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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.

A part of the rape culture that I hadn’t considered

I’m reading Jane Sexes It Up right now, and one of the essays in that collection made me think of something I hadn’t in a long time – that extremely uncomfortable feeling you can get as a little girl around grown men, when they’re joking or talking about something you don’t quite get. It might be sex, it might not be, but there’s a fear and discomfort there whose origins I wonder at. Do we have some innate understanding of the sexual and the shameful as children, even if we don’t understand it?

The Many Faces of Violence

I read a quote that struck me yesterday, from lesbian activist Kathleen Sadaat: “There is a violence in not being able to live your life, and whether you are ever actually struck by someone is not the only issue.  Anything that pushed you toward being less than human, anything that tells you you are not a part of the human family, is a violent act.”

What a powerful statement.  This is why I crave lesbian discussion groups, conscious-raising, etc (unfortunately not available in my area).  I just want to believe that I am part of the human family, and though I know intellectually that there are others like me, and even know other lesbians, the lack of lesbian representation in the media, in news, in literature, etc., is something that I think is very subconsciously powerful.  These messages say “you are different.  You are not wanted.”  Whenever I write a paper arguing that LGBT people are just like everyone else, that we deserve rights, a voice in my head is saying, “no you don’t.  You’re an animal.  What makes you human?  What says that those people aren’t right, that you’re not sinning, that you aren’t less than they are?”  Where does this voice come?  Nowhere conscious, that’s for sure.  I was never taught these things, and never believed them, but somewhere I do.

The same is true when it comes to this latent fear of men and masculinity I’ve apparently been carrying around without knowing about it.  I don’t know that it’s there, but when it surfaces, it’s violent, and it will take no prisoners.  I read a post by a kinky lesbian blogger today and my reaction to some of her comments was abject fear.  Why?  I understand the sentiment behind her feelings (she’s a top, incidentally) and I see why others might want to be put in a submissive position for those reasons.  But emotionally, I reacted strongly to it.  If I trust someone with that part of me, will they break me?  Can I trust anyone?  And why am I afraid of all this?  It doesn’t make sense, intellectually.  I’ve never been raped, harassed, or sexually abused.  There are no skeletons in my closet.  Men have never given me reason to fear them, nor have aggressive women.  The only answer I have is that it’s socialized.  Maybe one day if I make enough money I’ll look for a therapist.