Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Let's Talk about Street Harassment

Trigger warning: The below includes explicit descriptions of street harassment and sexual assault.


The issue of street harassment has gotten a bunch of attention in the media lately.  According to stopstreetharassment.org:
Gender-based street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. 
Street harassment is a problem in general, but is especially prevalent on college campuses (where many astronomers work), is especially scary at night and in isolated places (when and where astronomical observing happens), can affect how safe someone feels traveling alone to unfamiliar places (like conferences and observatories) or how late they feel comfortable staying at work.  Street harassment is something, that while might seem like a non-astronomy issue, actually can have real impact on the professional life of an astronomer because it affects one's ability to travel freely through the world without fear of violence or abuse.

Part of the problem with gender-based street harassment is that it rarely happens to women (or more generally people who are not masculine-presenting-cis-males) when they are accompanied by men. Therefore this is a phenomenon that many men (who are not harassing people themselves) never witness.

In response to the various videos and cartoons about this topic that have been circling the internet, I have recently had several conversations with men in my life about street-harassment. These men say they are surprised that this still happens "this day in age" or ask "but isn't it nice to get attention?" or "doesn't that make you feel attractive?"

These same men were shocked when I shared the specifics of how street harassment has manifested itself in my life.  Even though sharing these experiences is difficult for me, I believe it is useful to help people who have never experienced or witnessed street-harassment understand this phenomenon. Below is a non-exhaustive list of things that have happened to me -- personally -- by male strangers in public spaces:
  • I am walking down the street and a man grabs my crotch, or my breasts, or my butt (all three have happened).
  • I am biking up a hill and a man rides up next to me and starts pushing me from behind. I repeatedly tell him to stop and that he is scaring me. He doesn't stop (even when I say three times: please stop touching me) until my boyfriend who is biking ahead of me turns around. The man then makes an annoyed comment as he bikes away saying that he was just "fooling around."
  • I am walking down the street and a man starts following me and talking to me. I tell him to leave me alone, but this makes him invade my space more or push me up against a wall (both have happened).
  • I am walking down the street and a man puts himself in my path, blocking my way, and wont let me pass until I do something for him (i.e. "smile", "say please", "give him a hug", or "give him a kiss").
  • I am walking down the street and a group of men start following me. They follow me to my motel room and try to push themselves into my room. They stand there banging on the door until I call the front desk and another man asks them to leave.
  • I am walking down the street and a man starts following me. I go into a shop. He waits outside of the shop for 5 minutes staring at me from the window.
  • I am getting out of my car and a man who is walking down the street stops, turns around, and stares at me from the sidewalk. He mumbles under his breath and makes threatening gestures. He starts to follow me as I cross the street to go into my house. I have to ask another passerby (man) to wait with me until the man walks away.
  • I am biking down the street and a car drives very close to me and the men in the car scream "watch out!" I swerve and almost fall off my bike, and then they start laughing as they pass by.
  • I am walking down the street and men driving in a car yell obscenities at me like the c-word, or tell me a sexual act they would like me to do to them.
  • I am driving on the freeway and look at the car driving in the lane next to me. It is a man masturbating in a obvious fashion and staring at me smirking.
  • I am walking down the street at night and the streets are empty. A man is walking behind me. I cross the street. He crosses the street. I cross the street again, he crosses the street again. Another man is coming from the other direction. I turn around and start following that man to get the first guy to stop following me.
  • I am walking down the street. A man shouts something at me, maybe it's a compliment, maybe it's not. I ignore him because I don't feel like talking to anyone. He responds to my silence by getting angry and calling me disrespectful names.
  • I am walking down the street and as I pass by, a man yells explicit sexual comments about my body; Saying what he'd like to do to me, how he would like to touch me; or calling out physical characteristics about my butt, chest, lips, or legs.
For those reading this who don't know me personally, just to dispel some stereotypes of what you think people who get street-harassed look/dress like, here is a picture (left) of how I typically present myself in public (I'm the one without the mustache).

As you might imagine, the above interactions did not feel good to me.  I did not enjoy that attention, nor did I take it as complimentary.  In fact much of the above made me feel very scared and worried that the situation would escalate into further assault and/or violence.  I am petite and most of the people who did the above were ~1.5X my weight and ~7-inches taller than me. This physical power difference makes the above experiences even more scary and intimidating.

You might think, that perhaps I am particularly unlucky in having had the above experiences, or somehow provoking them to happen to me.  It turns out, I am not unique or alone. Street harassment is pervasive and happens to most women, transgender and queer folks. Below are some statistics collected by Collective Action DC:
  • Over 99 percent of women report facing some form of street harassment.
  • 90 percent of gay & bisexual men report experiencing street harassment.
  • 8 percent of transgender folks report being physically attacked or assaulted in public.
  • Over 37 percent of women have had a stranger masturbate at or in front of them in public.
  • 53 percent of transgender folks report being verbally harassed or disrespected in public.
  • 57 percent of women reported being touched or grabbed by a stranger in public.
  • 62 percent of women say a man has purposely blocked their path at least once.
  • 59 percent of gay & bisexual men reported changing their routes to avoid street harassment.
  • 27 percent of women report being assaulted at least once in public by a stranger.
Perhaps I have convinced you that street harassment is a real and pervasive problem.  Many people who do not experience street harassment themselves do not know how to respond to this information or how to help.  Many people who are experiencing street harassment do not know how to stop it from happening or respond to it.  Below are some ideas of how we can prevent street harassment, help victims of street harassment, be better allies, and appropriately respond to street harassers. These ideas mostly come from these two articles on Everyday Feminism:

1) Educate yourself on what constitutes street harassment and stop participating in this behavior yourself or condoning it in others.

2) Listen in solidarity and with concern when people talk about their experiences of street harassment.

3) Hold people accountable. This involves calling people out when you see them engaging in street harassment or hear them describing harassing behavior.  This involves talking to your friends, family, and colleagues about this problem and helping to educate them.  This involves learning bystander intervention techniques.

4) Educate young people about consent and respecting bodily autonomy.

5) Learn and practice appropriate responses to harassers either as a victim or a bystander.

6) If you have been harassed, consider sharing these experiences with people in your life (if you feel safe/comfortable).  If you have not been harassed, ask people who you are close with if they can help you better understand this experience.

7) Report harassment to authorities.

8) Get involved with community organizations and activist groups to prevent street harassment in your local community.  Work to make your workplace, classrooms, meetings, and conferences safe.

9) Join the Astronomy Allies Program to help prevent harassment from happening in our professional community and support those who are victims of harassment.

10) Participate in the CSWA workplace climate survey. This survey will allow us to better understand issues (like harassment) directly impacting our field.

Other ideas?  Share them in the comments section below!