experience.

It's certainly not an accident that the woman in the video compares herself with Pitkasilta (Long Bridge), a Helsinki landmark and reminder of century-old wars. It's also interesting that the bridge used to once separate the city's working and upper classes. Harassment knows no such boundaries; why do we think anything else will?

As recently as last week, we were told we didn't have a sense of humor about these things. Really? Seems we aren't the only ones not laughing:

You can get more information about the fantastic song used in the first video, Ursula Rucker's What A Woman Must Do, here. As always, we encourage you to do whatever you need to do to have a hot and safe week.

Labels: , , ,


It isn't a joke, Mr. Therapist

In last Tuesday's Boston Metro, we had the misfortune of reading Jonathan Alpert's "advice column" No More Drama, in which he responds to a female reader's concern about being approached by men in public. Where do we even begin?! We can't decide which part is more distressing - Alpert's joking tone about the serious nature of unwanted public advances or the idea that women should just have to put up with being sexually harassed in public based on their appearance. Here's the counsel Alpert provides (or download the original page):

"It must be tough to be so drop-dead gorgeous that guys hit on you like vultures. Jokes aside, here are possible solutions for dodging them: 1. Avoid all social settings. 2. Wear a "Don't Talk To Me" sign. 3. Learn to distinguish between those who are truly offensive and those who are well-intended.

The problem with No. 1 and 2, apart from the risk of becoming a loner or being perceived as a social outcast, is you'll miss out on opportunities to meet the good guys. Clearly, a guy asking you for a lap dance between the book stacks at Borders is much different than someone taking an interest in the same travel books as you. Rather than lumping all guys into the vulture category, be open to those who may be respectful and capable of good conversation and who could potentially lead to a friendship.

Although you want to relax by yourself, is it possible you unknowingly draw attention by how you dress, walk or present yourself? Though how you dress does not warrant harassment, consider how others may perceive you and make any necessary changes if this really bothers you. If you truly don't want to be approached, then try a polite response: Simply smile and let the guy know it's nothing about him and that you're taking some time to relax by yourself."
Alpert's "column" is what is known as victim-blaming. In addition to not being able to get past his male privilege and the childish idea that we must protect and placate the fragile male ego by making sure they know not to take a rejection personally, Alpert is trying to make a decision for the reader: whom she should trust in public space. It's hard to imagine a more hurtful analysis of such a simple question - "How do I get strange men to leave me alone?" - "You can't, and you shouldn't because you're clearly the one missing out."

As Alpert is a licensed therapist, it's scary to imagine what he might tell female clients who are having these types of problems in public, let alone victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or emotional partner abuse. A woman complains that her husband abuses her, and she wants to know how to get him to leave her alone. So, in hypothetical Alpert-speak, that would translate to: "Learn to distinguish between when he playfully slaps you around with good intention, and when he sexually assaults you. You wouldn't want to miss out on the OPPORTUNITY of being married to a guy who has the potential to be nice to you, and who may, after all, be good at conversation! But most importantly, you're his wife; you married the guy. Therefore, it's definitely your fault on those rare occasions that he sexually assaults you because you're the one wearing that dress that he interprets as: 'Please rape me.' And, remember, next time he comes after you, be sure to smile politely as you try to refuse him."

Like we said, we can only imagine...

The way Alpert assumes his reader must be "asking for it" is a blatant example of perpetrator language. What Alpert fails to realize is that, over time, after being approached one too many times in public, it is NOT that simple for women to distinguish a friendly conversation from potential threat. Many perpetrators initially disguise harassment as a supposed compliment or act in subtle ways that make it difficult to interpret intent. These "compliments" often lead to violent assault, once the perpetrator tests the water, to see whether the woman will respond submissively. The official and disturbing term for this is rape-testing. According to Martha Langelan's discussion in Back Off! How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment, "Rapists are not looking for a fair fight. They have learned that sexual harassment is a good way to gauge the likelihood that a woman will fight back in an assault; if she is passive and timid when harassed, they assume she will be passive and terrified when attacked. So, this kind of rapist moves in on his potential victims, standing too close to one at a bus stop...if she is a classmate, customer, or other acquaintance, he may test her with inappropriate sexual touching or personal comments that are out of line, to see whether she will defend herself or call him on his remarks" (1993, p. 45). Hm. Perhaps Alpert should have done his homework?

