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Time To Holler Back

It’s a warm day and I’m walking down the street for an appointment with my trainer. I’ve got my sweats on and my iPod playing music with a motivational beat. Just walking down the street minding my own business.

And then it happens.

The guy in front of me stops, and after I pass him he mutters: “Nice —–.”

What the? I’m taken aback. Did he just say…yes, yes he did. It’s not my first encounter with my neighbourhood street harasser. It’s not even my first instance of street harassment, but as I’m getting “long in the tooth”, I had somehow mistakenly assumed vile comments and veiled threats from people on the street would not follow me into my dotage. It was an odious reminder that street harassment has no boundaries. It is sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, sizeist, ableist, and classist. It is unwanted and unwarranted.

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My neighbourhood street harasser has managed to creepily insert himself and his inappropriate comments into my walk before. But this time, he’d uttered a vulgar word that entered my ears and immediately brought me to a place I did not want to be. I was shocked, yet not shocked. I was both angry and fearful. Three steps later I stopped in my tracks and the words “oh God” tumbled from my mouth. That’s it. That’s all I could muster. I don’t even know if it was an invective or a plea. I walk on and immediately pondered…was it my faded, sweaty, Wonder Woman t-shirt? My baggy, paint-stained, androgynous, knee length sweats? Now, I know his behaviour had nothing to do with what I was wearing, what I was doing, my location on the street, in the city, or time of day. I know that. But I went there anyway. I went to “what did I do” and to “what didn’t I do”. I went there even though I knew the problem wasn’t with me. The problem was with him.

My shock, discomfort, and fear made him feel powerful.

But not for long. No more, buddy. I won’t change my neighbourhood walking routes (though I may cross the street), what I wear, or how I act. I will not smile for you because you tell me to. You have no right to ask me. I will not say hello because you insist that I do. And the next time you do it—the next time you feel a misogynist compulsion to put me in my place and intimidate me with your words or actions, I will (from a safe distance), in clear and simple terms, tell you to stop harassing me.

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I can also now report my street harassment on a number of websites dedicated to street harassment. One of my favourites is Hollaback www.ihollaback.org an online movement and social activism organization that allows women to document their experiences, access resources, and educate their community. Hollaback is a world-wide movement, with a Niagara page at niagara.ihollaback.org

A Hollaback poster makes it clear how insidious street harassment is.

I had no clue that March 30-April 5 was International Anti Street Harassment Week until I started writing this post and checked out: www.streetharassment.org

That organization also offers tools and resources to people who want to launch safe public spaces campaigns in their community, or to people who witness street harassment and are at a loss on how to act against it. The site also makes it clear what street harassment is, including “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons which are motivated by gender in public spaces that invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.” I would add that street harassment also transects class, race, age, ability, and sexual orientation. It is about asserting power and as such is as academic Hawley Fogg-Davis says, “a terrorism of the mind”. Fogg-Davis notes that women, and those who identify as gay and transgendered, know street harassment will happen in their lives, but they don’t know for certain when or how it will happen.

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The Everyday Sexism Project offers another harassment reporting site. It allows contributors to document instances of harassment and sexism on the street as well as in private spaces, at work, and at school, through its website at canada.everydaysexism.com or via Twitter @everydaysexism

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There are many more street harassment sites that provide resources and reassurance. The stories posted on these sites are both disturbing, and affirming. They are disturbing because they are real and current. The harassment is perpetrated by people who know better but gain power from acts that are menacing and threatening. The stories are affirming because the people who post them can feel free to express their pain, fear, anger, and frustration without recrimination.

This iconic photograph, American Girl in Italy, 1951 by Ruth Orkin, has always seemed a bit menacing to me, though I believe the photographer and human subject saw it as an expression of freedom. I've always wondered: whose freedom does it most express? I think I first saw it as an "art poster" and something people put on their walls as an expression of their artistic taste. It is both compelling and repulsive because it shows a woman essentially running the gauntlet. The whistling man, with his hand on his crotch can hardly be described as "non threatening".

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