- Posted September 23, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Impact Your World
What is “street harassment”? Naming the problem in Philadelphia and the world.
A couple of months ago, HollabackPHILLY gave a talk to 40 high school students taking part in the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Justice Research Academy. After we finished describing our work with street harassment, one young woman raised her hand and said “What you’re talking about… I just realized that that is what I’ve been dealing with every day since I was 8 years old.” A momentary hush fell over the room, as we were all touched by the realization and saddened by the reminder of how so many of us are conditioned from a very young age to accept harassing behavior from strangers.
It deeply disturbs me that street harassment has been normalized to the point that as a culture, we tend to see it as an inevitable part of life. When we see examples of street harassment on TV and in movies, it’s often minimized and portrayed as funny or validating (and of course, all harassers are construction workers). In workshops and conversations in Philly, most of the time when we mention “street harassment” to a group of people, we are met with confused looks. We regularly have to clarify that “street harassment” means sexual harassment by strangers in public places, including unwanted comments, following, whistling, staring and other behaviors that make a person feel unsafe and uncomfortable. That’s when it clicks, and the stories start bubbling out. People know exactly what we’re talking about. They are angry and frustrated by these harassing behaviors; behaviors that most have learned to accept as normal. The fact that so many people still have no name for this problem convinced me of the need for a widespread advertising campaign to bridge this gap.
In April 2013, HollabackPHILLY ran a unique PSA campaign in the Philadelphia subway system. This set of six ads, which can be viewed at philly.ihollaback.org/ads/, were up for two months in the subway and quickly went viral online. Though many people have referred to it as such, this was not an “awareness raising” campaign. Do we need to raise awareness that the sky is blue? Street harassment is so common and normalized that we hardly even talk about it. Instead, our goal was to name it, and by naming it, problematize it.
HollabackPHILLY’s PSA campaign was challenging to create, because we had very little to use as a model. What are the best strategies for talking about street harassment with a mainstream audience? We’re not sure - the research just doesn’t exist. We know that pointing an accusatory finger at harassers will get us nowhere. We also know that statistics don’t resonate with people, and language that is too general falls flat. We had to keep our ads interesting and inclusive enough to resonate with a wide audience, while showing a clear connection between the problem and its name. We shared them widely before deciding on our final set of six messages, incorporating feedback throughout. Our final messages were not without flaws, and we debated them for months (one in particular that we went back and forth over repeatedly reads “In a perfect world, what would your sister/daughter/girlfriend hear as she walks to the subway?” We feel strongly that no person should be defined by their relationship to others, but this ad resonated extremely well with people and we could not deny it had value in spreading our message). Because HollabackPHILLY had to purchase the ad space ourselves, our campaign was very limited in scope. We will be running a larger campaign in Spring 2014, with an expanded set of messages. With this larger campaign, we will aim to include messages focused on LGBT audiences, as well as bystander intervention. It will take a community effort to end street harassment, and for that to happen we need to recognize how harassment affects all members of our community.
Until more people become familiar with the name for harassing behaviors in public spaces, and start viewing it as a problem, the default response will continue to be “boys will be boys.” The movement to end what we now know as “sexual harassment” went through a very similar process. Just a few decades ago, sexual comments in the workplace were considered normal and acceptable; it was just fine for a man to call his secretary “honey” and comment on her body. For her to complain about it would have been either laughable, or cost her her job. Naming this behavior “sexual harassment” was a major first step in reframing the harassing behaviors as harmful and socially unacceptable.
Street harassment is one of the final frontiers of gender equality worldwide and the perfect example of rape culture: it is incredibly common and normalized to the point that people regularly tell us that we should not take it so seriously. Being harassed on the street reduces girls, women and LGBT folks to objects, causes discomfort and fear, and restricts our movements in public spaces. No one should feel uncomfortable walking down the street because of harassment, and especially, no young person should grow up internalizing messages from strangers commenting on their body and making sexual advances.
How can we end this? It is not enough to simply say, “I don’t harass people, so I’m doing my part.” As a community of bystanders, it is our responsibility to start challenging the social norms that support harassing behaviors - and we can only start doing this once we define these behaviors as problematic. HollabackPHILLY’s ad campaign uses mainstream advertisements to spark discussions among young people around what street harassment is, how it impacts people and what we can do to stop it. People who don't experience street harassment often do not realize how prevalent it is, or the kind of impact it can have on young girls and members of the LGBT community. Street harassment starts at a very young age, and can deeply affect young people’s sense of self-worth. It’s time we all start recognizing it for what it is.
Small as it was, our Spring 2013 campaign resulted in an outpouring of local support from individuals and organizations. Once the ads went viral online, we began to receive messages from people all over the country and the world, thanking us and saying they wished their cities had our advertisements. We had purposely designed the ads to be scalable, and just as we’d hoped, activists from several cities reached out to us to request to bring the ads to their cities. Plans are now underway to spread the message to more cities in the next year, which is a beautiful thing. In addition, city government has started to take note. The Philadelphia City Council recently set the date for a public hearing on street harassment on November 7th (details below), recognizing that this is an important issue in our city. Slowly but surely, conversations like this are starting to happen all over the world.
The social norms that support street harassment have deep, anonymous roots in our global culture. Naming the problem and bringing it to light will ensure that in the future, no young kids will grow up accepting that it is normal to feel uncomfortable and unsafe in the public spaces that they have every right to occupy. As the Executive Director of Hollaback!, Emily May, said recently: “We don’t have much time. In just 8 or 9 years, the babies rolling around in strollers today will start hearing the kind of harassment we’re dealing with now.” Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.
For more about HollabackPHILLY, visit http://philly.ihollaback.org/
The above film, created by Philadelphia filmmaker Kara Lieff, shows subway passengers on the Broad Street Line in Philadelphia reacting to our ads on Anti-Street Harassment Day (April 13, 2013) when Philly organizations including HollabackPHILLY, FAAN Mail, Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, POPPYN, and many other allies came together to show the city of Philadelphia that street harassment is a serious issue that deserves attention. Kara has created numerous anti-street harassment related films, including others from Anti-Street Harassment Day 2013, that can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/karalieff.
For information on our upcoming City Council hearing (open to the public): http://philly.ihollaback.org/2013/09/20/hollabackphillys-city-council-hearing-save-the-date-10am-november-7-2013/