Alpert ends his cringe-worthy "analysis" of this problem with the classic street harassment line, "Smile!" After being harassed? Not a chance!! Not here to smile for anyone, sir. In this case, Alpert is also sadly advocating that women use what we call victim language: indirect, self-denigrating language, making excuses for the offensive behavior, apologizing for him, adding all kinds of padding, and basically, letting the guy off the hook and disempowering the woman even more. Here's an example of what victim language looks like, employing Alpert's suggestion: "I'm sorry, excuse me, it's nothing about you, it's actually me. I'm sure you don't really mean anything offensive, but, you know, well, I guess I'm just trying to take some time for myself."

There's such a HUGE difference in effectiveness between that kind of response and the more empowering tactics to holla back that clearly name the intrusive behavior, in plain and direct language, with no passive modifiers whatsoever: "Move away, you're standing too close" or "STOP IT. Leave me alone. That's harassment. I don't like it. Stop harassing women." Ironically, Alpert also makes fun of another tactic we support and recommend: handing out signs telling people to not harass. These alternative strategies work because they actually hold the harasser accountable for his unwanted behavior; they validate the woman's experience without apologies or excuses; and they directly disrupt the imbalanced power scenario that the harasser has created by infringing upon your space, body, and sense of safety.

If you're just as appalled at Alpert's lack of insight and integrity as we are, send him a letter at jonathan.alpert@metro.us and let him know public spaces should remain safe for all. It isn't a joke. It's real.

Written by Michelle Riblett and Brittany Shoot. Creative Commons 2.5.

Labels: , , ,


To holla back or not

Whenever we talk about street harassment, we make it clear that all potential victims in public should use their best judgment when it comes to holla'ing back. If the situation in any way feels threatening, we believe in safety first. We think victim blaming is bullshit, and we aren't interested in accusations (like the one you can watch below) that we in any way ask to be harassed, stalked, or assaulted - especially if we happen to blog.

This video, while supposedly cautionary, is also sadly accurate in conveying how women are constantly forced and encouraged to live in fear. While hollaback's goal is to create a more open, public discourse about the spectrum of sexual violence, we are well aware that fighting back is not always the easiest or safest solution.

Sometimes fighting back can work, like in this case of a girl who escaped from being kidnapped by screaming her head off.

But sadly, that simply isn't always the case. Feminists are all too familiar with the equally sexist and aggressive backlash to each of our efforts at creating a just society. It can be a case of two steps forward, one step back. And it is beyond tragic when that one step back is lethal.

Perhaps you've heard about the film that was released last week; Waitress, directed by Adrienne Shelley, also stars the late filmmaker, who was murdered after complaining about construction noise. Her killer, a 19-year-old who'd been working at the site, confessed to her murder, saying he was "having a bad day".

In a similarly bizarre and sad story, former Bostonian, artist Nicole DuFresne holla'd back, albeit unconventionally, when confronted by muggers in Brooklyn in 2005. After she and her friends gave up their possessions to their assailants, DuFrense, drunk and perturbed, is said to have yelled, "What are you still doing here? You got what you wanted. What are you going to do now, shoot us?" Moments later, in retaliation, the thieves did just that.

And two weeks ago, a group of seven lesbian women who attacked a street harasser were convicted and many will serve jail time. Apparently self defense against unwanted public harassment and violent attacks isn't necessarily a defense in court.

I'm not trying to be negative or spread further fear on this issue. But it's disconcerting and incredibly frustrating when harassment situations only escalate and claim more victims, as we all try to stand up against verbal abuse and invasion of personal space in public. Locally, concerns about public safety are starting to be taken more seriously as MBTA safety statistics will soon be publicly available (and we sure do love that kind of transparency) - although since street harassment isn't a "crime", it isn't tracked by the police or local public transit authority. If they're allowed to air their perception of crime in transit, we think our right to do the same is justly protected.

It certainly takes guts, perseverance, and commitment to hollaback, in spite of the personal risk involved. Again, we cannot emphasize this enough: Safety First. Hollaback Second. When all else fails, in Massachusetts, if you don't want to pay the state for the right to carry chemical sprays, at least you can still buy bear mace, which, ironically, I've been recently contemplating. Nothing like turning your harasser orange - literally.

Written by Brittany Shoot. Creative Commons 2.5.

