Friday, July 13, 2007

Street Harassment Watch Begins

So, I've been meaning to devote a portion of this blog to the issue of street harassment in the various cities I travel to. Street harassment is defined by the young women organizers at Girls for Gender Equity, Inc. as "when men, boys, of all ages constantly try to get us to talk to them, get our numbers, any kind of advancement that we don't like and they keep on doing it," a definition I think is very much on point. What is also curious to me personally after having resided for three years or longer in three different U.S. cities (Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C./Prince Georges County, MD) is how street harassment takes different forms. In St. Louis, it was practically nothing for a random stranger, a man, to grab your arm, or touch your back, and punctuate his entitlement to your personal space with a drawling "hey gurl" in your ear. And it was different for different types of women. I've had men pinch my Africana-round booty in the club while one of my homegirls had a man she'd never seen before in her life run his hands up through her long, curly hair. I had a man offer to buy me, and pull out a $20 to that effect. And after I ignore them all, they call me out my name: "Fuck you then, bitch."

As much as a shock it was realizing that I could pretty much expect to get groped so that some random black man could affirm his masculinity (and in my experience there it was always black men), in the D.C./MD area, the violation was much worse. The rare grab at my hands or arms might still occur but even more intrusive was the "HEY SEXY!!!!!!!" I was subject to every time I walked out of my house. If it isn't a "hey sexy," its a "hey mama." If it's not a "hey mama," its a "why don't you smile for me?" to just the unnecessarily loud, "DAYM." Not all black men either. It was apparently what some social theorists might call an aspect of underclass culture: black, poor white, and Latino men.

Really? Is it that serious? Do I need to hear you yell at my ass--cause you certainly weren't engaging my scintillating intellect--from all the way down the block? Why should I smile for you--who the hell are you???? And then there are the honks, the yells out of car windows, the men who stop their cars in front of me at the bus stop asking me to get in--DEMANDING sometimes that I get in their cars...

It is not flattering. I am not flattered. It doesn't make me feel sexy or attractive. It makes me feel like a walking cunt. But "a man is just a man," after all. Yeah...

Having experienced this for about three years, I came back to Chicago for the summer and....silence. Except for the rare honk, "hey" and leering look. Blessed (pregnant with possibility of harassment but still) silence.

Why differences in places? Why do it at all?

And what is really the best way to react to it if you're just an around the way girl trying to get from one destination to the other without a fight but with a little of her own self-respect intact?

That's what the street harassment watch is for. I'm not sure if it will serve any radical purpose, but this blog is about breaking silence, no? And I need some place to vent. So peep game to the right.

In the meantime, for more information on Girls for Gender Equity, Inc.:

Young Women in Brooklyn Fight for Respect
Girls for Gender Equity, Inc.

Another organization that has done work on street harassment in the Washington, D.C. area is Incite: Women of Color Against Violence

If anyone is aware of groups in the Chicago area doing work, comment away.


Celishia said...

Johonna said...

I am glad you're talking about this issue, Kismet. This is really important and your writing on this is on point!

I have to disagree with one thing you said though.. that sexual harassment in public spaces just comes from poor and working class i.e. men who "social theorists would call the underclass." In the work that we (Incite! Women of Color Against Violence) did in D.C., we found that this was a common stereotype, but many of our members experienced some of the most blatant and derogatory harassment on occasional visits to Georgetown (a posh white area of D.C.) by upper and middle-class white men. We also ran into a lot of problems in our activism and organizing because of this class-based perception.

A friend of mine (young black woman fully dressed) has also been randomly approached by white men on the streets of Adams Morgan in their fancy cars who tried to solicit her as if she was a prostitute. This has happened to her on more than one occassion.

In terms of strategies that work other than ignoring, try comments like "show some respect" and "would you want someone to say that (or do that) to your momma or your sister?
I have spoken back to men who have made inappropriate comments to me in some of these ways and sometimes gotten an apology. Once I was on a bus and a man I had just met and was talking to (because he had Nanon Williams' book Still Surviving in hand) could not stop himself from staring at a woman's large breasts sitting across from him. I called him out publicly and he apologized.

I'll try to post Incite! D.C.'s pamphlet on combating street harassment to my blog at some point , which has lots of ways that noth women and men can effectively address the issue.

Lastly, there is a group of girls based in Rogers Park in Chicago who has done some really excellent organizing on this issue.

p.s. This is a wonderful blog. Thank you for breaking your silence so profoundly!