Testimony by Robyn Swirling

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


Good morning. My name is Robyn Swirling. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

I’ve lived in the DC area my whole life, and in Ward 1 for 4 years. Street harassment is part of my daily life here – and I do mean daily. I only have 3 minutes, so here’s a short list of what that looks like for me:

I am followed home, regularly, by men who don’t accept that I won’t smile for them when prompted. I have been groped more times than I can count. I have been photographed, and had men try to pull me into their car. I’ve been masturbated at and on while riding Metro. I have had to walk blocks out of my way on a daily basis to avoid a particular gathering of men near my home who catcalled and followed me each time I passed. On 14th Street last year, a man pulled a knife on me when I confronted him for making lewd comments to an 8 year old girl. I recently got off the bus late at night on a corner I know to be a frequent site of shootings because it seemed safer than staying on the bus all the way to my stop with a man who was harassing me.

I have been harassed by men of all ages and races, professional and unemployed, drunk and sober, in all 8 wards. This summer, the catcalling was so frequent that there were weekends I chose not to leave my home because I was so worn down by it.

That’s what’s at the heart of this. Women and others in DC face the fatigue of constant harassment, and determining each time whether it’s just a harmless “hello” or someone who will hurt us if we don’t respond the way he wants. It leads us to withdraw and to be less productive, and less free, members of the DC community.

Anecdotally, I know this to be true for women throughout this city. I hear from friends who say the street harassment they face in DC is worse than any other city they’ve lived in.

Despite thinking about it frequently, I’m still not sure what the answer is. I do not believe that further criminalization is a road we should go down. Frankly, I’ve been harassed by MPD officers, too, which only highlights the need for greater training of our police to understand how street harassment contributes to and sits on a continuum of gender-based violence.

What we need is a culture change. I understand that the DC Council probably can’t fix the entire culture of toxic masculinity that feeds this issue, though I’d certainly welcome it if you’d like to try.

What I do know is that our city can and should do better, and that starts with knowing the full scope of the problem. I support CASS’s calls for a formal data collection program, and hope the Council will lead on these efforts.
I look forward to seeing the ideas and solutions that come from this roundtable. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today.