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The Fight Against Street Harassment

by Aubrey Fox, Jan 24, 2008
 

When Emily May set up the Web site Holla Back with six friends in October 2005, she didn't expect much response.

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"We thought, 'Wow, this is a cute idea,'" said May.

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Inspired by Thao Nguyen, whose decision to snap a cellphone picture of a subway rider masturbating led to a high-profile arrest and prosecution, Holla Back gives visitors, mostly women, a forum to post photographs and stories about their experiences being groped, catcalled or otherwise sexually harassed in public.

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It didn't take long for the Web site to catch fire. "It was wild," said May. "All of these women were coming out of the woodwork." TV stations and local media started calling, and May appeared on the Good Morning America, the Today Show and CNN. Holla Back was profiled in several local newspapers. More than two years later, the site is still thriving, receiving about 1,500 visits a day, according to May. Fifteen different Holla Back sites have been established nationwide, with another in South Korea.

Holla Back gives New Yorkers a forum for expressing frustration about street and subway harassment of women. At the same time, a growing groundswell of anecdotes, opinions and outrage is beginning to reach the attention of government. For example, in December, the City Council passed legislation, sponsored by Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., that upped penalties for repeat flashers, or individuals convicted more than once for public lewdness within a three-year period, from $500 to $1,000, and from 90 days in prison to a year.

Little is known about the precise extent of harassment, despite an avalanche of anecdotal information and some small-scale surveys. And debate continues over what role, if any, government should play in regulating the behavior. Advocates hope that laws like the one passed by council last month at the very least will stigmatize behavior that has long been accepted or at least tolerated. Others challenge the harm that is posed by harassment, likening it to harmless flirting. And some fear that the enforcement of laws against harassment and flashing will be unfairly directed at gays and racial and ethnic minorities.

Anonymous and Uncounted

Street and subway harassment is anonymous: In almost every case, the harasser and the person being harassed do not know one another. The harassment itself ranges from rude and prolonged stares and inappropriate comments to behavior that can create fears of sexual assault. Women feel threatened by this, partly because they have no way to determine the intentions of the harasser - whether he is a "good guy or not" in the words of Emily May. Even rude comments can be traumatizing, particularly for rape victims. (According to the United States Department of Justice, one in six women have been raped at some point in their lives.)

Many observers believe that street harassment is essentially a "power trip" designed to put women in their place, a reaction to broader social changes in which women enjoy more freedom and work opportunities than previously. "It's a mechanism designed to reinforce [traditional] status hierarchies," said sociologist Laura Beth Nielsen.

In a rare attempt to quantify the frequency of street harassment, Nielsen interviewed 100 subjects (including some men) in the Bay Area. Fully 62 percent of the women reported experiencing offensive or sexually suggestive comments "every day" or "often." An additional 28 percent said they heard comments "sometimes." Only 10 percent of the women she interviewed said that they "never" heard comments.

In July 2007, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer issued a report on sexual harassment and assault in the New York City subways. Sixty-three percent of survey respondents reported being sexually harassed on the subway, and 10 percent said they had been sexually assaulted. About half said they felt the threat of sexual assault and/or harassment on the subway "sometimes or frequently."

Critics assailed the survey's methodology. It relied on self-reporting (individuals were invited to fill out the survey on-line and only a fraction of those invited did so), which may have inflated the findings. The New York Post was particularly harsh, dismissing it as "The Beep Who Cried Wolf." Even the Wall Street Journal weighed in on the topic, calling it a "Dubious Survey on Subway Safety."

While the criticisms were somewhat valid, the report generated a huge amount of attention. A story on the subject at the New York Times blog "City Room" received 163 comments, far more than the 5 to 25 comments that blog entries typically generate.

Reliable information about the nature and extent of street and subway harassment is almost impossible to come by. "There's no research out there," said May. "We don't know how often it happens or who it happens to." The result, according to May, is that "women think it's their fault. They say to themselves, 'If only I wasn't walking there.'"

Stringer believes the government must do a better job of collecting information. "The city has gotten very good at going after crime that it quantifies, so the first step should be tracking sexual harassment and assault in the subway as its own category of crime," Stringer wrote in an email message. "Having that information will allow us to raise the profile of these crimes, demand more of a response from the police and the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority], and create a public service campaign that embarrasses the perpetrators and empowers victims to move beyond fear to outrage." His report recommended the establishment of a hotline for subway riders to report incidents of assault and sexual harassment, citing findings that the overwhelming majority of victims don't bother to report incidents to the police.

