(WOMENSENEWS)–The rape allegations against former International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and now Egyptian former bank chair Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar by two hotel maids have refocused the world’s attention on the risks that women face by going to work.
Comments about someone’s body, assumptions based on race or sexuality, inappropriate touching, gestures, or sexual requests–it seems that everyone either has a story or knows someone that does. And we never know when these situations will escalate.
As egregious as the allegations are against Strauss-Kahn and Omar, there’s a fundamental difference between harassment in the past and today. Today, a name exists for what has happened, systems of accountability are in place and laws protect those who are victimized.
Even this limited progress has not extended to the streets though. Today a silent epidemic rages on. Street harassment–or sexual harassment in public spaces–is fast becoming the flashpoint issue for an emerging generation of activists, just as workplace harassment was in 1980s. And like in the 1980s, a solid coordination of activism, research and analysis is needed to move street harassment from the background to the forefront.
In 1991, when the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas case captured the public’s attention about "sexual harassment," activists, academics, legal scholars, legislators and practitioners had been at least a decade "in the trenches." They had already been developing vehicles for women’s voices across the country, analyzing crisis counseling and hotline records, conducting scientifically based studies and writing academic articles, articulating a feminist jurisprudence, defending women in court and beginning to influence workplace prevention and policies and challenging workplace norms. A strong platform from this decade of academic and activist work was in place to challenge the victim-blaming and vilification of Hill and to continue the fight.
Street harassment is no different than workplace harassment in its purpose and its effect. It is meant to put victims in their place, to remind them that they are objects and that their safety is a privilege, not a right. As a result, people change jobs, leave apartments or whole cities and suffer long-term stress and anxiety orders.
Now young activists internationally, at nonprofits such as Hollaback! and in projects such as Stop Street Harassment, Blank Noise Project and WomenSpeak, are beginning to stand up and say "no more."
In 2005, a group of young friends, men and women from ages 21 to 24, were telling their stories of street harassment. When they walked alone, they felt vulnerable and powerless; when they would yell at the instigators of the harassment, the situation escalated; police did not seem to respond to their concerns. One of the men in the group said to his female friends: "You live in a different New York City than we do."
They did what many youth would do when faced with a similar challenge: they started a blog. Called Hollaback!, it was intended to bring awareness to street harassment. They were quickly inundated by others’ stories and supporters. Today 24 Hollaback! sites are up and running, from Croatia to Argentina to Atlanta. This newly forming community of voices combines story-telling with on-the-ground activism. And with coverage in The New York Times, the BBC and NPR in the past year, the world is clearly listening. We believe the time is right to tackle this long overdue issue once and for all.
Little Data Available
However, the leaders of the movement to end street harassment face a challenge similar to the early days of the workplace harassment movement: little data.
Activists working to end street harassment have responded by collecting crowd-sourced data. With the more than 2,000 stories collected and mapped on ihollaback.org through Hollaback!’s iPhone and Droid applications, we know that no one is alone in his or her experiences. Street harassment impacts young women in particular, with factors like race and sexuality tending to increase the frequency and severity of the harassment. A study conducted through an online survey tool by Holly Kearl, published in her 2010 book "Stop Street Harassment," indicates that between 80-100 percent of women have been harassed at some point during their lives.
But knowing that crowd-sourced data is self-selecting and cannot paint a broader, more complete picture, street harassment activists are asking for more.
In October 2010, over 100 activists crowded into a standing-room-only city council room at New York City’s first ever hearing on street harassment, hosted by Councilmember Julissa Ferrarras, and sounded a call for more research.
During the hearing, advocates called for a study that would produce the data needed to address street harassment in New York City. The study would look at the long-term impact of street harassment and the effectiveness of both formal and informal solutions in making people feel safer in their communities.
It would be the first of its kind at a time when governments internationally are searching for solutions. In this ever-tightening budget year, a study on street harassment is a relatively inexpensive method for New York City to lead the way. More important, such research provides an opportunity to provide concrete solutions to a deep-seated social issue.
Street harassment activists know they have many more battles ahead. But research is a critical early step as it allows us to move this issue from an individual to a collective experience. If we wait, we fear that yet another generation will have to endure the same harassing experiences.
Now is the time for City Council to take this small first step toward a day when street harassment is taken as seriously as workplace sexist behavior.
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K.C. Wagner is the director of workplace issues at Cornell University-ILR School. She testified as an expert witness for the plaintiff in the U.N. case of Claxton v Gomez and was the counseling director at Working Women’s Institute from 1980-86. Emily May is the executive director of Hollaback!, a nonprofit dedicated to ending street harassment.
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