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Feministing Chat: On street harassment

Editor’s note: It’s been a couple weeks now since the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! released that video of a woman getting catcalled 100 times during a day walking the streets of New York City. The video has now been viewed over 35 million times, and it’s sparked some necessary conversations about the problem of street harassment and some necessary criticism of the depiction of that harassment in the film as something that’s mostly done by men of color and only inflicted on white women. In the most recent response, friend of the site Collier Meyerson created an excellent video, in which women of color respond to the video, talk about their experiences of being harassed by white men — on the street and elsewhere — and seek to “open the conversation [and] make it broader.” Hollaback has responded to the criticism, pledging to create a video series “to show the complete, overall picture” of street harassment.

To that end, some of the Feministing crew sat down at our digital roundtable for a bit of a chat about these videos, the push to change the perception and practice of street harassment, and our own personal experiences out on the streets.

Chloe: In the Hollaback video, the overwhelming majority of the men doing the harassment are black and brown, reinforcing racist notions that black and brown men are more likely to harass women on the street — that it’s not something that “good” or “classy” (read: white, upper and upper-middle class) men would ever do, and taping into centuries-old and deeply pernicious stereotypes about black men and sexual violence. Which undermines the Hollaback message that street harassment is committed by all kinds of men and endured by all kinds of people.

I’ve lived in New York for five years now, and I’ve been catcalled pretty much every day of those five years (okay, not every day, because some days I do not leave the house, as I am a sad lonely feminist blogger with an aversion to sunshine, people, and pants). And I really have been harassed on the street by men of all backgrounds, and all races. And by lots of white dudes. White dudes in suits, white dudes in jeans, white dudes in work gear. White dudes yelling out the window of a truck with their employer’s name and phone number emblazoned on the side. The first time I was ever harassed on the street, it was by a car full of white upper-middle class guys. I was twelve, and it’s happened many times in the intervening 15 years. As one woman asked on Twitter right after the video was released, would it have been different if Roberts had been filmed walking through the Financial District? My guess — as someone who used to work down there — is that it would have been. And, in fact, according the the video’s producer, Rob Bliss, they did get a “fair amount” of white guys during the shoot — and for whatever reason, they were mostly edited out.

I’m all for changing how people think about street harassment, for getting people to take it seriously as something that shapes how already marginalized groups of people have their daily lives further curtailed. But if we’re going to have a conversation about power — which, after all, is what street harassment is all about, at its core – we need to be having it right. We need to make sure that we’re telling the story as it really happens, not just the narrative that feels the least disruptive to gendered and raced hierarchies of power. And if we’re going to support people who are harassed and shame those who do the harassing, we need to make damn sure that we include all the voices that matter — all the people who are harassed, and all the people who do the harassing.

Sesali: To Chloe’s point about the Financial District: Sure, filming in that neighborhood would have probably revealed a similar level of harassment, but would those results have been interpreted the same? *sips tea* I’ve taken issue with the framing of street harassment itself. It is an issue that seems to have only gotten the green light since white women have become vocal about feeling uncomfortable in public spaces. Women of color have been talking about assumed access to our bodies on the streets for quite some time. #FastTailedGirls offered some great examples of this for young black girls in particular.

Furthermore, I have a problem with Hollaback’s strategy for eradicating street harassment. Documenting harassment on a mobile app so that other users can see the “hotspots” is reminiscent of anti-rape tools that place the responsibility on survivors to avoid rape by not going to certain places at certain times, blowing their whistles, fighting off their assailants, and/or reporting their assaults. How about engaging men, the overwhelming perpetrators of street harassment, in education efforts that teach them to respect people’s right to personal space and daydreams on the street? What if Hollaback used that hotspot information and created street-based art/performances about street harassment directed at those who do it?

Katherine: When I was in the Pioneer Valley up in Massachusetts for a conference, I was walking down the side of the main suburban strip mall road in Hadley and a young white kid — couldn’t have been over 18 — stuck his head out of a car window and shouted at me “nice legs, baby, when do they open?” 

The simple reality is that men’s entitlement to our bodies knows no race nor any class, but the politics of who gets scapegoated for such behaviour absolutely does (to say nothing of who is considered the ideal or acceptable victim).

That I’m a trans woman also adds an additional layer to these things because of the nonsense that some people still spew which holds that trans women are somehow more privileged than cisgender women. As I’ve said til I’m blue in the face: patriarchy makes no mistakes about us. We are treated in abusive ways by men on the street, whether we are read as trans or pass for cis at any given time.

There’s a deeper, more twisted layer to this as well: when a man sexually harasses me on the street, there are two psychological responses that tend to bedevil me for hours after the fact. First is the fact that if I was harassed, that meant that I “passed for cis” and that in its own fucked up way patriarchy validated me, and as degrading as it was, I should feel grateful they did not read me as trans with all the connotations of “freak” that that carries. The perversity here, the twisted thing, is that as a trans woman with no recourse against male violence you are made to feel grateful for that blown-kiss of death bestowed by men who harass you. That echoing thought of “well, it could’ve been worse, and at least he sees me as a woman.” Nothing about that survivalist instinct is right, and I hate having to think in those terms because I feel dirty down to the very core of my being — on a political level and a personal level.

The second psychological response is the argument against that very idea: “what if he was a chaser and he actually read me as trans and that’s why he harassed me?” That thought stalked me for weeks after a man harassed me for over twenty minutes when I was at a salon and he propositioned me over and over again, even offering to pay me.

At each point, what harassment does is gets inside my head and plays violently, like a spoiled child, with every vulnerability I have as a trans woman, throwing me into a circular spiral of doubt and self-loathing, of self-degradation and questioning. Every time I’m harassed, I’m put on notice that my body is available to all men to do as they please, but in addition, there’s the pervasive sense that I (like all women, in their eyes) exist for their pleasure and this is a “privilege” they can revoke at will once they discover something they dislike. Such as the fact that I’m trans.

