June 19, 2015
by Stacey Forrester
As part of international Anti Street Harassment Week in April, I led a campaign that asked people to record the number of times street harassment interrupted their day over a twenty-four-hour period. Participants would click on a counter twice for every time they directly experienced street harassment, and once for any time street harassment otherwise negatively affected them (e.g., avoiding a block where they were previously harassed). Participants were also given a sketchbook to journal or doodle to express feelings that the campaign provoked. At the end of the twenty-four hours, they passed everything on to another participant.
Following the two-week campaign, we displayed the numbers and the art at a wrap-up party at the end of April. It was my hope that through this initiative, I could teach my community that street harassment is a real problem that impacts people’s access to public space and perceptions of safety. Here, I share what the campaign taught me.
- Street harassment affects your day more than you think.
Street harassment culture is so pervasive in our lives that we often don’t even think about it until we are asked to think about it. This may be a survival mechanism, or may be a result of finely sharpened “tuning out” skills as a result of dealing with this shit for most of our lives. My own daily routine now includes things I do without realizing, like adding ten minutes onto my walk to work to avoid a new construction site down the block, or using my large handbag to cover my neckline when passing in front of a certain business’s outdoor “smoking area.” I encourage people to try this exercise for themselves: carry a counter and pay attention. Use your clicks as “teachable moments” to talk about street harassment and rape culture with partners, children, or coworkers.
- But not all men…
Wait. Have I changed my tune? Well no, allow me to qualify this statement. When it comes to street harassment, not all men … get it. The repeat offenders hollering out of cars or from scaffolding two stories up are committing deliberate acts of harassment that play off power dynamics. The creep bothering you while you are out with friends and who wont take “no” for an answer is fueled by a sense of entitlement in regards to women. I am not talking about those men. Just as patriarchy has forced beauty ideals and gendered norms on me, it has taught men to value and express appreciation of those things. In most men, it doesn’t manifest in the form of street harassment, but it also doesn’t get unpacked, challenged or analyzed.
There are men out there who really just don’t understand the problem in say, asking a woman to smile. I met a couple of these men at the wrap-up party, and watched them as they circled the art twice or even three times, pausing wide-eyed in front of a select few pieces. They were the men asking questions and (more importantly) listening fully and openly as people answered. These men, having had their a-ha moment, are unbelievably valuable to the feminist movement. They are more likely to be the ones challenging their coworkers and friends now that they have had a glimpse of the other side.
- There is no one way to define, experience, or represent street harassment.
We all walk through our lives with different trauma, identities, oppressions, coping skills, secrets, support networks, stressors, and triggers. This means that harassment can look and feel and affect everyone’s life in different ways. Rather than attempt to synthesize the experience into something universal, it is much more productive to honour this difference, and dissect what it is about the cities and society that makes difference unsafe.
- Street harassment awareness can be a gateway feminism.
This is kind of related to #2, but less specific to men. One of the most common questions I get asked (and not just by male-identifying folk) about street harassment is something along the lines of, “But aren’t there bigger problems for women to worry about?” They seem to think those “bigger problems” exist in a vacuum with zero connection to any of the micro-aggressions subjugated groups face in their day-to-day activities.
My answer to these types of dismissals? “Yes, exactly!” I am acutely aware that women often face much more serious acts of violence, with far too much frequency. However, I believe that things like street harassment act as systemic support beams, which structurally hold up those more serious forms of violence. So taking a stand against something that is “less serious” is still important as it weakens those buttresses.
If we can place acts of violence on a continuum, then we can also place entry points to activism on that same continuum. While it isn’t my job to make feminism more palatable or easier to swallow, I do feel a responsibility to jump on opportunities to connect “feminist” issues with people who maybe don’t realize certain things are feminist issues. Street harassment is a good example of such an opportunity because it can be talked about in so many different ways. At the art show I overheard it being framed in conversations about race, sexual orientation, urban planning, gentrification and socio-economics. There were people (including women) who told me outright they “weren’t feminists,” but still felt moved by the show. Score one for feminism.
- It’s all about delivery.
