Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Let's Talk about Street Harassment

Trigger warning: The below includes explicit descriptions of street harassment and sexual assault.


The issue of street harassment has gotten a bunch of attention in the media lately.  According to stopstreetharassment.org:
Gender-based street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. 
Street harassment is a problem in general, but is especially prevalent on college campuses (where many astronomers work), is especially scary at night and in isolated places (when and where astronomical observing happens), can affect how safe someone feels traveling alone to unfamiliar places (like conferences and observatories) or how late they feel comfortable staying at work.  Street harassment is something, that while might seem like a non-astronomy issue, actually can have real impact on the professional life of an astronomer because it affects one's ability to travel freely through the world without fear of violence or abuse.

Part of the problem with gender-based street harassment is that it rarely happens to women (or more generally people who are not masculine-presenting-cis-males) when they are accompanied by men. Therefore this is a phenomenon that many men (who are not harassing people themselves) never witness.

In response to the various videos and cartoons about this topic that have been circling the internet, I have recently had several conversations with men in my life about street-harassment. These men say they are surprised that this still happens "this day in age" or ask "but isn't it nice to get attention?" or "doesn't that make you feel attractive?"

These same men were shocked when I shared the specifics of how street harassment has manifested itself in my life.  Even though sharing these experiences is difficult for me, I believe it is useful to help people who have never experienced or witnessed street-harassment understand this phenomenon. Below is a non-exhaustive list of things that have happened to me -- personally -- by male strangers in public spaces:
  • I am walking down the street and a man grabs my crotch, or my breasts, or my butt (all three have happened).
  • I am biking up a hill and a man rides up next to me and starts pushing me from behind. I repeatedly tell him to stop and that he is scaring me. He doesn't stop (even when I say three times: please stop touching me) until my boyfriend who is biking ahead of me turns around. The man then makes an annoyed comment as he bikes away saying that he was just "fooling around."
  • I am walking down the street and a man starts following me and talking to me. I tell him to leave me alone, but this makes him invade my space more or push me up against a wall (both have happened).
  • I am walking down the street and a man puts himself in my path, blocking my way, and wont let me pass until I do something for him (i.e. "smile", "say please", "give him a hug", or "give him a kiss").
  • I am walking down the street and a group of men start following me. They follow me to my motel room and try to push themselves into my room. They stand there banging on the door until I call the front desk and another man asks them to leave.
  • I am walking down the street and a man starts following me. I go into a shop. He waits outside of the shop for 5 minutes staring at me from the window.
  • I am getting out of my car and a man who is walking down the street stops, turns around, and stares at me from the sidewalk. He mumbles under his breath and makes threatening gestures. He starts to follow me as I cross the street to go into my house. I have to ask another passerby (man) to wait with me until the man walks away.
  • I am biking down the street and a car drives very close to me and the men in the car scream "watch out!" I swerve and almost fall off my bike, and then they start laughing as they pass by.
  • I am walking down the street and men driving in a car yell obscenities at me like the c-word, or tell me a sexual act they would like me to do to them.
  • I am driving on the freeway and look at the car driving in the lane next to me. It is a man masturbating in a obvious fashion and staring at me smirking.
  • I am walking down the street at night and the streets are empty. A man is walking behind me. I cross the street. He crosses the street. I cross the street again, he crosses the street again. Another man is coming from the other direction. I turn around and start following that man to get the first guy to stop following me.
  • I am walking down the street. A man shouts something at me, maybe it's a compliment, maybe it's not. I ignore him because I don't feel like talking to anyone. He responds to my silence by getting angry and calling me disrespectful names.
  • I am walking down the street and as I pass by, a man yells explicit sexual comments about my body; Saying what he'd like to do to me, how he would like to touch me; or calling out physical characteristics about my butt, chest, lips, or legs.
For those reading this who don't know me personally, just to dispel some stereotypes of what you think people who get street-harassed look/dress like, here is a picture (left) of how I typically present myself in public (I'm the one without the mustache).

As you might imagine, the above interactions did not feel good to me.  I did not enjoy that attention, nor did I take it as complimentary.  In fact much of the above made me feel very scared and worried that the situation would escalate into further assault and/or violence.  I am petite and most of the people who did the above were ~1.5X my weight and ~7-inches taller than me. This physical power difference makes the above experiences even more scary and intimidating.