It’s important to note that there is no experiential difference between being harassed by a chaser who knows I’m trans, or by a random man who sees me as cis; it’s the same kind of violation, the same kind of ownership being claimed over me, an expression of entitlement that seizes me and polices my ability to simply move around in the world.

There is an important point to keep in mind here. From the smallest dollop of sibilant harassment to the most violent, physical assault on a trans woman, it all exists on a spectrum of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. The violences faced by trans women are not in a separate class of violence, though they can be several orders of magnitude greater on average for trans women of colour and sex working trans women — police sexually harass all the time, lest we forget. Rather, the violence directed at us should be understood as existing on exactly the same continuum of victimisation that all women who experience harassment stand on.

Jos: It’s interesting you bring up that story about the Pioneer Valley, Katherine. When I was a student in the Valley, completing my thesis in an art studio at Amherst College, I was followed through the deserted center of town late at night by white (and given the school’s makeup, likely class privileged) male Amherst students multiple times. It was terrifying, and it’s not reflected in any of the narratives I hear about street harassment.

And that’s been my feeling since street harassment became a mainstream feminist issue — the conversation has never reflected my reality. I agree with Sesali — it’s always felt like a gentrification project to me: the dialogue is dominated by the stories of white and class privileged women who move into new neighborhoods and encounter male entitlement and harassment that looks and sounds different from what’s become familiar or normalized. And as we’ve seen, these narratives can be used to push dangerous gentrification projects like increased policing. I’ve read the same street harassment narrative written by white gentrifiers again and again, with, in comparison, almost no representation of different experiences.

We’ve had two posts on the site recently about street harassment becoming deadly for black women. As Katherine points out, attacks on trans women of color are not a separate class of violence, yet I never hear the names and stories of the horrifically many black and brown trans women murdered in the street every year discussed in conversations about street harassment.

And there are absolutely a spectrum of experiences, and while all can turn legitimately dangerous at the drop of a pin, some are statistically much more likely to do so. I spent the first two years of my public transition in Washington, DC, a city with a high rate of anti-trans violence. Trans-specific street harassment was quite literally constant, a cloud that followed me wherever I went in public. It reached the point where my brain started tuning some of it out just to be able to keep existing in public — I’d be walking down the street with a cis friend and she’d angrily react to something shouted at me that I didn’t even hear. I often think that the only reason I made it out of DC alive is that I’m white, and that is a sick reality. Now that I’m read as cis more commonly in public, I do feel a perverse sense of relief that the vast majority of harassment I experience isn’t trans-specific, harassment that overlaps more with the standard narrative (though it sure as hell crosses racial lines), at the same time I know it could turn on a dime.

Queer and trans youth of color, who are disproportionately homeless (pdf), face higher levels of harassment in public. We know this, yet I don’t hear it as part of the standard street harassment dialogue. It doesn’t fit that one, overly simplistic narrative that resonates with people with privilege and fits the politics of gentrification so well. This issue is not as simple as that story. I remember my cis sister and I comparing the harassment we experienced in public as kids, long before I transitioned, and realizing we’d faced about the same amount of harassment in the same places. Yet she was given rides because of this, while my experiences were invisibilized and ignored (even after I was jumped in public). And that’s what we continue to do with those who don’t fit the dominant street harassment narrative, and who often face the harshest dangers that can come with this harassment.

Syreeta: I can only echo a lot of what everyone’s shared. The race/class/sexuality politics of this are so messy but also so necessary to address if we want to build toward a culture where cis/trans women of all races feel safe in various communities, and draw allies and support from these groups. I appreciate Hollaback attempting to push this conversation toward some widespread cultural acknowledgment of street harassment, but at the same time, I bristle at the methods. It often feels that our culture bends towards preserving the safety of white women — and that the safety of white women determines the value of the community. Think of how the phrase “It’s a safe area” is used. The erasure of white men in the video is a purposeful lens by its creator, a man who has some really odd views about urban communities and gentrification. On some level, I resent that some folks had to see it happen to a singular white woman to understand the impact of street harassment. It’s something I’ve experienced every day for more than 20 years. Think about that for sec.

Mychal: The racial bias of the Hollaback video bothered me on a few levels. One, obviously, because it’s racist. But also, because it shifts the conversation from the harassment women experience in public spaces to racism — and potentially lets men of color off the hook.

Part of this isn’t the fault of the video. Neither the filmmaker nor Hollaback should be blamed for the fact that we generally can’t hold more than one thought at a time and have nuanced conversations about multiple forms of oppression. But its construction and popularity play right into that. Because of the visuals of a white woman being harassed by predominantly men of color, this video went viral more rapidly than it would have had it been mostly white men featured. There’s certainly an element of its popularity that can be attributed to reifying familiar scripts about black and Latino men’s hypersexuality and the frailness of white womanhood. But then we’re talking about that and we don’t have a conversation about the fact that there are men of color, on tape, harassing this woman 100 times as she walks down the street.

I saw far too many black men dismiss the entire issue of street harassment precisely because they saw the video as an attack on them. Street harassment became another issue invented by racist white feminists, and black women’s cosigning would only serve to divide. With that, they will go on harassing, because anyone who accuses them of harassment is only playing into racist ideas around their identity and further criminalizing their presence. And the people who will be most impacted by that are women of color, who are more likely than white women to be harassed by these men.

So yes, the video itself is wrought with problems, but if the conversation shifts from the racist construction of this one video without accounting for the misogyny and sexism, I’m afraid it puts us back in the position where women of color are articulating their experience to the men in their communities, and those concerns being dismissed as white feminist plots for division.

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