Mar 04 2013

Fear of the Big, Bad Wolf: Addressing Street/Public Harassment With Girls #2

Author’s Note: As I mentioned a few of weeks ago, I am using this blog to think through some of my experiences in working with young women of color for many years to address violence. This post is a first draft of some ideas. Please do not repost any part of this anywhere else (especially without permission). I’m still working through my ideas for a long essay that I am currently writing. This means that my thoughts are still inchoate and incomplete. I never know what I think about something until I write it down so the blog is serving that purpose for me right now. I do welcome any comments and suggestions from others who have worked through these issues with young women of color as well.

YWATlogo A few weeks ago, I wrote about the personal experiences that led me to co-found the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team (YWAT) with girls of color in my community in 2003. Today, I want to share what I learned about how some young women of color conceptualize street/public harassment. [*All names have been changed]

On my block
The streets that scare me at night
Are the same streets that are supposed to protect me during the day.
These are the streets of many young girls
Young girls who don’t know that they have entered the nest where predators lay.
This is my neighborhood
This world I didn’t belong to was right around me but it seemed so very far away
Why are the cops so busy harassing young boys instead of helping me when I call out RAPE!
This world was not mine because I was scared to show off my long legs and curvy figure like most of my sistahs
I was uncomfortable in my neighborhood…

Source: “These Streets….Are Mine” by Shay Armstead, 17, leadership core member of YWAT

Young women in East Rogers Park regularly complain about routine street harassment on three major thoroughfares: Morse Ave, Clark Street, and Howard Street. On any given day, one can find young and old men standing on Morse and Howard hanging out in front of local bodegas and liquor stores or in front of the EL stations. Others cruise the streets in their cars looking to ‘hook up’ with young women. Young Women’s Action Team (YWAT) members conducted their own research about street harassment in the summer of 2003. They administered surveys to over 160 young women in Rogers Park ages 10 to 19. Over 80% of their survey respondents reported that they experienced catcalls on a daily basis. Their findings illustrated the prevalence of street harassment in Rogers Park.

At its most basic level, street harassment is “the harassment of women in public places by men who are strangers to them” (Bowman 1993, 519). It is a form of sexual harassment that encompasses different behaviors, gestures, and comments. YWAT members identify suggestive comments and gestures, name-calling, re-naming (calling you a bitch or a ho), whistling, ‘hollering’, put downs, demands for sex, following, grabbing, and touching as examples of street harassment. In addition, it was important that the target of these actions was uncomfortable by the attention in order for them to be potentially considered as violence.

Fourteen year old Tania’s definition of street harassment mirrored those offered by many others: “I define street harassment by catcalling, and unwanted attention while you’re walking down the street. You just want to be left alone, but somebody just keeps on bothering you, and telling you ignorant stuff that you don’t want to hear.” Tania’s definition of street harassment involves particular acts that take place in a public setting. But her definition includes no mention of the gender of the harasser or the victim. The overwhelming majority of the young women who I’ve worked with and interviewed over the years maintain that young women are disproportionately victimized by male harassers. Tania does not feel the need in her definition to specify who is doing the harassing and who is being targeted because for her it is a given that men harass and that women are targets. There were only a couple of instances when young women did suggest that girls can be harassers and that young men can be the targets of street harassment. Nineteen year old Maya, a founding member of YWAT, was one of the few to offer the perspective that men are sometimes victims of street harassment:

“At first I did think it was just women, you know, guys are just there to harass, but of course, as I grew older and wiser, we have at our events, the men that did come, they came and they spoke out, we are getting harassed too, and it’s surprising to me at first, some women do harass guys, it was also an issue too, because you know we work with GLBTQ, and it was myself and another girl that went to meetings with YWEP (young women’s empowerment project) and there are gays, and those guys would get harassed just because of that, you know, so I think that population of men grew unexpectedly among YWAT, wow, there are a lot of guys that get harassed.”

