Part I: The Problem: The Roots and Impact of Street Harassment

Rochelle Keyhan: Historical analysis of street harassment is limited because the only records of it is male-female.


We’re told to just take it as compliment. Since the 1800s, male street harassers have escalated their harassment to physical assault. Even non-physical street harassment incidents are scary, because they can escalate like that, but they are minimized. We’re not buying it, though. The name of street harassment has changed - it was called street mashing - but the anti-street harassment movement hasn’t. Women have demanded the right to feel safe in public spaces throughout history. We’ve just modernized our approach so we’re not just punishing the behavior, but changing the mindset.


In the 1800s, street mashing was considered unacceptable. Victim blaming was rampant. Historical stories that have been shared say that women were expected to dress better to stop street harassment, in the 1890s men complained that they were showing too much ankle, so women who complained were dismissed. They started holding their hat pins while walking so they could stab harassers in the leg and run away, because they were told to defend themselves, like modern key-holding.


Women often followed harassers so they could have the police arrest them. They encouraged legislative responses. Cities all over the US passed ordinances banning street harassment. All types of men were arrested, and their names were printed in the papers to shame them. Trials had pitfalls, since street harassment was underrepresented and very he said-she said, so women didn’t want to testify, but judges did rule for women.


Anti-street harassment organizations popped up over the US. They focused on placing the blame on men for taking liberties and crossing the line.


Street harassment only increased, so advocates wanted women trained in self-defense. They organized training events and printed tips in the paper. JP Morgan’s daughter, in 1912, championed this. Businesses wanted to be cleared of mashers, the Waldorf-Astoria had decoy women walking around that would report mashers and have them thrown out.


Street harassment lost media coverage from the 1940s-80s. On the 80s it became street harassment, not mashing, and policy change was discussed. It was still limited to man-woman harassment. In 2005, Hollaback! came on the scene and expanded the conversation, showing that it goes through multiple oppression lines. Now it’s framed as power exertion.


Street harassment has been part of our culture since women entered public space. Now we campaign against it, we have a movement. We have to end this chapter of our cultural history.


Wilson: Here’s a satirical video about street harassment from Sasheer Zamata.


[Shows video]


Tanisha Ramirez: I’ve blogged for Hollaback! since last fall. I led a campaign for women to write Dear John letters to their harassers. I realized that harassers felt that their street harassment was a genuine romantic gesture, so Dear John gave women the opportunity to tell them that it’s not. It shows that the problem isn’t us, it’s them. I wrote mine to end my anxiety about not wanting to go out after I was harassed. I realized he was still living his life and I wasn’t.


[Reads letter about being harassed at the gym]


Nicola Briggs: Since you mentioned that you were harassed at the gym, I was teaching a tai chi class and a man was staring at the group. I invited him to join, but he went away.


I was involved in a well-publicized street harassment incident, and I defended myself. I used the power of my voice to stop an attack.


It was Labor Day weekend 2010. I got on the local 4 train at 125th Street in Manhattan. A man targeted me, he tried to rub himself against me by using the advantage of the packed car. I’m a tai chi instructor, so he picked the wrong girl. I’m used to being crowded, but I knew it wasn’t innocent. I turned around and he didn’t move, even when the car cleared. Then I saw that he was exposed and wearing a condom. He tried to cover himself with his messenger bag, but I already knew. I grabbed his bag away and was horrified. When this kind of thing happens, you think you’re living on other planet, it’s an out of body experience - is this really happening? I started screaming and confronted the perp and announced what he did. I told him I’d take him to the police. It was a significant moment for me, because I was always assertive, but I never did that before, there was never a need. My self-defensive training taught me that using my voice could lower the psychological trauma, or stop it entirely.


My sense of anger at being violated freed me from embarrassment. Everyone on the train started screaming at the guy, Mario Valdivia. People took pictures of him, tech was at the forefront of my self-defense, to shame him. It was fantastic. I consciously confronted him to take back the power he took from me. My reaction surprised him. I screamed for seven minutes until the police came. Now he’s a registered sex offender and he was deported. (He did this to other girls, too.)


A video of my confrontation was posted online, it went viral. I heard about it and felt funny, because it was weird to be outed as a victim of assault. I didn’t know what to think. I was afraid society would view me as a crazy, bitchy lady screaming on the train, but the reaction was positive so I spoke about it and came out. I didn’t want face blurred on TV because it gives other victims the wrong idea. Everyone has a different reaction, though, so if yours was different don’t feel bad. Don’t feel ashamed of your reaction to a sexual predator, it’s his fault and not yours, even if the police don’t help you.


Tai chi helped me because it gave me techniques, martial arts empowers, but also because it helped me to become aware of my surroundings. It cultivates awareness, not paranoia.


4 levels of awareness:

  1. Green - unaware, trusting and relaxed, at home or in the shower. Some people have this in public, rapists and muggers look for this type.
  2. Yellow - alert, in public
  3. Red - very alert, feel threat and plan on how to handle imminent danger. This is pertinent especially because street harassment is violence. I fear for what may have happened if I had been alone with him. We have to mentally prepare ourselves to react in that moment, which is what self-defense teaches.
  4. Black - attack is happening, so evasive action is necessary. Not necessarily taking control of situation, just evasive sometimes. Bystanders can be allies.


