One of the most exciting things about being a street harassment activist is the look on peoples’ faces as they figure out what on earth I’m talking about. Many of my friends have never heard the term ‘street harassment’, or consider it some sort of overblown synonym for catcalling, but when I start to describe the behaviors and attitudes it encompasses, their expressions transform from skepticism to understanding. Suddenly, the stories start pouring out, and I know I’ve helped them see that this all-too-common experience is an actual problem – which means that they then become a part of the solution.
Public sexual harassment and gender-based violence, though constant and pervasive, are largely invisible problems. The activists who spoke at September 26th’s Hey, Shorty! book event in Washington, D.C. at the Busboys and Poets restaurant and gathering space know that overcoming this invisibility is a critical first step in their work. Hearing their stories of broaching conversation with girls and boys in public schools, LGBTQ youth, D.C.’s transgendered population, and D.C.’s sex workers was eye-opening, especially in light of the incredible weight these issues carry. The potential for activists to raise awareness and teach acceptance in their communities is an important part of preventing tragedies, like the recent rash of violence against trans people that has happened in D.C.. Mandy Van Deven’s experience developing a curriculum about gender respect at Girls for Gender Equity stood out as an example of innovation in the face of huge challenges. How do you un-teach the traditional perceptions of gender and power that lead to public sexual harassment? How do you help young people un-learn what they have been socialized to know their entire lives? And, most importantly, how do you then empower them to fight back?
With the exciting and rewarding aspects of activism come the inevitable disappointments. In my experience, the idea that gender-based harassment and violence is somehow the responsibility of the victim is deeply prevalent even among otherwise well-meaning people. For instance, while representing Holla Back DC on a local radio show, I was asked twice by the genuinely concerned hosts whether I thought it would be an acceptable compromise on the way to ending street harassment if women would just stop dressing sexy on the street. The fact is, of course, that everyone has every right to wear whatever they want to wear without being harassed and intimidated. As Holly Kearl, the author of Stop Street Harassment, pointed out at the event, studies show that clothing has absolutely nothing to do with it. Women wearing sweat pants are harassed. Women wearing burkas are harassed. LGBTQ people are harassed for not fitting traditional gender norms.
When a woman who identified herself as a social worker asked the speakers whether transgender women should cover themselves up and stop “dressing so trashy” to avoid harassment, I wasn’t surprised. The speakers’ answers, however, were inspiring. Mandy explained that “trashy” and “classy” are socialized categories that reflect class-based values and highlighted the complex intersectionality of sexual harassment with other forms of bias. This kind of thinking, she explained, is counter-progressive. If the goal of our activism is to create a society where people are free to express their identities, Holly said, then we can’t judge those who already do. Vanessa Crowley from the D.C. Trans Coalition said that simply being transgendered is a display of “radical authenticity” that bravely flies in the face of gender norms, for which trans people are punished everyday. Instead of suppressing self-expression that challenges cultural perceptions of decency, we should interrogate where these perceptions come from and ask why we believe in them. I’m proud to be part of a group of activists that pushes our communities to do just that.
By Zosia Sztykowski, Community Outreach and Events Director at Holla Back DC