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.
If you read popular anti-street harassment blogs and media coverage of the topic, a pattern of perpetrator name-calling rapidly emerges, and some of the most prevalent terms you'll hear to describe the guys who "holla" at women and girls in public spaces are "pervert," "asshole," and "creep." I've always felt uneasy at this type of dehumanizing, knee-jerk response, and at this defining stage of street harassment, it would be wise to interrogate its purpose and meaning in shaping a new narrative regarding violence against women.
In the process of creating a "movement" to end street harassment, we must interrogate the full scope of the problem that ableism brings to the issue itself, the way the issue is shaped by ableist anti-street harassment activists, and the holistic effectiveness of solutions. If who might be left out of an anti-street harassment movement's framing and tactics fails to be a central concern to activists who say that all people deserve equal access to the streets, then it ain't gonna be a true revolution.
Before I ever met Transport Workers Union organizer Cheska Tolentino, I knew I was going to like her. Over lunch one day our mutual friend (and my Hey, Shorty! co-author), Meghan Huppuch, said to me with a grin, "You haven't met Cheska yet? Oh, you're gonna like her... a lot." Meghan and Cheska had been working together for a year in a coalition effort to increase subway safety called New Yorkers for Safe Transit. I was a new member of that coalition and was still in the process of meeting all the others. Any rave review from Meghan is good enough for me, and sure enough, when Cheska and I met, wouldn't you know I liked her? A lot.
A question was raised in the comments of the first post of this series* that comes up over and over again in discussions of street harassment: how do we establish (and maintain) healthy and authentic selves in a sociocultural environment that is hostile to who we are?
Okay, so the question wasn't exactly posed like that. Instead, Alexandra complained about when men she doesn't know command her to smile, Franchesca wrote about negotiating beauty and arrogance, Danielle wondered "how much is them and how much is me?" and TFIsabel asked why some women are harassed more than others. In spite of their differences, all these comments have the common theme of our trying to figure out how to balance personal responsibility for shaping both ourselves and the culture in which we live with the responsibility street harassers also hold for these things. What I appreciate most about these comments is that they all point out that while street harassment is not the fault of the victims, our choices do play a role in constructing the environment in which these scenarios occur—therefore, we are not powerless to stop it.
One typical victim-blaming justification of street harassment goes something like this, "What did she think would happen when she went out wearing that?!" The logic underlying such a comment seems to be that the only women who are groped, ogled, or verbally accosted on the street are ones who choose to buck social norms of modesty by improperly displaying their sexuality—and the conclusion that follows this strain of logic is that there is no other possible reading by the men who observe this type of "non-normative" behavior than to perceive it as an invitation for all types of commentary and conduct, from the annoying to the illegal. Many feminists are all too familiar with this wrongheaded sentiment when it comes to sexual violence and harassment, but the news out of France recently has caused me to consider its relevance to another gendered freedom, or rather lack thereof, in France: the state prohibition of Muslim women wearing the niqab in public.
When I was in college, I decided to try my hand at being one of those too-cool-for-cars biker girls who dons a punk rock sticker-clad helmet and a rolled up right cuff—the phase lasted approximately two weeks. A friend I had a jealousy-crush on had gone out of town for the summer and when she mentioned that she needed a place to stash her ride, I heartily volunteered to keep it. I'd hoped I would become as hip as I thought she was, all critical mass and tattoos. But like most attempts at fitting in made in haste, this one wasn't entirely thought through.
You know, I was gonna start off with a standard intro, but that was mucking up my flow, so I had to switch it up in order to get unstuck. If you've spent some time around these parts, you may remember my original Bitch blogging series, a two-parter called On the Map, where I provided a slight peek at feminisms that exist around the globe. It's been a year since that gig ended, and I am thrilled for the opportunity to return for a new series—this time about an issue I've been struggling with for two decades that has picked up steam in the mainstream: street harassment. I use the word "struggle" intentionally because of its multiple meanings, and if you continue to read Takin' it to the Streets (which I dearly hope you do!), then you'll soon find out what I mean.
The game is called "Hey, Baby", and it is a game about street harassment. It is a first-person shooter where you play as a woman walking around a city fighting off waves of men who approach you while repeating "classic" street harassment lines, everything from the notorious "Smile, baby" to shouted rape threats. Killing the harassers results in a gravestone popping up with their line engraved on it.