You might think, that perhaps I am particularly unlucky in having had the above experiences, or somehow provoking them to happen to me.  It turns out, I am not unique or alone. Street harassment is pervasive and happens to most women, transgender and queer folks. Below are some statistics collected by Collective Action DC:
  • Over 99 percent of women report facing some form of street harassment.
  • 90 percent of gay & bisexual men report experiencing street harassment.
  • 8 percent of transgender folks report being physically attacked or assaulted in public.
  • Over 37 percent of women have had a stranger masturbate at or in front of them in public.
  • 53 percent of transgender folks report being verbally harassed or disrespected in public.
  • 57 percent of women reported being touched or grabbed by a stranger in public.
  • 62 percent of women say a man has purposely blocked their path at least once.
  • 59 percent of gay & bisexual men reported changing their routes to avoid street harassment.
  • 27 percent of women report being assaulted at least once in public by a stranger.
Perhaps I have convinced you that street harassment is a real and pervasive problem.  Many people who do not experience street harassment themselves do not know how to respond to this information or how to help.  Many people who are experiencing street harassment do not know how to stop it from happening or respond to it.  Below are some ideas of how we can prevent street harassment, help victims of street harassment, be better allies, and appropriately respond to street harassers. These ideas mostly come from these two articles on Everyday Feminism:

1) Educate yourself on what constitutes street harassment and stop participating in this behavior yourself or condoning it in others.

2) Listen in solidarity and with concern when people talk about their experiences of street harassment.

3) Hold people accountable. This involves calling people out when you see them engaging in street harassment or hear them describing harassing behavior.  This involves talking to your friends, family, and colleagues about this problem and helping to educate them.  This involves learning bystander intervention techniques.

4) Educate young people about consent and respecting bodily autonomy.

5) Learn and practice appropriate responses to harassers either as a victim or a bystander.

6) If you have been harassed, consider sharing these experiences with people in your life (if you feel safe/comfortable).  If you have not been harassed, ask people who you are close with if they can help you better understand this experience.

7) Report harassment to authorities.

8) Get involved with community organizations and activist groups to prevent street harassment in your local community.  Work to make your workplace, classrooms, meetings, and conferences safe.

9) Join the Astronomy Allies Program to help prevent harassment from happening in our professional community and support those who are victims of harassment.

10) Participate in the CSWA workplace climate survey. This survey will allow us to better understand issues (like harassment) directly impacting our field.

Other ideas?  Share them in the comments section below!

11 comments :

Anonymous said...

I understand that this is an important issue that needs to be discussed, but I'm curious as to how this relates to astronomy. Yes, street harassment is a huge problem in today's society and it happens everywhere, but I'm just not convinced that a women in astronomy blog is the appropriate platform to voice this issue on.

Anonymous said...

Actually, this is relevant to astronomy. For instance, plenty of women get harassed at the AAS meetings (particularly undergrads presenting posters). Another issue is when astronomers are traveling on work trips in unfamiliar places. I personally felt scared or anxious walking around foreign cities where I didn't know what to expect but which had reputations for increased levels of harassment (like Italy... and I refused to go to a conference in India from what I heard about that). I'm sure this can have an impact on women's job advancement if they are fearful to go certain places. I'm not (and neither is Jessica) just being paranoid or making a lot out of nothing... these things are too common. I went on an observing trip once with another woman astronomer and waiting in the airport a man was staring at us, then he put his hand down his pants... in the airport. I later saw the same man at the AAS meeting, where we were both heading. Luckily I was not alone at the meeting, but I was sufficiently scared to have people like that around at what is supposed to be a safe professional meeting. In short, yes, this is relevant to the women in astronomy group.

Nicholas Murphy said...

In response to the anonymous comment above: street harassment is pervasive on college campuses, and in the neighborhoods around where many astronomers work. When street harassment happens on or near college campuses, this is workplace harassment and essentially classroom harassment.

Astronomers do not live in a vacuum. As we are working for equity and inclusion in our field, we need to recognize the boundary conditions that our society sets for this work. Pervasive street harassment has a real impact on many astronomers.

Thank you Jessica for this post!

