Every Street Should Be a Safe Space

Whether it’s getting catcalled or being told to smile, almost every woman deals with street harassment. But it took until this summer to stage the first-ever international conference on street harassment, which took place over the weekend of July 25th at New York University.  

Grassroots anti-street-harassment group Hollaback organized the event, welcoming community organizers, nonprofit members, and just plain angry folks to share histories and to air out grievances about everyday sexual harassment.

It’s clear that at the end of the event that street harassment is all about ownership of space. Writer Tanisha Love Ramirez, for example, lamented the social anxiety she’s developed over the years, dealing with street harassment so often she became a recluse and stayed in the one space she knew she could control: “I didn’t want to go to the store, I didn’t want to go out and buy food… and I wouldn’t even go out with my friends or my own little brother. It just got so bad.”

To deal with street harassment, many of the speakers discussed creative ways to redefine public spaces to work for them, from speaking up calmly to taking up breakdancing.

That example comes from Rokafella, a Puerto Rican b-girl goddess, who said she started breakdancing to discourage dudes from bothering her while out. “I really like dancing, but I had problems at the club. [Men] wouldn’t let me dance!” she said. While speaking, she leaned back slowly, stood on her head and suddenly propelled her legs around her body, performing a Helicopter on stage. “You can’t grab my ass while I’m breakdancing,” she said, “Or I’ll kick you in the neck!”

Nicola Briggs is a Tai Chi instructor who found internet fame after fighting back against a predator on the subway in 2010. After successfully humiliating her offender, she encourages all victims of street harassment to speak out without worrying about being polite. “Don’t let good manners ruin your day,” she said, “If someone crosses your boundaries, you can defend yourself… Even if you don’t do what I did, you did the right thing for you, by responding the way you did or didn’t.”

Jimmie Briggs, of the organization Man Up, recalled a time when he was out with his daughter and encountered a man publicly beating a woman. People passed through as though nothing was happening. Briggs, concerned about keeping his daughter safe, but also about setting a good example as a bystander, intervened. “Is there a problem here?” he asked calmly, creating space between the woman and the attacker. Bewildered, the aggressive man simply walked away.

Ryann Holmes from Bklyn Boihood brought the home a major point about redefining how masculinity is expressed in public space. Holmes, a queer woman of color who identifies as a boi (or as a queer person whose identity is on the masculine end of the spectrum), explained the ways in which street harassment has impacted her perception of gender and maleness. “We look for images to affirm our own masculinity,” she said, “Some are violent and fucked up. In hopes that these images are going to validate who we are, we [adopt] them.”

Many speakers stressed was that the root cause of street harassment is a violent form of masculinity, which often relies on the disrespect of women. But Holmes showed that the hostility behind street harassment is not just a problem coming from cisgender men. Some of my friends, queer men of color, have actually experienced much degrading harassment by white heterosexual women. “You look good for a Mexican,” said one woman, reaching for his hair. “Mmmm, nice legs,” purred an older woman into my friend’s ear in Union Square. And I often fear for my transgender friends who face harassment from people of all ages and genders.

While street harassment is no doubt about control of power and space more than it is about sexual attraction, it’s a behavior that exists to maintain other structures of power. It’s not as simple as men harassing women; it’s one’s special way to remind you who the bosses are in this world—and those bosses exist across gender, race and class lines.

by Suzy X
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Suzy Exposito is a writer, illustrator and musician in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently the online producer at Rolling Stone. She was previously the assistant editor at MTV Iggy and has contributed to Pitchfork, Rookie Mag, and Bitch. She volunteers regularly at Girls Rock! camp and once fronted NYC punk band Shady Hawkins. She graduated from the New School in 2011 with a BA in Writing and a minor in Gender Studies.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Excellent article!

Thank you especially for bringing up the gender complexities.

I've been looking through some of the resources on intervening in street harassment--do you know of anything that focuses on articulating why telling someone to smile or shouting "Hey, love" is harassment? I've been having some conversations about this and I could use a little help.

I think that asking someone

I think that asking someone to smile is like saying "perform your gender for me!" and should be as ridiculous as asking people to flex and lift weights for your enjoyment - but for some great images and discussion, check out tatyana fazlalizadeh's project, "Stop Telling Women to Smile" : http://www.tlynnfaz.com/Stop-Telling-Women-to-Smile
And Hollaback!'s FAQ section is flat out awesome for responding to some of those "but what if I NEED to tell someone she's attractive" questions: http://www.ihollaback.org/about/faqs/

Thank you so much!

Oh, that is so helpful. Thank you.


Is this conference supposed to be international because one speaker was Canadian? There was barely anyone there that wasn't from NYC. What a disappointment that Bitch has taken to publishing lazily reported PR pieces.

Generally great article , but please stop making a simple error

Generally great article, and you do attempt to be balanced but it's kind of half hearted.

The sort of comment saying oh wait not only women get harassed, queer men do too, is a bit weak.

There is still a definite tone of straight men don't get street harassed, which is really strange. I think you'd have to be blind to not see men who are non confrontational being squared up to quite often around every city. Now if street harassment was just about sex, you'd at least be statistically closer to the truth. Women/men street harassing straight men on a sexual basis is around where I'm from I'd say a fiftieth as common as women being street harassed. (IE down from once every 5-7 days to once every year per victim). Obviously the vast vast majority of the responsibility on social change specifically for street harassment is on men.

But it does happen, and it sounds irrational when you imply it never does (which you did), which leaves otherwise perfect and interesting articles open to this little chink in the armour that could just derail the argument in less polite company. It's extremely common attitude and can feel quite degrading (see holloback which specifically precludes white-straight men as the only sector of society not allowed/encouraged to record street harassment).

Anyway good luck, great writing.

(PS other issues like being asked to perform to a gender stereotype are much more fifty fity, however irrelevant to this discussion)

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