Friday, November 26, 2010

When a "Hello" is not just a "Hello"

The effect of patriarchy on one's life varies greatly depending on race, class, ability, gender identity, and other personal identities, realities and privileges. Even though misogyny affects everyone, the ways in which misogyny plays out in our lives are as diverse as our personal narratives. One oppression that reaches into the lives of all of us though, at least all of us who participate in the public world, is gender based street harassment.

I bet every person that reads this has either experienced gender based street harassment or, has witnessed it happen to someone they know or a stranger near by them, at least once in their lives if not on multiple occasions. For many women, it is multiple occasions every week, or every time they go outside their home at all. If you don't know what I mean by street harassment, this comic in an article about street harassment in Sociological Images gives a good image of the varieties of verbal harassment that women face on a regular basis.

Gender based street harassment also happens to gender non conforming people who don't identify as women but who are still experiencing misogynist violence. For example, when I get fag bashed in public, I get harassed because I am appearing too feminine or markedly queer while being a man. This is a form of gender based harassment that evolves from misogynist values about what a man should be, should look like, and so on. Men and other persons who may not experience gender based street harassment themselves directly are subject to the effects of being witness to the street harassment of those around them. It really does touch the lives of everyone.

For an oppression so widespread, there exists little legal remedy for street harassment. Multiple studies from all over the world show that often the majority of participants (if not 100%!) had experienced street harassment ranging from annoying but benign commentary to physical assault. Despite its overwhelming prevalence in daily life, the legal avenues of accountability for street harassment are limited. Unless the encounter meets the definition of lewd public behavior (which many quite offensive and threatening street harassment encounters don't fall within) or is violent enough to be considered assault or battery, there usually will be no legal avenue to hold perpetrators of the street harassment accountable.

This lack of legal accountability is especially frustrating considering the strength of the sexual harassment accountability movement in the workplace and schools. Anti-sexual harassment legislation in the public spheres of work and school became the Federal norm in 1964 and 1972, respectively, with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX. More than 40 years later there is no equivalent for street harassment, nor do I believe there will be any time soon.

A recent example in New York City brought up the tensions of why legislating against street harassment has such a tense and unsuccessful history. The City Council heard from an organized group of activists proposing new city regulations attempting to create accountability for street harassment. As addressed in this New York Post article about the meeting, the most common concerns of opponents of street harassment legislation are the practical realities of enforcement and the possibility of First Amendment violations.

Personally, I also have concerns about enforceability. My concerns are that this would be another tool for police to oppress otherwise already marginalized and targeted classes, like men of color and homeless persons. I also struggle to ever limit free speech (the First Amendment concern). I don't consider street harassment to be protected free speech however; street harassment borders more on assault where words become acts. If a person is making a repeated unwanted statement and coming closer and closer to my body, and I am afraid they will touch my body, this is usually getting closer the legal situation for assault, not an expression of someone's right to free speech. Where does the perpetrator's right to free speech end and womens' right to be free of unwanted harassment in public space begin? Further, how do you address the subtleties of street harassment, like how to define when a "hello" is not just a "hello"?

While the mainstream legal remedies lag behind, there is much that can be done personally to address the street harassment that is around us all most of the time. Grassroots projects like Hollaback! provide victims of street harassment with a venue for voicing their anger, their responses, their strength and for receiving solidarity and support. Similar grassroots anti-street harassment projects and maps have been developing all over the world. Activist's like those at Stop Street Harassment are creating ideas for accountability for cities to implement, like the proposed No-Harassment zones in NYC.

One thing we can all do everyday to address street harassment, is to stand up for those around us who are being harassed. The silence of social shame is one of the reasons this kind of behavior continues to thrive. If the (mostly) men who perpetrate street harassment are protected by free speech, then we should all be using our free speech protected voices to protect the bodies of those being harassed. This violence marks all our lives but we all have the power to create immediate accountability while it is happening. Even the youngest among us can create this change. I will end this post with this video made in conjunction with Stop Street Harassment project by a young artistic fellow who understands that his voice, even as a kid, is a powerful tool for addressing misogyny in the streets.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Street harassment goes beyond just words used and also takes damaging non-verbal forms. Hallaback had this great poem and although I can't find the author, I want to say that I appreciate the debth of the message and stand in solidarity with all women and gender non- conforming persons on this issue.

Below is the poem:


I am not sorry for my curve
For the fine, rounded edges of my hips
The arm bare in summer dresses
You grab as if it’s yours.
You can keep whistling
But I don’t do tricks;
Nor do I lay down.
My ears are wide open and hear every word
But yours must be closed, because you can’t hear the tears I’ll no longer cry.
Your power is bullshit,
Your dominance, an illusion.
And PLEASE spare me from the “what? I was just playing!”
Or the “can’t you take a joke?”
And especially the “you’re just a dumb bitch/slut/ho/cunt/whore.”
The culture of fear you perpetuate is no game,
The only joke is you,
And I am only the labels I choose to take on.
What if I was your mother?
Your sister? Your grandmother?
Your girlfriend? Your niece?
Or any of the other women in your life you clearly failed to listen to?
And yes,
I know my dress is short.
That’s how I like it.
So swallow your words,
Keep your hands to yourself,
And if you even think about harassing me,
I will find an opening in your head (perhaps through the ear),
Voyage to your brain,
And pick that thought right out of your stupid fucking skull.
With a bounce in my step
I glide down the street with no apologies.