In a pedestrian city like New York, walking conditions matter – and not just whether the sidewalks are even.
Latosha Belton, a 17-year-old who lives in Crown Heights and is graduating from Paul Robeson High School there, estimates that at least two days of her week regularly include a man following her or walking with her, uninvited and unwanted.
That’s one kind of street harassment, and about 200 girls and boys, men and women gathered at a “Street Harassment Summit” earlier this month to learn more about the problem and how to deal with it. Organized by 10 teen interns, including Belton, of the group Girls for Gender Equity in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the summit included a variety of practical workshops, screening of films on the topic – and the chance to discuss their own experiences in a supportive atmosphere.
When the “Sisters in Strength” internship began in January and the teens learned they would be doing a community service project, “we all decided on street harassment,” Belton said. “We all go through street harassment every day.”
That includes being stared at, catcalled, goaded, touched, confronted with obscene gestures, and verbally or physically punished for offering resistance. Facing all of that can lead girls and women to wear baggy clothes to hide their bodies, alter their transportation routes, and feel threatened or powerless.
“I’ve always thought of it as a problem,” said Brittany Bellinger, 17, a friend and classmate of Belton’s at Paul Robeson, after a workshop on community organizing.
But there is recourse. Park Slope resident Susan Quinn, one of the adults who saw the event advertised and attended, said from her workshop she learned techniques like inviting a woman on the subway who’s being harassed to sit with you, or trying to embarrass a harasser – like laughing at a subway masturbator – which can be more effective in ending the harassment than a standard confrontation.
Alexandra Gonzalez, 17, who lives in Astoria and attends Bard High School Early College on the Lower East Side, is another Sisters in Strength intern. She said from the summit she learned about groups like Youth Outreach for Victim Assistance and Holla Back NYC, which encourages people to photograph harassers and post their pictures online as a mode of response, and deterrence.
In the late ’90s, New Yorker Maggie Hadleigh-West used a Super 8 camera to enter the space of men who she felt invaded hers first by ogling her on the street. The film she made of these impromptu interviews, “War Zone,” was also shown at the summit. Men give a range of reasons for their looks and remarks, from wanting to give a compliment, to trying to impress their male friends, to hoping to score a date, to just because.
“I’m interested in knowing why you were looking at me the way you were,” Hadleigh-West – in a striking summer dress cut with cutouts showing her muscular arms and back – asks one man. “‘Cause I got eyes,” comes his response.
It raises the question of how different breasts and behinds are from shapely muscles, large tattoos, crossdressers, green hair, odd costumes, or anything else that attracts the eye. For her part, Belton called it “offensive,” but not harassment, when men look at women’s breasts. Harassment is “when they try to make you make a decision that you don’t want to make.”
It’s also against New York state law, in articles of the penal code that prohibit various kinds of stalking and assault. The NYPD did not provide statistics on how often people are charged for these offenses.
In matching powder-pink t-shirts on summit day, May 5, the Sisters in Strength didn’t seem overly influenced by feminism’s history, or turned off by it. “It can be us women being strong together,” said Gonzalez. “We are the ones that are going to make change happen.”
According to Belton, “I think right now people are getting more conscious, and the spark of everything was the Don Imus controversy,” in addition to recent attempts to tamp down popular use of “the b-word” and “the n-word.”
One of the boys at the summit, 14-year-old Aqueel Agulia, who attends the EBC High School for Public Safety in Brooklyn, said he was there because a movie-making group he’s part of, the Global Action Project, attended. Their next movie will be about street harassment.
Agulia said he’s seen male friends harass girls, and has thought about the issue before. Would the summit change things? “Not really,” he answered. Would he say anything to his friends? “Probably, if I see them doing it again,” he said.