Confidence and ability to react comes before attack. Violence comes from threats, so we have to learn to use our voices to assert our boundaries and understand how to maintain our power and dignity they try to take away, so we can come out whole. Don’t let good manners ruin your day. Street harassment shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone.


Jennifer Pozner: I’m honored to be here. I’m thrilled that this conference is taking place and that our culture is starting to shift on women’s bodies being policed. I grew up in Brooklyn and experienced street harassment since I was 11. I’m 38 now and have experienced street harassment in lots of different forms. When I was 15, I was walking with a friend on the street, and a city bus followed us down the street and opened the door and asked us if we wanted a ride. That’s how brazen harassers are.


I believe this is because all forms of media encourage and glorify and normalize street harassment as part of the culture.


[Shows the following videos]

1956, “Standing on the Corner”

1968, “Girl Watcher”

1982, music video of physically accosting women that go by

Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” video

Billy Ocean’s “Get Into My Car” video


All of the above are freaky songs and videos about street harassment that have women taking it as a compliment.


Super Bowl commercials also trivialize street harassment. Ads that influence preteen girls also make it seem that women enjoy street harassment. Girls have never not heard this message, even kids think that public abuse is enjoyed by women - Lego released a construction site with a worker yelling “hey baby.” There are gazillions of examples I could give.


Media coverage has traditionally showed street harassment as trivial, but now that’s changed, mostly since women have started sharing their own stories, like through videos that women take and documentaries that are made. These have become popular because videoing is cheaper than it used to be. The media coverage has changed because of you activists who have shifted the culture. When Nicola’s story was covered by CBS, it treated her and the issue with respect and said it’s widespread.


The importance of male allies and the usefulness of humor has to be discussed. [Shows Totally Biased video], my website, is a place where you can do media activism and social justice.


Jimmie Briggs: Thanks to everyone.


To frame my conversation: I took my 9-year-old daughter to see Despicable Me a couple years ago at a theater on 34th Street. We were heading home, going down the stairs to the A train, when we heard a commotion, a man yelling. When we got down to the turnstiles, we saw a man assaulting his girlfriend, verbally at first but then physically. People passed by not looking, ignoring it. All types of people ignored it. My daughter grabbed my hand and pulled me not to do anything, because she knew I wanted to. I was torn.


After working in this space for years, I still feel very new talking about sexual abuse and violence. I was a journalist for 20 years before I started Man Up to mobilize young men and boys to address gender violence. I’ve done this for 5 years, but I still don’t consider myself an expert, but as a journalist and advocate, I can say that we need young men and boys on the scene.


I’ve learned that men have to be encouraged to join these sort of spaces. We don’t see ourselves as the problem. I go to speeches and talk to men who view themselves as good guys and not perpetrators, but they are the problem. They don’t realize that being good doesn’t mean not harassing, but it means being active advocates, stepping forward and holding men accountable.


At the subway incident, I decided not to do anything about it. We walked through the turnstile and the train was coming. It was a transformative moment - I realized that I cannot let my daughter grow up with a memory of daddy not doing anything.


So I walked back through, my daughter holding my hand. I went to the man hitting his girlfriend. My daughter was crying, but I said to the man, “what’s going on?” He ignores me but stops hitting her, still verbally abusing her though. She can barely stand but he walks away. She collects herself and walks in a different direction.


My daughter and I are traumatized, and she says “now I know why women need to defend themselves and why men need to be allies.”


I see myself as someone who can sympathize, as a black man. Street harassment is universal. Men who contradict or dismiss me on street harassment, I challenge them with the 1/3 rape statistic and say that we must stand up with women as allies and hold everyone accountable.


I felt intimidated walking into a room of women today - it’s a small taste of what you feel every day. But I know this is a space of love and transformation. Just know that there are men like me out there who are your allies.


Nefertiti Martin: Young women of color are street harassed from a young age. From when I was growing up in the Bronx, I understood that words meant more, that my safety was nonexistent and my life wasn’t cared for. When I was in middle school in 2001, an 8-year-old girl was raped in Brooklyn on her way to school. That was when Girls for Gender Equality (GGE) was founded. At one of the early meetings, girls discussed what they heard others say about the case, “she deserved it” etc.


Sisters in Strength, a GGE program, organizes community girls to end street harassment. It’s a tool done community by community. We try to enforce Title IX of the Civil Rights Act if 1964, guaranteeing equal rights for women. It’s been a decade, and GGE and Sisters in Strength are at the forefront to end gender violence, organizing conferences and documentaries of street harassment to have girls’ shared experiences.


I’ve been with GGE and worked with girls of color and seen the necessity of sisterhood as a form of resistance. Spaces that are engineered to foster sisterhood are invaluable. I’ve learned that words that have hurt can be transformed to heal.