By Renee Davidson
On Saturday, the homepage of CNN – the second most popular internet news outlet in America – featured a detailed piece on street harassment and sexual violence. All too often, the threat posed by street harassment is downplayed, referred to as a “compliment” or simply dismissed as just “how it is.” But CNN reporter Emily Smith recounts stories by two female bloggers that have recently gone viral – along with interviews with anti-street harassment experts Holly Kearl and Emily May – to challenge the idea that street harassment is harmless. The strength of Smith’s feature is not just that it emphasizes the gravity of street harassment, but also that it underscores the grassroots (!) power of women speaking out against it. Citing Kearl, Smith says that street harassment is a global problem that demands more attention. Her article goes on to show that women are doing just that – demanding attention.
Making conversation on street harassment go viral
Smith highlights two recent cases in which a womans’ personal blog detailing a recent incident of harassment went viral. Lola Binkerd’s post, “I debated whether or not to share this story,” (later quite aptly retitled by Jezebel, which picked it up soon after, as “Stranger on a Train: ‘I Would Fucking Kill You Bitch’”) describes how the author was verbally attacked and threatened on the LA subway after turning down a man’s advance. Brittney Gilbert’s post, “The Story of My Sexual Assault on Muni in San Francisco,” details how a man grabbed her vulva (props to Gilbert for boldly naming her female anatomy) while aboard a public bus in San Francisco — a case that was completely trivialized by police when Gilbert later went to file a report. In addition to being republished by Jezebel, Binkerd’s post was picked up by LAist and intensely reblogged across the femisphere. Gilbert’s story was covered by the Uptown Almanac, The Muni Diaries, and CNN Radio.
When women share their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, something happens: They start a wild fire.
A third recent story not mentioned by Smith is that of Liz Gorman. In July, Gorman was groped by a man on a bike while she was walking in Washington, DC. But she didn’t stay quiet – soon after, Gorman submitted an essay detailing the experience to Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS). Almost immediately, her story went viral. It was picked up a plethora of local and national outlets, including The Washington Post, WJLA, FOX, Jezebel, DCist, Washington City Paper, and more. Following her post, Gorman was inundated with hundreds of emails from women sharing their own stories and thanking her for sharing hers. A columnist for The Washington Post wrote that Gorman’s blog post “unleashed a torrent of women’s stories on sexual assault.”
The everyday threat of sexual violence
Together, Binkerd, Gilbert and Gorman show that when women share their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, something happens: They start a wild fire. The three blog posts, which were written immediately after each author’s experiences, epitomize the threat that women face every day when riding the bus (like Gilbert), taking the subway (like Binkerd), and walking down the street (like Gorman). According to a 2008 study by Holly Kearl, a shocking 99 percent of women reported experiencing street harassment, including honking, leering, whistling, kissy noises and sexist comments. Almost 30 percent had been followed at least six times, about 60 percent said a man had purposely blocked their path at least once and almost 40 percent have had a stranger masturbate at or in front of them at lest once in public. A 2012 study by Hollaback! and Cornell University found 20 percent, or 1 in 5, victims of street harassment reported experiencing anger, and 14 percent felt fear. Within a culture of victim-blaming, many women experience humiliation and shame.
Where is it that we draw the line between acceptable & unacceptable, “compliments” and crimes? When it’s too late?
Gilbert and Binkerds’ posts underscore how street harassment – frequently dismissed as harmless or even as a “compliment” – is in truth a serious threat falling clearly within the spectrum of sexual violence. Should we tell women to brush off catcalls and “hey baby’s” when this type of sexual harassment provides the context for sexual assault – and the next level “up” is men grabbing women’s vulvas on buses or threatening to “fucking kill” them on the subways? What do we, as a society, condone when we tell women to stay silent about the “lesser” experiences of catcalling and street harassment? What does a man learn about his “right” to grab a woman’s body or to verbally assault her when he’s not called out or held accountable – either by men or women – for screaming “sexy ass!” at her on the street?
If we tell women that they’re bitches for not liking catcalls, that men masturbating in front of them is harmless, that being flashed is just a matter of happenstance, then where is it that we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable, “compliments” and crimes? Is it only after a woman’s vulva has been grabbed on the bus? When she’s groped in broad daylight? When she’s been threatened to be shot on the subway? When it’s too late?
When speaking out leads to action
In February, citing three years’ worth of women’s harassment stories submitted to its blog, CASS testified before the DC Council on the issue of sexual harassment on public transit. It worked: CASS’s testimony helped spur the launch of WMATA’s anti-sexual harassment campaign. In part due to this work, Guardian writer Many Van Deven wrote that CASS was “leading the way” in fighting sexual harassment on public transit.
It’s apt that Smith’s article was titled “Women Speak Out Against Street Harassment.” As of today, the piece has been tweeted over 600 times and recommended on Facebook over 4,300 times. Women are, in fact, speaking out. They’re demanding attention.They’re sharing their stories, and they’re getting things done because of it.