Leave my granddaughter alone

August 31, 2009

“My friend’s younger sister was coming home by herself when a guy on the bus began hassling her. An elderly man on the other side of the bus stood up and demanded that the guy ‘leave his granddaughter alone.’ The guy stopped, and got off at the next stop. The elderly man was a stranger.”

Last week I discovered www.givesmehope.com where people can share short stories that give them hope. There are several entries, including the one above, which show the kindness of strangers in public. I post so many stories about the horrible things strangers do in public so I see these as a nice change of pace!  For the next few weeks I’ll be posting one positive story each Monday morning as a start-to-the-week pick-up.

If you have a positive story to share, please do so and I’ll add it to the repository for Monday morning posting.

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An Ugly Girl’s Story*

August 31, 2009

I am fat & considered very unattractive. I am often told that I’m a dog/ugly/cow/pig/barked & oinked at by strange men in public.

Two men recently followed behind me on the street for several blocks, loudly discussing what they would have to do in order to make me “f***able” (ie. put a bag over my head, get me to go to a plastic surgeon, etc.)

I try very hard not to take these experiences to heart but this recent one was very disturbing. I realized that I have been avoiding crowded public areas because of this. It also reinforces my feeling that despite my achievements & personality, in this world what really matters is my outward appearance.

– anonymous

Location: Vancouver, BC, Canada

Share your street harassment story today and help raise awareness about the problem. Include your location and it will be added to the Street Harassment Map.

*Note, the author of this post wrote the title, too. I think what’s ugly is the behavior of the harassing men!

Is it harassment?

August 29, 2009

Many men must know their street harassment behavior is wrong (especially based on how many of them only do it when women are alone or do it in such a way that women can’t react or don’t know which man in the group was the harasser). I think that some men, though, simply have never thought about it and just assume they have free reign to say and do whatever they want because they’re men. But they don’t necessarily intend on insulting and frightening women in the process.

Until there is better socialization and education that stops men from harassing women and until there are more penalties for those who do harass, the first group of men may sadly be a lost cause. For the latter men who are just blissfully ignorant about the damage of their behavior, here are questions* they can ask themselves to determine if their actions/words toward unknown women in public spaces are harassment:

Would I mind if someone treated my spouse, partner, girlfriend, mother, sister, or daughter this way?

Would I mind if this person told my spouse, partner, girlfriend, mother, sister, or daughter what I was saying and doing?

Would I do this if I was with my spouse, partner, girlfriend, mother, sister, or daughter?

Would I be comfortable saying the same thing or acting the same way to my mother, sister or daughter?

Would I do this if the parent, spouse, or boyfriend of the other person was present?

When a person objects to my behavior to I apologize and stop, or do I get angry instead?

Is my behavior reciprocated? Are there specific indications of pleasure – not ‘she didn’t object’ but specific behaviors indicating she is pleased by my behavior?

Would I mind if a reporter wanted to write about what I was doing?

(Keep in mind that if you have to ask, such behavior is likely to be high risk and it is probably better to not do it.)

I realize there are limitations to these questions because some guys disrespect all women, including their mothers/sisters/girlfriends, but they’re a start.

What else would you tell men to ask themselves to determine if their behavior is harassment?

*I’ve adapted these from Women’s Research and Education Institute Senior Scholar Bernice Sandler’s document “How Men (and Women) Can Tell if Their Behavior is Sexual Harassment”

Neighborhood Protectors

August 28, 2009

The Philadelphia Daily News reported that last week in Philadelphia, PA, a young woman had been waiting at a bus stop to go to work when a man approached her, demanded her purse and cell phone at gun point, then forced her into a nearby alley and sexually assaulted her. When he showed up in her neighborhood again, the young woman spotted him and started yelling, “He raped me! He raped me!” as she chased him down. Her neighbors joined in the chase and helped detain the man until the police arrived. Neighbors interviewed for the article said:

“I got a daughter myself – I hope someone would do the same for my kid,” and another one said that sexual assaults aren’t a crime anybody takes lightly in the neighborhood. “Everybody is like family around here and that’s one thing we don’t play,” he said. “That’s the crazy stuff out here.”

The article notes that something similar happened in Philadelphia earlier this summer when neighbors detained a man who raped an 11-year old girl (when she was on her way to school) until the police arrived.

Too often survivors of sexual assault (both female and male) are not believed  so I am glad these neighbors took the complaints seriously and made sure the men could not escape until police arrived.

These stories remind me of something I read a few days ago in Marilyn French’s book From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World (volume 1). In the Intro, she wrote about how 1000s of years ago, most people lived in matricentries, meaning families were centered around the mothers (in part because they didn’t completely understand men’s roles in procreation). Women used land and passed it on to their daughters while men migrated from other clans to mate with them. Children were named for their mothers and stayed with their mothers until they were grown and then usually stayed nearby much of the time.