Maya points out that gay and transgender men experience public harassment as well. The fact that they are outside the traditional gender norms puts them at risk of harassment. Most young women, however, suggested that men were the primary perpetrators of street harassment and women the overwhelming targets. Many young women said that their body parts especially thighs, butts, breasts, and faces are targeted for comment or physical assault by the harassers. In my work with girls, I found that street harassment presented risks to their perceptions of their bodies and sexuality.

Young women have complex understandings of street harassment. Phillips (2000) believes that it is important to understand “how cultural contexts, practices, and assumptions inform young women’s thoughts and decisions (p.15).” I wholeheartedly agree with this premise. None of the young women I worked with and interviewed started off by defining street harassment as a form of “violence” against women and girls. Those who came to this understanding did so after months and sometimes years of talking and thinking about their experiences.

As a term, “violence” is at once generic and highly contested (Burman, Brown, and Batchelor, 2003). Using the word violence implies that we share a common understanding of what it means. Violence, however, means different things to different people. Much of the research produced about the kinds of violence in young women’s lives tends to focus on interpersonal violence. Violence against women and girls has become defined primarily as acts of domestic violence and sexual assault. Critics argue that this does not provide the whole picture. Marginalized groups of young women experience interlocking oppressions such as racism, ableism, homophobia, classism, along with sexism. They contend that these multiple forms of oppression contribute to the increased vulnerability of marginalized girls to violence. For example, homeless young women tend to face greater possibilities of being sexually exploited (Welsh, et al., 1995). These oppressions play a powerful role in shaping women’s experiences of violence. In her review of the Canadian literature on violence against marginalized girls, Yasmin Jiwani (1998) suggests that “it is [also] clear that these forms of oppression are constitutive of violence itself as they undermine the development of a positive sense of self and social identity, and restrict access to the resources and privileges of mainstream society (p.9).” She goes on to add: “Hence, it can be argued that the definition of violence has to be broadened to include within it, racism, homophobia, ableism, and classism (p.9).” Black feminist theorists have made the same case. I would suggest that the meaning of street harassment for young black & brown women is influenced by their social location. It cannot be understood as separate from their experiences of being black or brown women of a certain class, age, and or sexual orientation.

As highlighted earlier, feminists have reframed street harassment as a form of “violence” and yet none of the young women who I worked with or interviewed initially used the word “violence” to characterize their experiences of street harassment. For most, this was an intrusion, an annoyance, but a normal part of being a young woman in their community. Some admitted to feeling “good” when a “fine” boy tried to “talk” to them. As such these young women’s perceptions of street harassment were not necessarily straightforward and were definitely ambiguous. All attention was not viewed as demeaning or unwanted. The context of the encounter seemed to matter very much. In writing about young women’s reflections on sexuality and domination, Lynn Philips (2000) suggests that “women may perceive the same sets of interactions as simultaneously annoying and complimentary, unfair and normal, dangerous and enticing (4).” This was certainly the case among some of the young women that I interviewed.

Sixteen year old Lisa talked about the fact that street harassment is a nuisance but only became very serious if it escalated to threats of physical assault:

“I don’t know if you can really call it violence until they like, they grab on you. I think that sometimes it can get very annoying because you just don’t want to deal with it. You know but I just want to go to the store and don’t be, don’t want to be hollered at. But it can get real bad if they try to hurt you in some way. I know that happens sometimes. That makes it real serious.”

Barbara, who is thirteen years old, told me that while she experienced sexual comments from men and boys every single day, “street harassment is not as big of a deal as rape is.” Fifteen year old Hannah concurred that “street harassment is not really violence unless it leads to rape.” Nielsen’s (2000) research suggests that it is not unique for Barbara and Hannah to minimize the impact of street harassment. She finds that adult women also “downplay the significance of sexually suggestive remarks from strangers in public places [sic] by arguing that it is not as bad as it seems” (p.1077). There was among the young women that I interviewed a definite hierarchy among harms with rape being the worst possible form of violence against women and girls.

