I’m about to get robbed. That was my first thought when I saw a man cut across my quiet, residential street and dart towards me just as dusk had begun to settle over Washington, D.C. I was walking to the bus stop, en route for the grocery store and Target, and I was carrying the usual credit cards, cash and IDs. When I realized that the man was now on the sidewalk next to me, I jerked my purse away. Instead, he reached for some, eh hmm, other assets—that’s right, my behind. Then, he took off into the gloaming just as deftly as he had appeared, leaving me bewildered and cursing beneath the streetlamps.
That incident occurred back in 2008, and unfortunately, public sexual harassment continues to persist in D.C. and across the country.
The event was held in D.C.’s Malcolm X Park on July 26 and featured skillshares on topics like online activism, best practices for being an active bystander, public policy solutions, and how to talk to friends and family about street harassment. You can take a look at some photos from the event here.
The event was timely. This spring, Stop Street Harassment, a local non-profit organization, and the market research firm Gfk, teamed up to release ‘Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces, a National Street Harassment Report.’
To produce the report, SSH and Gfk conducted a 2,000-person national survey and held 10 focus groups between February and March 2014. The report revealed that “65 percent of the women surveyed had experienced some form of street harassment. Of that 65 percent, 57 percent had experienced verbal harassment and 41 percent had experienced a physically aggressive form of harassment, such as flashing, sexual touching, or being followed.”
Men are also victims. Out of the men surveyed, 25 percent had experienced street harassment. According to the report, “a higher percentage of LGBT-identified men than heterosexual men reported this, and their most common form of harassment was homophobic or transphobic slurs.”
The report found that more often than not, men are the harassers of both women and men.
Hey baby, what counts as street harassment?
Collective Action for Safe Spaces defines street harassment as “any sexual harassment that occurs in a public space when one or more individuals (man or woman) accost another individual, based on their gender, as they go about their daily life. This can include vulgar remarks, heckling, insults, innuendo, stalking, leering, fondling, indecent exposure and other forms of public humiliation.”
While many people equate street harassment with blatantly vulgar remarks like “hey girl, you look down to f**k!” street harassment also includes seemingly less-insidious actions like honking ortelling a woman to smile.
CASS states that street harassment “has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power…some do not find comments such as “Hello, beautiful” or “Hey, gorgeous” offensive. Many do. Others may find them intimidating and intrusive.”
Residents who’ve experienced street harassment or assault in the D.C. metro area can take back their power by sharing their stories on the CASS website.
#ItTakesAllofUs to end harassment on public transportation
During #ItTakesAllofUs, I learned about CASS’ work to address harassment on the Washington metro system. It was inspiring to hear how a small group of citizens had organized to make such a direct and tangible impact on local government. Here’s what I found out.
Back in 2009, CASS began compiling reports and complaints about sexual harassment in D.C. Over the next three years, coordinators realized that 30 percent of those reported incidences occurred in or around the D.C. metro system. So, the coordinators decided it was time to do something about it.
In February 2012, CASS testified before the D.C. Council and ran a campaign to pressure the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to create policies to protect metro customers. CASS recommended a public awareness campaign, data collection on sexual harassment, and training so that metro employees and transit police could protect customers who were being harassed or assaulted. In just two months, WMATA launched its unprecedented Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign.
Today, customers riding the DC Metro system can report sexual harassment incidents to Metro Transit Police at (202) 962-2121 and via the WMATA website. On the site, customers can submit detailed suspect descriptions and even email photos or video files to metro authorities. Today, WMATA continues to work in partnership with CASS.
“Online Activism 101″
I was excited to participate in my friend Renee Davidson’s skillshare, “From Invisibility to Impact: Online Activism 101.” Renee is the director of communications for CASS and a communications specialist for the League of Women Voters of the U.S. Her feminist writing has been published by Ms., Salon, Bitch Magazine, PolicyMic, Fem2pt0 and others. Last year, she was a nominee for the Women’s Media Center’s 2013 Social Media Award.
Renee shared how CASS and Stop Street Harassment used Twitter and Change.org to call out a sexist BareMinerals campaign last year. CASS and SSH learned about the campaign after Sara Alcaid, a D.C. resident, attended the Nike Women’s Marathon to cheer on her friends. At the marathon, Sara was shocked to see a group of young men brandishing signs that read, “you look beautiful all sweaty,” and “cute running shoes.” Sara found out that the men were fraternity brothers and BareMinerals—a woman-owned company—had paid them to hold the signs to promote its “Go Bare” tour.
“The women were participating in an athletic event to challenge themselves, not to be trivialized, objectified, and told they look cute by bystanders,” Renee said. “This kind of campaign is unacceptable considering that so many women choose the gym over running outdoors in order to avoid unwanted comments and leers while they’re working out.”
Sara reached out to SSH and CASS to launch a Change.org campaign. Within a few hours, BareMinerals responded with an apology and pledged to never again use the signs at future events.
In addition to Change.org, Twitter is one Renee’s favorite online campaigning tools. Tweeting under@reneetheorizes, Renee follows all of her favorite publications, bloggers and reporters and tweets at them when she has a newsworthy tip. She’s found that they often tweet back to find out more or to publish her original pieces. Asking Twitter followers to retweet content is also effective.
When I first met Renee earlier this year, I asked her what she thinks is the best way to respond to harassers on the street. While conventional wisdom teaches women (and men) that the best and safest response is to “ignore it,” I’ve found that remaining silent is disempowering and gives harassers free rein to do as they will without any kind of repercussion. Renee told me that first, she evaluates her surroundings. If she feels safe, she’ll holler back with a firm, “respect women!”
I’ve been using that one lately and found that not only is it effective, it tends to baffle harassers who are probably assuming I’ll either say nothing or smile meekly in response. And if I’m ever in a situation where a verbal comeback doesn’t feel safe, I’ll know that I can go here and here to call out the creepers online. In any case, you better believe me, I will speak up.
Lauren C. Johnson is a writer, environmentalist and incoming MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at American University. She is the founder and editor of TheDawnChorus.org.
Photos by Collective Action for Safe Spaces.
This piece was cross-posted here with permission from Dawn Chorus