Last week I attended Holla:Revolution 2014 – International Conference on Street Harassment. Or, as I would refer to it, church.
Some had stronger beliefs than I have, others weren’t sure what to believe, but we all gathered under one guiding principle. There was a lot of nodding and, literally, hollering back when people from different cities around the world all testified to the same experiences.
Street harassment is something every woman experiences — as well as many men — yet almost no one talks about. It’s an ever-pervasive issue that seems amorphous and impossible to fight. Describing the conference to a friend, she asked me, “Who exactly do you ask to stop street harassment?”
Well, the answer is all of us. It’s a societal issue and to fight it we have to change the way all of us are thinking. Not so long ago, sexual harassment in the workplace was viewed through the same lens. It was a necessary evil, a reality of being a woman with a job that required interaction with men. The problem is by no means gone, but there are some laws in place to fight it and it’s no longer as openly accepted.
So how do we fight street harassment? At least sexual harassment in the workplace took place in a defined environment. Street harassment is everywhere. We can begin just by talking about it because that is still a revolutionary act.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh described her street art as her “way of speaking back to [her] harassers.” Many women spoke about their experiences for the first time at the conference knowing that a supportive audience was listening. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, co-founder of Trans Women of Color Collective of Greater New York, spoke the truth that street harassment is not the same for all women. She told us the story of Islan Nettles, a young woman who was beaten to death across the street from a police station when a group of harassers learned she was trans.
The conference was affirming and comforting, but missing a key component. Comedian W. Kamau Bell started off the morning with the observation, “There should be more dudes here!” Women who are harassed don’t need a conference about harassment. Men who harass and the law enforcement officers who women try to turn to for help need this conference.
Hearing the stories of the brave and creative women fighting street harassment was healing after the UCSB shooting and the terror it ignited in all women. We’re not making it up. We’re not over-sensitive. Street harassment is a constant terror we live with every time we leave our homes. Ask a room full of women how they avoid being raped and they’ll give you a list: walk in pairs, hold your keys between your fingers like a weapon, etc. Ask a room of men how they avoid raping and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.
Our first step towards changing minds and ending this socially pervasive disease is voicing it over and over until others can no longer deny it and everyone agrees to start fixing it.
Photo Credit: Colleen H. Street art from her neighborhood, part of the Stop Telling Women to Smile project.