Jessica Raven, Interim Executive Director, Collective Action for Safe Spaces

Joint Public Roundtable on Street Harassment in the District of Columbia
Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Housing & Community Development
1350 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, D.C., 20004
John A. Wilson Building, Room 500
December 3, 2015 at 10:00 AM


Chairman McDuffie and Chairman Bonds, thank you for the opportunity to testify today to address the issue of public sexual harassment and assault, more commonly known as street harassment. My name is Jessica Raven. I am a resident of Ward 5, and I am the Interim Executive Director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces. We are a local grassroots organization that works with community members to make public spaces safe for everyone.

Before I talk about CASS’s work and our goals, I’d like to share my personal experience. For a long time, I accepted street harassment as a fact of my daily life. I was 12 years old when I was first flashed on the street, and I was 15 the first time I saw someone masturbating while staring at me on the subway. It wasn’t until I was pregnant and heard comments like, “Do you want to make another one later?” or shortly after my son was born, “Do you think he wants a twin brother?” that I decided that this is not a behavior that I want my children to encounter every time they travel through public spaces.

Street harassment affects everyone, but women, LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people, and particularly people of color, are at highest risk. Many view it as an inescapable part of walking outside, commuting on public transit, and generally occupying public spaces. Too often, the problem is minimized or dismissed as a compliment or a nuisance. But street harassment occurs in the context of rape culture. We live with the threat that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime and 1 in 4 women will be victims of intimate partner violence. The rates of assault are even higher for women of color, transwomen, and particularly transwomen of color who face multiple layers of oppression. We all experience harassment on a daily basis, afraid that our action or inaction will escalate the situation to a more severe form of gender-based violence. Just a month ago, here in DC, we read the story of Paris Sashay, who you’ll hear from today, who was brutally assaulted on the sidewalk after she tried to ignore her catcallers.

There are several broad-based approaches that the city can take to make our communities safer. Today, I’m going to focus on two components of CASS’s recommendations: first, developing a process to collect better data on harassment and second, expanding bystander intervention training to individuals who are uniquely positioned to respond to sexual harassment—such as bar staff and police officers.

While there is currently no formalized effort to collect data on street harassment in our city, the data that we’ve collected through surveys and our blog shows that this is a problem we can’t continue to ignore. CASS has received more than 900 submissions to our blog detailing incidents ranging from catcalling and unwanted comments to public masturbation, groping, and assault. The recent DC Trans Needs Assessment Report shows that 56% of transfeminine people in DC have been physically assaulted in public spaces. Additional research shows that about 50% of sexual assaults involve the use of alcohol as an excuse for aggressive behavior or as a weapon  to incapacitate targets. Based on this information, we know that there are public spaces where gender-based harassment happens most frequently—bars and nightclubs, on public transit, and on high-traffic sidewalks. We also know that better, more sophisticated data collection is crucial to learn more about the experiences of our city’s most vulnerable residents and to guide comprehensive, community-based solutions.

WMATA has set a great example for data collection efforts and community-based solutions to harassment on public transit by: developing an online reporting system; training transit staff and officers to respond to incidents; and committing to continue its multi-year PSA campaign with a focus on bystander intervention.

What we’ve found through our partnership with WMATA and through our workshops with community members is that community education and bystander intervention training work together to equip people with the skills to stop sexual harassment and prevent assault. We also know what doesn’t work: criminalization is not the solution to street harassment. The people at greatest risk of harassment—women, LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people, communities of color, and people experiencing homelessness—are also communities at greatest risk of incarceration and police violence. These are communities that may not view the criminal legal system as a viable option for support or justice. According to the DC Trans Needs Assessment Report, of the 56% of transfeminine people in DC who have been physically assaulted in public spaces, 30% report that police officers or prison staff assaulted them. Instead, we need community-based solutions like our bystander intervention trainings for police officers, which will give officers the tools they need to recognize and effectively respond to harassment.

DC nightlife is another high priority setting for education and training. Through an informal online survey we conducted this winter, we received nearly 60 reports of sexual harassment at local bars. That’s why we partnered with Defend Yourself to develop our Safe Bars program—a bystander intervention training specifically for bar staff. This training provides bar staff with the tools they need to make bars safe spaces free of public sexual harassment and assault—which is an issue that affects staff, patrons, and bars’ bottom lines. As one survey respondent wrote about a DC bar where she was harassed, “I really think their management should think hard about whether they want to do something to reduce harassment or just keep being known as a terribly unsafe place to go as a young single woman.” 

We’re grateful for WMATA’s efforts to create an environment where public sexual harassment and assault will not be tolerated and people who are targeted will be supported. We’re asking city leadership to follow WMATA’s lead in collecting better data on public sexual harassment and assault and equipping those who oversee high-risk settings with training to recognize and respond to this issue through a noncriminal, community-based, and survivor-informed approach like bystander intervention. We have the tools to make public spaces safe for everyone, but we need the commitment from city leaders. You’ve taken the first step today by holding this roundtable, and on behalf of CASS, I am incredibly grateful for this symbol of support. Please take the next steps by partnering with us to collect better data on this issue and ensuring that MPD and bar staff are adequately equipped to respond to harassment. Thank you.