Whether it’s getting catcalled or being told to smile, almost every woman deals with street harassment. But it took until this summer to stage the first-ever international conference on street harassment, which took place over the weekend of July 25th at New York University.
Grassroots anti-street-harassment group Hollaback organized the event, welcoming community organizers, nonprofit members, and just plain angry folks to share histories and to air out grievances about everyday sexual harassment.
It’s clear that at the end of the event that street harassment is all about ownership of space. Writer Tanisha Love Ramirez, for example, lamented the social anxiety she’s developed over the years, dealing with street harassment so often she became a recluse and stayed in the one space she knew she could control: “I didn’t want to go to the store, I didn’t want to go out and buy food… and I wouldn’t even go out with my friends or my own little brother. It just got so bad.”
To deal with street harassment, many of the speakers discussed creative ways to redefine public spaces to work for them, from speaking up calmly to taking up breakdancing.
That example comes from Rokafella, a Puerto Rican b-girl goddess, who said she started breakdancing to discourage dudes from bothering her while out. “I really like dancing, but I had problems at the club. [Men] wouldn’t let me dance!” she said. While speaking, she leaned back slowly, stood on her head and suddenly propelled her legs around her body, performing a Helicopter on stage. “You can’t grab my ass while I’m breakdancing,” she said, “Or I’ll kick you in the neck!”
Nicola Briggs is a Tai Chi instructor who found internet fame after fighting back against a predator on the subway in 2010. After successfully humiliating her offender, she encourages all victims of street harassment to speak out without worrying about being polite. “Don’t let good manners ruin your day,” she said, “If someone crosses your boundaries, you can defend yourself… Even if you don’t do what I did, you did the right thing for you, by responding the way you did or didn’t.”
Jimmie Briggs, of the organization Man Up, recalled a time when he was out with his daughter and encountered a man publicly beating a woman. People passed through as though nothing was happening. Briggs, concerned about keeping his daughter safe, but also about setting a good example as a bystander, intervened. “Is there a problem here?” he asked calmly, creating space between the woman and the attacker. Bewildered, the aggressive man simply walked away.
Ryann Holmes from Bklyn Boihood brought the home a major point about redefining how masculinity is expressed in public space. Holmes, a queer woman of color who identifies as a boi (or as a queer person whose identity is on the masculine end of the spectrum), explained the ways in which street harassment has impacted her perception of gender and maleness. “We look for images to affirm our own masculinity,” she said, “Some are violent and fucked up. In hopes that these images are going to validate who we are, we [adopt] them.”
Many speakers stressed was that the root cause of street harassment is a violent form of masculinity, which often relies on the disrespect of women. But Holmes showed that the hostility behind street harassment is not just a problem coming from cisgender men. Some of my friends, queer men of color, have actually experienced much degrading harassment by white heterosexual women. “You look good for a Mexican,” said one woman, reaching for his hair. “Mmmm, nice legs,” purred an older woman into my friend’s ear in Union Square. And I often fear for my transgender friends who face harassment from people of all ages and genders.
While street harassment is no doubt about control of power and space more than it is about sexual attraction, it’s a behavior that exists to maintain other structures of power. It’s not as simple as men harassing women; it’s one’s special way to remind you who the bosses are in this world—and those bosses exist across gender, race and class lines.