Stranger Danger in the City: Fear of Rape

In their research about how Scottish young women understand violence, Burman, Brown, and Batchelor (2003) found that “girls’ concerns about physical and sexual violence cohere around conceptions of dangerous people, mostly ‘strange men’ (but also groups of other young people, who are perceived as hostile or antagonistic) and dangerous places (p.82).” Their findings are mirrored by my own. The young women who I talked with often spoke about violence existing “out there” beyond their own social networks. In particular, young women often expressed a fear of being sexually assaulted by a stranger. Lisa, for example, spoke about the warnings that she has consistently heard from her mother about potential stranger rape:

“Mom always tells me to be careful. They’re a lot of crazies out there. Grown men who just want to rape young girls. So I really pay attention to that. That’s why it’s so bad when the grown men do the hollering at you. They are the ones that can probably be the rapists, you know.”

This concurs with many other studies that have found a similar fear among women (Gordon & Riger, 1989; Burman et. al, 2003; Day 2001; Painter 1992). In an anthology called Colonize This! Kiini Ibura Salaam (2002) captures the keen sense of foreboding that many young women experience while walking the streets on a daily basis.

“The New Orleans streets of my adolescence were a bizarre training ground where predatory men taught me that – in public – no part of me was safe from comment. At ages twelve and thirteen I was trained to keep my guard up by voices shouting lascivious phrases at me. Clothes were inconsequential, yet I inferred that the miniskirts and tight jeans would worsen the verbal attacks. Repeated lewdness can do that to you. The constancy of male aggression hammered in the suggestion that something bad could happen to me (p. 326).”

Davis (1994) argues women actually have valid objective and subjective reasons to fear that street harassment can lead to rape. She writes that “rape may begin with an act of street harassment. Potential rapists can test the accessibility of a victim by making derogatory sexual comments to determine whether she can be intimidated (p.193).” Criminologists rightly point out that most crimes against women are committed by someone who they know (Stanko, 1990; Madriz, 1997). This however does not temper the fear of crime that most women experience in public places. The facts are that most women are fully aware that they are more vulnerable than men and that some women do get raped by strangers. As 18 year old Loretta Chan writes:

“Though men have to be on guard for danger wherever they go, they still have a sense of security knowing that they might be a match for another male… We simply make easier targets – we might as well have bull-eyes emblazoned on our bodies (p.159).”

In reality, while women are frequent targets of men’s violence, they are not the most targeted group. Most violent crimes are perpetrated by men against other men (Britton, 2000). Yet girls and young women are socialized to be wary of “strange men.” They receive a series of cultural messages that impact their development. They are cautioned to not venture out by themselves late at night. Mothers and fathers insist that young women dress in “appropriate ways” and this usually entails covering up their bodies or being modest in their attire.

Our culture is often unforgiving of women and girls. It is quick to blame women for their victimization. One of the first questions that young women who complain about harassment or assault encounter is “what were you wearing?” A close second is “what did you do to lead him on?” Young women internalize these accusatory questions and are often quick to resort to victim-blaming themselves. One of the most difficult ideas to disabuse the young women of YWAT of was that the way that women dress encourages street harassment.

Fifteen year old Ella believes that some young women want to draw attention to themselves on the streets: “I know girls, girls who like be talked to on the street. They wear tight clothes and they want to be hollered at.” I am convinced that many of the young women in YWAT, even after months and years of workshops about the roots causes of violence against women and girls still harbored this belief in their heart of hearts. I theorize that the tendency for young women to blame other girls for their harassment is connected to the fact that they lack a discourse of male accountability for violence. Phillips (2000) correctly points out that “[w]hether or not we are consciously aware of their influence, social messages, practices, and power relations impact on who we are and how we move through our lives (p.16).”

More to come…