She writes, “Nor, in such societies, could men abuse their wives, who were surrounded by family members who would protect them” (French, 8). A woman’s family and community helped keep her safe in general. But then, in time, men better realized their role in procreation and started taking women away from their families in an effort to control their reproduction and ensure paternity, and that’s when acts of violence against women seemed to start.

I like this idea of neighbors/community/family as protectors, though it’s not always possible, especially when, in our society today, there is so much abuse within those relationships. I think the Philadelphia stories and French’s book also speak to the importance of bystander intervention by men and women – both to intercede and prevent harassment and assault from occurring in the first place and to hold harassers/assaulters accountable for their actions. Being better about intervening and becoming protectors for those in our neighborhood is something we can all try to do.


Toronto man charged after subway sexual assault

August 27, 2009

Last month around 5 p.m., a man tried to start a conversation with a 28-year-old woman when she boarded a TTC subway train at Coxwell station, in Toronto.

From The Star.com:

“The man reached out and sexually assaulted the woman after failed attempts to engage her in conversation, she told police. Both the man and the complainant exited at Kennedy station, where the man was last seen heading toward the bus platform area. Officers investigating the incident issued an arrest warrant for Omar Matthews, 25, on July 30. Yesterday, Matthews turned himself in to police. He faces one charge of sexual assault and three counts of fail to comply with probation.”

And there are people who wonder why women worry about talking to strange men! Or even not talking to them! Quite a lot of women say they ignore the harassing men and recommend other women ignore men as a method for getting away safely and without a scene, yet that doesn’t always work, as this incident illustrates. She did ignore him and he escalated his actions to sexual assault. It’s scary to think there is no way to respond that guarantees safety or dignity.

I’m glad she reported him though and that the police took it seriously. I encourage everyone else to do so too if they are similarly harassed or assaulted.


What about equality in public spaces?

August 26, 2009

Today is Women’s Equality Day, a time not only to celebrate the gains we have for which our foremothers fought, but also a time to reflect on all of the areas where women continue to lack equality, including in public spaces.

Men who harass and assault women in public spaces – consciously or unconsciously – disrespect women. Their actions exhibit their belief that they have the right to interrupt women’s privacy, demand their attention, and sexualize, insult, humiliate, and hurt them whenever they want. These men generally do not care how their actions make women feel at the time nor do men on a whole understand or care about the many ways the fear or experience of harassment and assault limits women’s movement and feelings of comfort in public spaces.

Women are approached and harassed by men in all contexts, including when they are: commuting to work and school, on business trips and sightseeing in new places, doing errands or going to the club, and as they walk their dog or exercise. They are harassed by men when they are on foot, in a car, riding public transportation, waiting for public transportation, and even as they garden or stand in their own front yard. They are never completely free from the chance that someone will harass them, no matter their age, sexual orientation, race, class, or body type.

Women protest in Egypt. BRImage from International Museum of Women

Women protest in Egypt. Image from International Museum of Women

In lieu of laws or societal outrage and action over this sad reality, women take it upon themselves to try to stay safe, and in the process, often end up curtailing their public lives and access to public spaces. For example, some women avoid going in public places alone and many avoid going alone after dark or in an unfamiliar area to avoid assault.  This may mean they miss out on night classes, working extra shifts, or attending networking events.

Other ways women alter their lives to try to avoid being harassed include: taking alternate routes to their destination, mixing up their routine so they do not become predictable, paying for a taxi or driving a car rather than walking or relying on public transportation, wearing baggier and less flattering clothing, and wearing specific facial expressions (assertive, scowling).

To avoid upsetting men who relentlessly get in their space, women may pretend they have boyfriends or husbands (even if they are lesbian), make up fake phone numbers, turn up their ipod, and pretend to talk on the phone.

Women constantly have to be prepared for men to approach them in public and they instantly have to decide how to respond: will they ignore them, will they stand up to them, or will they try to humor and appease them.  All options have risks and a woman is never assured that she will be completely safe.   This reality is a huge setback in the trajectory toward gender equality.

All over the country and world, there are activists speaking out against and working to end gender-based harassment and assault in public spaces. Their voices are strong and their actions laudable, but they are few in number.  We need more activists and, most importantly, we need a widespread, coordinated, and concerted effort to end street harassment.

We must all do our part to make sure women and girls are safe and welcome in public spaces, and one day when they are (I’ll be an idealistic dreamer for a moment), only then will we be able to say women have made great strides toward achieving full equality.


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Alternative use for scissors

August 24, 2009

Once when I was about 15 years old I was riding the subway when a man with an obvious erection weaved his way through the crowded car to stand directly in front of my friend and myself and proceeded to masturbate. As I was in the custom of carrying around a sharp pair of scissors, I pulled it out and stared at him as icily as possible until he retreated to a seat on the other side of the car.

– anonymous

Share your street harassment story today and help raise awareness about the problem. Include your location and it will be added to the Street Harassment Map.