If you listen to enough stories of street harassment, often, you’ll hear an ending similar to this: “Afterwards, when I told my family/partner/friends about the experience, they told me I was overreacting.”
“They told me they’d be glad to get that kind of attention.”
“They told me that these things wouldn’t happen if I dressed differently, didn’t go out at night, didn’t drink- if I didn’t encourage them.”
And while street harassment is always awful, it’s these endings that sometimes scare me more than anything.
If you’re a woman and/or identify as LGBT+, you’re taught to expect at least some level of street harassment. It’s still unacceptable, but you don’t have to think too hard about flipping off someone who catcalls you. You can write off the street harasser as a sexist creep and go on your way. Once you get home, the hard part should be over.
No one should have to go home to find that their sweet, sensitive and loving family, partner, friend will invalidate what just happened. Will blame them. Will make them question what happened to the point where they won’t know themselves. And it’s this fear, the fear that after everything that’s already happened that no one will support them, that is what keeps people silent.
And if we don’t feel safe sharing something as relatively innocuous as a cat call, how are we supposed to feel sharing other, more violent, more traumatic experiences?
Street harassment is a problem not only because it is internationally recognized and experienced by millions of women and LGBT+ individuals, but because it is expected. It is recognized and dismissed. It’s something people have to experience, and they feel they have to experience it alone because they feel they have no one they can trust who will recognize that their experiences are real and awful and undeserved by anyone.
If we want to eradicate street harassment, the first step is getting people to share their stories. That not only means encouraging people to share- it means creating safe spaces where they feel they can share. It shouldn’t be entirely up to women and LGBT+ folks to share their stories- we should be working to make sure they all feel safe sharing their stories.
If you’re reading this, I’m sure you know there are plenty of communities online (The Everyday Sexism Project is only one example), but if you’re looking for things you can do to combat street harassment offline, I think one of the most important ways is being able to support family and friends so that they feel they can share these experiences with you. Not everyone knows about these kinds of communities. Supporting people who experience street harassment shouldn’t be exclusive to anti-street harassment spaces.
If you have trouble finding the right thing to say, here are a few quick tips:
-The advice can wait. Besides the fact that certain advice like “don’t walk alone at night” is a.) something most women have heard before and b.) not something women can always avoid, wait until they feel less vulnerable before springing in with the, ‘next time, try…’ line because we already internalize the idea that we deserve the harassment we get. And if you must give advice, try to avoid wording it in a way that implies, ‘you wouldn’t get harassed if you do this.’ Unless the advice is something along the lines of, ‘never go out in public,’ it’s not true.
-On that same note, it’s very easy for people who experience harassment to start blaming themselves. Cut the guilt trip short. Assure them that no matter what they were wearing, where they were going or what they were doing, they didn’t deserve what happened to them.
-Don’t tell them to calm down/ ‘not take it so seriously’. Their emotions are valid and need to be expressed. Sometimes people need to cry. I know, it’s not fun comforting someone who’s crying, but it is still definitely worse for the person who is crying.
– Listen. Listen listen listen because often we just want to acknowledge that it happened, and it was awful. Knowing that you don’t have to experience this bullshit alone can make handling it infinitely easier.
(Trigger warning: Discussion of rape and victim-blaming attitudes)
I’ve been following the Steubenville case for a while, and the recent surge in media attention it’s gotten in the wake of its trial’s end has left me tired and angry.
For those unaware, the basic story is this: Last year, in Steubenville, Ohio, during a party after Big Red football game, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16 assaulted and raped a 16-year old girl, who is anonymously referred to as Jane Doe. At least three other students witnessed the assault, and photographs and videos were spread onto social media websites, where they soon became viral. On Sunday a verdict was reached: Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were found guilty receiving a minimum one year sentence in a juvenile detention facility.
If you’ve been following it, you’re most likely well aware of the awful, victim-blaming response Jane Doe has received from popular media outlets and the general public (intense trigger warning for victim blaming attitudes in the latest link especially).
What makes me especially angry isn’t how reporters like Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow from CNN empathized with the rapists by describing them as ‘star football players’ whose ‘lives fell apart’ after the guilty verdict. It isn’t the fact that so many reports merely describe Jane Doe as ‘drunken’ or ‘intoxicated,’ shifting the blame of the assault onto Jane Doe while conveniently leaving out the fact that her rapists were also drinking.
No, what truly annoys me is how ABC introduced the story as, “…every parent’s nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world.”
As if to say that the real problem wasn’t that Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond raped someone; the problem is that they put evidence of the rape online, and allowed themselves to get caught.
What these reports have failed to do, what our culture has failed to do is to illustrate the moral: Don’t Rape People. It seems like something everyone should know, and yet we have to continue inserting addenda that say yes, it is still rape even if she was flirting with you beforehand; yes, it is still rape even if she’s not struggling; yes, it’s still rape even if she’s drunk; yes, it’s still rape even if she’s dressed provocatively; yes, no matter the circumstances, if the person cannot give on-going consent, then it is rape.
Because at the moment, if a person like Jane Doe, a person who was at a party, who was drinking, who might have been flirting, is raped, the focus is not on how despicable the rapist is, but on whether or not the rape survivor ‘deserved it.’ We live in a culture where being a rape survivor is seen as more shameful than being a rapist.
These news stories don’t have to tell women to ‘not get drunk’ to ‘not go to parties’ to ‘be careful, stay safe, stay vigilant,’ because anyone who’s been raised as a woman has heard this since they hit puberty or earlier. You know who does need to be educated about rape and sexual violence?
Guys like Evan Westlake, one of the witnesses who, when asked why he didn’t try to stop the rape, responded: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.”
Here are the facts: In the US where the Steubenville case took place, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have experienced rape. (source)
In Australia, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 (source)
Clearly, our current model of teaching women ‘don’t get raped,’ so let’s try teaching people, men, to not rape. We’ve already seen evidence that such educational campaigns have done positive work in places like Edmonton, so let’s try bringing this education everywhere.
Let’s teach people about what it really means to get consent- that it is not the absence of ‘no,’ but the presence of ‘yes.’
Let’s teach people there is no shame in being a survivor of sexual violence, but that anyone who inflicts sexual violence is a rapist and an abuser, and deserves every ounce of shame that comes with those titles.
Let’s teach people that rape and sexual violence don’t just happen in dark alleys at nights haunted by psychopaths, but that it’s inflicted by husbands and friends and ‘promising football stars.’
And finally, if you want to show your support for Jane Doe, her family has redirected all donations and funds sent in to the Madden House and Family Violence Project. You can also donate to the Madden House here, and leave a note saying that your donation is in the name of Jane Doe, Steubenville.
Additionally, if you’re able to, I encourage you to try to support sexual assault centres in your area, by donating, volunteering, or at least letting others know that these local resources exist. This, for example, is the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, and this is a list of sexual assault services throughout Australia. If these negative media portrayals and public backlash have taught us anything, it’s that we need to be better about supporting rape survivors.This is one way we can do so.