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International Anti Street Harassment Day: Living in a Culture of Fear

If you’re lucky enough not to live in a culture of fear, then I’m happy for you.  It must be really excellent.  Today, for International Anti Street Harassment Day, I want to focus on what it’s like to live in a culture of fear, and how we can all contribute to reducing that culture, little by little.

Street harassment is a pervasive problem.  Of course, its degree varies drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, and country to country.  Some of us fear being raped or mugged when we walk home late at night or take public transportation, even though our actual odds of being attacked are slim.  Others know that leaving the house is more than likely to result rape, but do so because the family needs food or water, or a single woman has no choice but to work.  Obviously, it takes different tools and resources to combat different problems along this scale.

However, I do think that there are some common techniques we can use to address pervasive, systemic fear, and I want to mention a few of these today.

  1. Respect for difference. So many things fall under this–eradicating sexism and patriarchy, fighting homophobia, racism, ableism, etc., teaching tolerance and acceptance of those different from us, including divergent opinions in educational curricula.  Not all street harassment has to do with difference, but a lot of it does.  Hatred for women, or a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, is a huge problem.  Discomfort with gender and sexuality alternatives often leads to violence, which is then supported by an insecure peer group.  Racism can contribute to everything from inappropriate comments shouted from a car to systemic rape in times of war.  Education and discussion are crucial to making these behaviors unacceptable.
  2. Building community. It’s scary to be alone on the street.  It’s much scarier when it feels like there’s nowhere to turn, like there’s no safe house to run to if someone gets violent, like a bystander is unlikely to help or may even join in.  We’ve all heard stories about the rape that took place on the street where people heard a woman’s screams but did not come to her aid or even call the police.  We need to build community around our schools, neighborhoods, and wider environments.  The more someone feels a sense of belonging to an area, the more people someone knows, the easier it is to seek help and the less power the perpetrator has.
  3. Identifying perpetrators. There have been some great activist steps in this direction, from ad campaigns designed to shame bullies and cat callers to the amazing Hollaback movement that was started to identify harassers and share stories of street harassment.  Identifying those who cat call, touch without consent, bully, assault, rape, and otherwise harm individuals on the street is important because it takes the feeling of safety away from the perpetrator and starts to build that sense of safety around the victim or potential victim.  Telling stories builds community and pushes back fear, while showing harassers that their actions are not okay and will not go unpunished.  I’ve always loved the sense of community justice that exists in many cultures, and is in my opinion far more effective than the penal system.  The stronger a community, the more effective the threat of community banishment or shaming is.  Hollaback brings this concept to communities all over the world.  If you’ve witnessed or been a victim of street harassment, I encourage you to report the incident here.  We need to stand together and say that no form of street harassment is okay, whether it’s a word or a casual touch or something more.  We all have a right to our bodies, to our privacy, and to our safety on the street.

White House Conference on Bullying: Creating Community

The President is giving an address now to kick off the White House bullying conference, and I was pleased to hear him say that fighting bullying isn’t just about discouraging violence, but also about building a sense of community in schools.  I would add to this that it is important for schools to provide safe spaces and community-building opportunities for students around identities such as queerness, race, religion, etc. and to educate the student body at large about these communities in keeping with the general lesson of respect.  I would wager that most students who belong to a minority or an often-bullied group do not have such a safe space or community available to them in school.