SAAM #4: Street Harassment

I’ve written about street harassment before, but wanted to revisit it as I wrap up this week in support of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).

“Street harassment is any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation. In countries like India and Bangladesh, it’s termed “eve teasing,” and in countries like Egypt, it’s called “public sexual harassment.”– http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/about/what-is-street-harassment/

Recently, one of my favorite black women bloggers posted about the work of Hollaback! an organization that fights against street harassment.  Majority of black women responded with support of the Hollback! campaign “stop telling women to smile…”

Poster by Tatyana fazlalizadeh
Poster by Tatyana fazlalizadeh

A couple of black men also responded, not understanding what the big deal was if they tell a “sista” to smile.  Because of the very real oppression black men face in our imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (thank you, bell hooks) it’s hard for them to recognize that they receive male privilege. It’s not the same level of privilege as white men or other even other men of color, but they do get some.

“There are many reasons why black men, generally speaking, have issues with confronting sexism. One reason is explained by this common finding of social science research: Societies tend to align in hierarchies wherein one group is privileged over another. The natural inclination is to identify more closely with the group that provides higher status. Since men enjoy more privilege than women, and blacks less than whites, black men consider themselves men first because it affords privilege…The external narrative that focuses on the tragedies of the black male coupled with the mechanisms black men develop to cope with racism and subjugation equate to an inherent difficulty in seeing the world through the eyes of black women. As such, it takes a genuine and concerted effort for us to recognize the ingrained sexism in our communities.”–http://thegrio.com/2013/08/30/the-reality-of-black-male-privilege/

Because of their male privilege, many black men tend lack self-awareness about the things they do to women, just like other men.  They don’t understand why street harassment is annoying to black women, because it doesn’t click that they aren’t the  first one to give a “compliment” that day. They are not the second one to give a “compliment.” Or the third. Or the fourth. Or even the fifth. A woman can literally be harassed all day by strange men. Black women are especially vulnerable since our bodies/personal space has never been respected in America.  Telling a stranger “to smile” may seem like a little thing, but it can be stressful for a woman to have to entertain folks they don’t even know.

It’s strange a lot of black men don’t get this, as it’s no different from the racial games/masks they often have to wear in the presence of white folks.  Being forced to smile or cheese to show they are a non threatening black man.  It’s obnoxious, ain’t it.

Also, a lot of street harassment can turn scary quick. As I discussed in my previous post on this issue,  black women have been assaulted/killed for not responding “properly” to a strangers comments. I know a lot of men feel they would never got that far, but why create an uncomfortable situation for a woman to begin with?

It’s a tricky situation for black men and women, because it’s a cultural thing to give each other the head nod or call each other brother/sister, and really mean no harm.  I think majority of black women recognize this. However, this is different from someone hollering out degrading comments about your body parts or get hostile/calling you a bitch when you don’t smile right away for them.  That’s street harassment.

Hollaback is a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world.  We work together to better understand street harassment, to ignite public conversations, and to develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces. – See more at: http://www.ihollaback.org/about/#sthash.RYbfxbX4.dpuf
Hollaback is a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world.  We work together to better understand street harassment, to ignite public conversations, and to develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces. – See more at: http://www.ihollaback.org/about/#sthash.RYbfxbX4.dpuf
Hollaback is a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world.  We work together to better understand street harassment, to ignite public conversations, and to develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces. – See more at: http://www.ihollaback.org/about/#sthash.RYbfxbX4.dpuf

Violence Against Young Women

“In San Francisco last year, a man stabbed a woman in the face and arm after she didn’t respond positively to his sexually harassing her on the street. In Bradenton, Fla., a man shot a high school senior to death after she and her friends refused to perform oral sex at his request. In Chicago, a scared 15-year-old was hit by a car and died after she tried escaping from harassers on a bus.” 

In her article“Street Harassment: Is a Man Running Over a 14-Year Old For Refusing Sex Serious Enough?” feminist blogger Soraya Chemaly details the street harassment against young women. The stories not only disturbed me, but I am outraged. Why can’t  young women make it home safely without some man harassing/stalking them?

The article reminded of my own experiences (and stories my friends have told me), walking down the street as teenagers. A good friend from high school told me about the time when she was 14-years old waiting for a bus. A man in his 30’s/40’s circled the stop in his car. Eventually, he got out of his car and invaded her personal space. He leered at her “Does your boyfriend like to play with your big boobs?” My friend said she was so scared, she didn’t know what to say. Luckily, other folks walked up to the bus stop.  The man hopped back in his car and drove away.  I remember when I was 16-years old and waiting for a bus.  At the time, I was wearing braids. Two grown men passed me. One of the men tugged my braids.  Of course, I gave him a dirty look, as he touched my body without permission. He just laughed. He then started saying vulgar things to me. I ignored him. Because I wasn’t responding like he wanted, the guy got angry and started cussing me out.  He walked up to me like he was going to hit me. His friend stopped him and pulled him away. “Come on man, she’s just a kid” He said.  I shudder to think what would have happened if this guy had been alone. I was scared as hell.

Young women are vulnerable to street harassment. They often walk home alone from school or rely on  public transportation. They have also been conditioned to submit to male privilege/authority. We don’t empower our young women to know that they have a right to their bodies/personal space. We live in a society that tells all women, but especially younger women, to smile/be nice/be helpful/be polite/be non-threatening. As Chemaly discussed in her article, when you add-on race, class, and disability, it makes this issue even more alarming. Young women of color are more likely to be harassed as they have been stereotyped as “fast” and overly sexualized in the media. Young women of color in poorer neighborhoods, the rate of street harassment/violence skyrocket. Women/younger women with disabilities are also more likely to be assaulted. Chemaly noted, “Consider the experiences of people with disabilities. For example, women in wheelchairs have to be on the lookout for men who push their groins into their faces.  An “architecture of aggression” renders people with disabilities far more vulnerable to harassment and potential violence. Add to the suggestion that disabled people, especially disabled women, should consider themselves especially “lucky” to get any attention.”

Our society has failed at  making the streets safe for young women. It is not a joke that young women are being stalked down streets. I know some folks don’t think catcalls/whistles are a big deal,  but usually this behavior escalates.  Male privilege allows men to think they can walk up to a woman and invade her space/act any way they want.  Or even sitting down. I encourage folks to check out the tumblr  “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on The Train.”

In order to stop violence against younger women/women, folks need to support organizations that are committed to this work. Grassroots/DIY groups like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Hollaback! are working towards ending oppression/misogyny against women. They relay on donations and word of mouth support.  Men also need to hold other men accountable. Do not just sit by and watch as a man terrifies a young woman. Speak up for the young women/women in your community.

Photo from: www.thesaudavoice.com
Photo from: http://www.thesaudavoice.com