Labels: , , ,


Private Eyes

More than a few times now, people have compared the HollaBack movement to websites like I Saw Your Nanny or youparklikeanasshole. An article in the Wall Street Journal even had the nerve to state, "The most trivial missteps by ordinary folks are increasingly ripe for exposure... There is a proliferation of new sites dedicated to condemning offenses ranging from bad parking (Caughtya.org) and leering (HollaBackNYC.com) to littering (LitterButt.com) and general bad behavior (RudePeople.com)." In addition to being completely unaffiliated with these other sites, our intentions and work are radically different and, inasmuch as we hit the target for which we aim, we think that addressing the spectrum of sexual violence against women is unmistakably a larger social problem than people who park badly. It furthermore makes NO sense to lump HollaBack in with the type of Internet vigilantism that, for example, documents people who steal newspapers or don't pick up after their dogs.

We do recognize that sites like ours contribute to the erosion of privacy, and are aware of the issues of default public space, shame versus (or as) education, and technology without limits. But we don't share Michael Zimmer's concern that, "If I start ranting at someone and someone posts it to show how much of an idiot I am, now there’s 10 million people who know I’m a jerk." We like Zimmer's analysis and work, but if you're a jerk, maybe there should be some accountability for that. And if you harass others in public - invading their privacy and space without legal or societal accountability, how is that creating a more equitable world?

The Village Voice raised similar concerns a while ago as well. And again, although the Village Voice article is critical of "sousveillance" or ground up attempts of public watchfulness, it misses the point entirely: women are repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and made to feel unsafe everyday by incidents that violate their privacy. Taking pictures of people in public is perfectly legal. Posting on the public space of a blog is perfectly legal. Yet, harassers are repeately defended when they violate our privacy; and when we engage in perfectly legal public recourse, suddenly we're suspect of violating their privacy. Talk about a double standard. Nearly hidden in this discussion, the Voice admits in a one-liner that it if a guy disruptively catcalls, then "it's near impossible for that person to cry privacy invasion when someone takes his picture." Oh, ok. Then why all the fuss?! The Wall Street Journal similarly claims, "...lawyers say alleged wrongdoers shamed online typically have little legal recourse under libel and privacy laws if the accusations in postings are true, or if they are posters' opinions about behavior witnessed in a public place." Thanks again. So, let the women speak up already!

In the Voice article, Bill Brown, an anti-surveillance activist, argued, "I'm taking pictures of you, you're taking pictures of me. And all in the name of keeping people safe from some pretty soft crimes". Bill, last time we checked, sexual harassment and assault are in no way crimes of a "soft" nature. Same goes for the Wall Street Journal's unbelievable use of the phrase "most trivial missteps." Why did they not include the sexual violation of women within their distinguished alotment of "an online vigilantism movement that tackles meatier social issues: Community organization Cop Watch Los Angeles encourages users to send in stories and pictures of people being brutalized or harassed by police, for posting on the Web." Hmmm. Police harassment vs. sexual harassment. How did the latter possibly get characterized as a most trivial misstep?!!

Same goes for the argument that hollabackers are violating a "social" or "ethical" law, by supposedly promoting a punishment, noted by the Voice as a "digital scarlet letter," that far outweighs the crime. Interesting choice of metaphor; the scarlet letter being a historically gendered mark for regulating women's sexuality. Indeed, if holla'ing back is subverting an age-old gendered practice by instead effectively regulating men's sexual violations, then fantastic! The Voice makes a crucial mistake here: it equates hollaback with the scarlet letter timelessly; thereby ignoring what historical subversion means. To subvert is to turn the norm on its head, by simultaneously questioning the very ground that preserves that norm. The ground, in this case, is the imbalanced power differential between women and men; the one that preserves "Big Brother's" rights, while immediately questioning and silencing "Little Sister's."

Ultimately, we're still debating - personally and publicly - about the value of being called "vigilantes." We're sure of HOW we courageously take wrongful matters into our own hands in violating moments, not to mention WHY: for the very reason that women have had no other effective recourse. Recall that Thao Nguyen was completely disregarded by the police when she brought the picture of the NYC subway masturbator to them, hoping for action. It was only when the online circulation and media took up the case that the public and privates spheres started to take her violation seriously.

In the future, if and when hollabackers are cast in the role of cyber vigilantes, we would prefer that it's for the meatier reason that sexual harassment has to be vigorously and seriously combated, which includes elevating public opinion of gendered assault to an EQUAL standard of social significance as other forms of assault. And, speaking of, we could do without the comparison to dog shit.

Written by Hilary Allen, Michelle Riblett, & Brittany Shoot. Creative Commons 2.5.

Labels: , , ,