While there is no context in which a stranger shouting “Nice T*ts” could be called anything else other than street harassment, in some circumstances how and when things are said influence how we receive them. One woman at the show illustrated this in her story about someone yelling at her: “That dress is a great colour on you!” She had the clicker but paused a moment before deciding not to press it. Why? In this case, the person saying it was whizzing past on a bike. There was no extended assessment, no sense of entitlement, or prolonged time in which she felt trapped inside the encounter.
- When throwing social justice events, social media is your friend.
Thanks to shares, retweets, likes, and favourites, we had people all across North America aware of our event. Media messaged us relentlessly through the Hollaback! Facebook page with interview requests. While it’s by no means a reliable prediction for turn out, we had double the amount of people clicking “attending” than could fit it the venue. This interest motivated us to promote even harder, and do all we could to make the event the best it could be all because people were paying attention and interested.
- Affordable, accessible public spaces are crucial to community activism.
So this isn’t specific to street harassment, but in hunting for a venue that met our requirements (as close to free as possible, accessible space AND washroom, safe, on a main transit line) I came to see how valuable these spaces are. If you want to bring all of community together to talk about important things, you need a space that all of your community can access. If your city or town has one of these, support it! Throw your next event there, volunteer with them, donate cash or items they need. If this is something your community is missing, advocate and organize to try and get one going.
- What’s in a number?
Too often we tend to rely on quantifiable indicators in determining the seriousness of a problem. Statistics and polls are often used to evoke an emotional “buy in” from stakeholders and community members. Higher percentages (e.g., large numbers of victims) legitimize where and how we distribute attention and resources. I bought into this school of thought as well. I created the campaign to show my city exactly how much of a problem street harassment is. I figured with ten counters out for fourteen days, even with some attrition due to delays in passing them on, we could still easily get eighty participants.
In media interviews I boasted we had the potential to get 140 different experiences. When reports asked me to speculate about what the average number would be (which almost all of them did), I couldn’t come up with an answer. I referred them back to that being one of the purposes of the campaign: to put a number beside the problem.
When the two weeks were up we ended up with a little under half of our goal, thirty participants. Would thirty be enough of a return to have people take street harassment seriously?
The cover page of the sketchbook was where people wrote their name and the number on the counter when their twenty-four hours were up. The numbers on these pages fell on a wide range from 0 to 24 (with “in one lunch hour” scribbled beside it) to 71. Did I need to boast the higher numbers to justify my cause? How would I speak to the media about the 1,2, and 3’s that came back?
I did some loose math, calculated the mean, and figured that if each participant slept eight hours out of their twenty-four, street harassment interrupted their waking day every 1 hour and 43 minutes. But was that enough? Where was the fictitious line that needed to be crossed to “legitimize” this problem?
Turns out the answer wasn’t in the numbers at all. Inside the sketchbooks were beautiful, raw expressions of what it feels like to be objectified, yelled at, threatened, sexualized, fetishized, and targeted and intimidated as you try to move about the community you call home. People recounting their experiences and illustrating the impact on their daily lives made even the “1” on the list seem like too many times for a person to be subjected to this in a day, never mind 71. Which leads me to say…
- Stories are powerful.
I see sharing stories as a powerful tool to chip away at the culture, at those support beams I mentioned above, at the conditions in our society that have historically normalized street harassment as the toll you pay for being female, or being gay or lesbian, or being trans* or gender non conforming or even just being some degree of “different” and in public space.
Stories show our strength in the face of this daily reality. Stories hold a lot of weight. The “big reveal” of the totals at the party ended up being the foot notes of our tales, referring the audience back to the chapters and driving home the point that what we are saying has unfortunately come from years of research.
- Feminism is fun!
Ok, maybe I already knew this one. The wrap-up party was a much-needed reminder that there is nothing like celebrating small victories along the road to liberation in the company of partners in crime, allies, and new friends. Just make sure you have a great playlist.
Stacey Forrester is a nurse who lives and works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She has a penchant for community, DIY, social justice, misfits, harm reduction, and music. She explores these things and more in her zine, “You’re a Masterpiece.”
Previously: THAT GUY WHO ISN’T YOU