The Government Role

Regardless of how widespread harassment is, what can government do about it?

Even efforts to target relatively straightforward behavior such as public lewdness have proved controversial. "It's a struggle for government to regulate public space, because you almost always capture people acting innocently" or for reasons other than those contemplated by the law, said Vallone.

His bill is a case in point: It was criticized by gay right groups who argued that the police use public lewdness laws to target gay men who have sex in public. An enterprising reporter from Gay City News, Duncan Osborne, obtained records of 359 public lewdness complaints filed in the city and found that a small number involved police operations in locations that gay men frequent for sex. (While some may argue that prohibiting public sex is a legitimate government activity, it wasn't the express purpose of the legislation.) In response, Vallone agreed to limit enhanced penalties to "serial flashers" arrested more than once for the same offense in a three-year period.

In the 1980s, transit police falsely arresting black and Hispanic men for what was then called "bumping" in the subways in an attempt to raise their productivity and earn promotions. The pattern of arrests created an uproar. "It's extremely hard in a crowded subway station to tell right from wrong when somebody is up close to somebody else," Richard Emery, a lawyer who represented the falsely accused men, told the New York Times.

The challenge of targeting street and subway harassment becomes even more difficult when you move from behavior (such as flashing or groping) to speech. The first constraint is constitutional: The Supreme Court sets a very high bar against government intervention. Essentially, the government can regulate only speech that is clearly intimidating, rather than merely offensive. In addition, regulations have to be applied in a "content neutral" fashion that does not target particular kinds of speech. In practice, the court has generally struck down laws aimed at racist or sexist speech, but has upheld laws that restrict panhandling, another form of potentially offensive public speech. In her study, sociologist Nielsen suggests this reflects a judiciary that is largely male and thus unfamiliar with the problem of street harassment. About two thirds of the men in her survey reported rarely or never hearing offensive or sexually suggestive comments directed at other people.

Nielsen herself has a nuanced view of government intervention of sexist speech. In her interviews, she found little support for an expanded government role, even among men and women who believed strongly that sexist speech is offensive and morally wrong. White men tended to cite the First Amendment to support their position, but white women and people of color used a much more pragmatic calculus. In essence, they believed that policing sexist speech would either not work or would backfire on its intended beneficiaries. In other words, women doubt that government is the answer to the problem of sexist speech. Nielsen, though, believes that changes in law would have an "important symbolic effect." New laws, she said, would help women make the case that harassment "doesn't just suck, but is illegal."

Banding Together

Whatever the legal pitfalls, advocates think awareness of harassment has increased. "The important thing is that this is no longer a secret conversation between women," said documentary filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West. Her 1998 documentary, "War Zone," in which she interviews men who harass women, has enjoyed an unusually long life. She traveled to Egypt this year to show the film, and it is used routinely for training by the U.S. Department of Defense. "The positive part is that it's now being recognized culturally as a problem," she said.

Inspired by "War Zone," a group of young women organized an anti-street harassment campaign in Brownsville, Brooklyn, developing posters and creating a "harassment-free zone" in their neighborhood. "We work with the girls to own up to their own comfort zone and identify what they think is harassment," said Joanne Smith, the executive director of Girls for Gender Equity. "A lot of them end up being comfortable telling people, 'I don't like this.'"

Of course, there are limits to the self-help approach: In one highly publicized incident, four women were arrested for attacking a man in Greenwich Village they accused of harassing them. One woman stabbed the man in the abdomen with a steak knife she carried in her purse. While vigilantism is one concern, a more practical concern for most women is whether confronting their harasser will expose them to more danger.

To Emily May of Holla Back the most effective approach is education: letting men know that women cannot distinguish a harasser who is basically harmless from one who is genuinely threatening. "I think [a lot of] men really don't understand what they're doing when they harass women," she said. "If they understood that street harassment was scary, they wouldn't do it."

Aubrey Fox is project director of Bronx Community Solutions, aimed at changing the Bronx court system’s approach to low-level crime.  


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