by: Kevin Sparrow
So, there’s this thing called International Anti-Street Harassment Week* happening, and given that it’s only the second annual, you’d have good reason for not realizing. It’s 2012, and considering we’re in the middle of a national battle over women’s rights and specifically the rights women have to their own bodies, this might be the time to take a moment to address this issue. The same politics that lead to discriminatory policies about birth control and women’s health funding even being up for debate are the visible forms of the ideology from which street harassment is born; it’s the barnacle on the hull of that ship of awful because it’s not a surface issue when harassment is taken as status quo.
What is missing by this being a hidden issue is that younger teen and pre-teen girls who are not included in the larger discussion on women’s health are highly impacted by these acts. They are only starting to learn how to frame their own experiences with their bodies and their relationships to men, and an atmosphere that normalizes assuming ownership over someone else’s body and making them a public object, only perpetuates the damage being done to self-image. When passersby witness these moments and say nothing, we are contributing to this atmosphere; we are encouraging these behaviors.
A common response is that this is a necessary evil women have to encounter that will ultimately make them stronger; you know, adversity builds character. But we’re really selling ourselves short as humans if that’s our conception of adversity. We should want adversity built out of equality, out of equal opportunities, especially opportunity for security in public spaces. Adversity that comes from constructively challenging each other. The lazy response of “people can be shitbags but it’s better not to say anything than cause a scene” is akin to coming across a bag of shit–like a Hefty bag of shit–and letting it fester in the sun on State Street or take up an aisle on the el, and not taking any action to dispose of it because you’re grossed out by the mess.
Discourse of this nature is most commonly employed to demean women, but it also has a side gig of devaluing the experiences of trans people. Street harassment significantly impacts trans women and men who are called out for being trans and who encounter a similar objectification and relinquishing of their bodies to public consumption. While it should be enough that already half the population is affected by this epidemic, this misogynistic atmosphere also feeds into attacks on sexual identities–being proclaimed “dyke” or “faggot” in public as a lesbian or gay man–so this is not an issue of any small relevance to LGBTQ people.
There should be power in that. When you add up the numbers of gay, straight and women, trans men, gay men and allies, you have a minority share of people who are actually doing the harassing. They may be in pairs or in groups, but ultimately, they are smaller, socially weaker, and if those of us affected by street harassment are calling it out when it’s happening to others–making those people ashamed of their actions, turning the dialogue toward publicizing why what is being said is wrong, not publicizing someone’s body for dissection–we are taking positive actions and affirming respect and dignity as how we should behave toward one another in the street.
My main goal here is not to call out what has or hasn’t happened in the past, nor to tell people to launch their own last-minute event for International Anti-Street Harassment week (though I do prod encouragement; I strongly prod), but to take the time for us all to inform ourselves about street harassment, to identify the actions you can take when confronted by it or, even better, when you witness it happening to someone else and can intervene. Remember, only you can prevent flaming bags of shit.
*It’s important that events are happening at all, and I applaud those that did occur. The Meet Us On the Street site has actions people can direct themselves, including flyers you can print off and pass out.
Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness is both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.