Testimony of Lauren R. Taylor, Founder and director, Defend Yourself

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

Good morning, Councilmember McDuffie, Councilmember Bonds, and members of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Housing & Community Development. My name is Lauren Taylor and I head up Defend Yourself, which teaches skills for stopping harassment, abuse, and assault. Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this roundtable.

I grew up in D.C. and have been working to end gender-based violence in the city and surrounding areas since I was one of the founders of My Sister’s Place in 1978.

Defend Yourself has reached tens of thousands of people of all walks of life. Most of them are women and girls, along with others targeted for harassment, such as LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people, and people of color.

Harassment on the street and other public places is one of the issues that most commonly brings students to our classes. Those most likely to be stressed out about it include young women moving to the District, often directly after college, and those who have never lived Lauren R. Taylor „ 301-608-3708 „ lauren@defendyourself.org www.defendyourself.org in a city before. The pre-teens and teens we teach who haven’t been harassed yet are horrified when they learn that this form of violence exists.

Though I was never new to the city, I understand how they feel. The first incident of harassment I remember happened when I was 11. At 16, shortly after I got my driver’s license, a man masturbated at me, with his penis out, while I was stopped at a red light. (A high school friend of mine recently asked me if all the harassment we experienced as teens caused me to choose this work.)

In my 20s I lived in Mt. Pleasant and walked to and from work at Dupont Circle. I was harassed on every trip for the six years I had that job. Some days it was as much as seven or eight times in the 2-mile walk. I felt angry and despairing, and, as is true for most of those targeted for harassment, it made me afraid. In fact, feeling unsafe is what motivated me to move to Maryland in 1983.

Harassment reminds women and others that public spaces belong to straight men and that that control can be – and is — enforced with sexual assault.

My students tell me that when they’re harassed they feel humiliated, enraged, terrified, annoyed, ashamed, and more. I don’t think I can adequately express to you the pain, fear, and confusion that students tell me they struggle with.

Most feel powerless and pretend to ignore the harassment. They do that because they’re afraid that if they stand up for themselves the situation will escalate.

This reality affects every aspect of women’s lives, including employment, housing, health, and family or relationships. Our city’s livability, ability to thrive economically, the health of its residents – all are harmed by the pervasiveness of harassment in public spaces.

In addition to streets and public transit, bars and clubs are among the sites with the highest amount of harassment. Research on the relationship of alcohol and sexual assault shows that offenders use alcohol to incapacitate their targets and to excuse their own behavior [sources available on request]. So Defend Yourself partnered with Collective Action for Safe Spaces to create the Safe Bars program. We’ve spoken to bar staff who have both witnessed and experienced sexual harassment and see the value in a training program to address it, but bars need to be supported and encouraged to access this training. We seek the support of the D.C. Council and ABRA in creating incentives for nightlife establishments to partner with Safe Bars.

I love D.C., my hometown, its communities, and its people. That is a huge motivation for my doing this work. Making our streets and public spaces safer for all will be good for the city. I hope you’ll join us in our endeavor.