Almost every woman knows why strangers hooting and hollering at people on the street is a problem. More than 80 percent of women experience gender-based street harassment: unwanted sexual comments, demands for a smile, leering, whistling, following, and groping. Many men do, too, especially in the queer community.
Having recently returned to New York from Detroit's Allied Media Conference and two stops in the Midwest on my nationwide book tour, I am feeling reinvigorated by the innovative grassroots organizing work happening all over the country, enabling participation in communities of support and healing. Being a radical activist can be alienating, from both mainstream society and those who broker power in organizations that participate in more traditional types of organizing. Coming into this series I was unsure of how readers might respond to some of my less popular criticisms of street harassment's framing, but given the overwhelmingly positive response, I end this series feeling hopeful about street harassment's future in the grand scheme of social justice.
The disdain in many comments on street harassment is palpable and the message they hold is clear: if you're a girl or woman who likes receiving overt sexual attention from men and boys in public, it's because you lack the self-respect necessary to throw off the confines of external validation regarding female sexuality and beauty.
When over 200 press outlets worldwide covered the street harassment hearing in New York City, the photo that accompanied the popularly distributed article depicted four construction workers watching a woman walk by. Despite the fine print reading that none of the construction workers in the picture were actually harassing women, their guilt is implied in the composition of the image, the fact that its accompanying an article on street harassment, and a widely held stereotype about construction workers' propensities to cat call women. Whether working-class men truly engage in harassing behaviors more than men from other socioeconomic groups is up for debate, but because they're stereotyped as such from the jump, the workers themselves and the women who pass by work sites are taught to expect the men to act that way.
I wrote in Part I about the problem of a "neutral" women representing all victims of street harassment, and in this post I want to tell a story about how I've seen this happen in my own work. I will also provide strategies that anti-street harassment activists who conform (in various ways) to the "neutral" woman standard can constructively use their own visibility to better represent the breadth of street harassment's victims beyond the traditional archetype.
In my last post I wrote about a few of the problems I've observed regarding the way anti-street harassment blogs and the media construct "perpetrators" of harassment. In this post I want to build on those thoughts by bringing in their construction of "victims" as well. Collective Action for Safe Spaces asked in the comments of my first post of this series for an analysis of the roles race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and sexual identity play in street harassment, and I think this is a good place to dig into that more deeply. However, this will be a multi-part post because these issues require too much unpacking for just one entry.
Filmmaker and educator Nuala Cabral entered into anti-street harassment activism in 2009 with her short film Walking Home. Her aim is to use her artistic talents "as a tool to build understanding, share silenced voices and provoke social change." I spoke with her about what she's been up to during the last two years and what her plans are in Philly this summer.