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Anonymous -- That is an interesting question. I guess I would ask you what % of women in astronomy would need to be affected by an issue for it to be appropriate for this blog?

25%? 50%? 100%? Considering the statistics shown in this post -- that close to 100% of women in general have at some point experienced street-harassment -- I suspect that a similar percentage of women in astronomy have also experienced street-harassment.

Street-harassment happens on university campuses, when people are traveling to and from work, when they are traveling for conferences or observations. It's something that affects women feeling safe moving through the world, and it affects many astronomers.

So I guess I don't understand what issues you think are appropriate for this blog if not an issue that affects most women in astronomy.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 here,
First of all, let me say that I am not in any way discounting the issues mentioned in this post, nor am I downplaying the severity of the issue.

All I am merely trying proposition is this:
This is an issue that affects every member of society. It's not exclusive to astronomy.

Here's the line of reasoning that I don't agree with:
Issue X affects all women of society. Woman Y is a part of society and happens to be an astronomer. Therefore, issue X belongs in woman Y's astronomy blog.

Topics like what Anon 2 mentioned "plenty of women get harassed at the AAS meetings (particularly undergrads presenting posters)" are very relevant to an astronomy blog and would be useful to read and learn more about. (I'm actually curious as to what can be done on the administrative end to prevent this from happening in future meetings.)

Topics like what Mr. Murphy said "street harassment is pervasive on college campuses, and in the neighborhoods around where many astronomers work" are a consequence of social behaviours, and not necessarily rooted in the field of astronomy.

My point is that while it is an important issue to discuss, there are more relevant issues that one could write about in a blog specific to issues women face in the field of astronomy (again, I'm not downplaying this in the slightest).
A few things that are more specific to astronomy might be: promoting women in STEM, maternity leave in academia, systematic gender bias in physics/astronomy departments, and maybe highlighting scientific results and achievements by women astronomers that wouldn't be picked up in press releases. Disclaimer: I am in no sense an authority on what should or should not be posted on this blog. Just someone with an opinion.

p.s.
In reply to what Mrs. Kirkpatrick said, "So I guess I don't understand what issues you think are appropriate for this blog if not an issue that affects most women in astronomy.", I am not one to decide what issues are appropriate for this blog. This is entirely your (your in the collective sense) blog and you have every right to include whichever topic you choose to. Just that as a reader of this blog, this topic seems quite far removed from the core list of issues surrounding the field.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Anon 1 -- It's Dr. Kirkpatrick.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

I have added the following paragraph to the above post, which I hope helps Anon 1 (and others like him/her) connect why this topic is especially relevant to professional astronomers. I will no longer be publishing derailing comments. Any further comments should be engaging with the content of the post:

Street harassment is a problem in general, but is especially prevalent on college campuses (where many astronomers work), is especially scary at night and in isolated places (when and where astronomical observing happens), can affect how safe someone feels traveling alone to unfamiliar places (like conferences and observatories) or how late they feel comfortable staying at work. Street harassment is something, that while might seem like a non-astronomy issue, actually can have real impact on the professional life of an astronomer because it affects one's ability to travel freely through the world without fear of violence or abuse.

abigail said...

As I commented on the facebook thread: I personally had a really really terrible time with street harassment at my first international conference (as a masters student). It kinda ruined the experience and made me seriously doubt whether or not I wanted to continue in astronomy. I would prefer to never visit that city again, but sadly I have colleagues there and I may have to go at some point (I'm a PhD student). For me (and I'm sure many others), street harassment has directly affected my work as an astronomer.

Anonymous said...

I had a really frustrating experience this morning. I was on my way to an important appointment with my faculty Dean when I got catcalled by one of the cleaning staff in the faculty building. It was really quite surprising to me - it is so totally inappropriate and yet it is somehow something that this man felt he had a right to do even though he is in his work environment and I am almost certainly someone also in my work environment. I don't think I look like a student anymore. But even then it would be just wrong.

I stopped. And turned to him and told him that it is inappropriate for him to talk to me that way. His response? A huge grin and he kept leering at me - appraising me head to toe.

I walked away and got into the elevator to make it to my meeting and immediately started running through my mind if there was something I did to call this on. Am I inappropriately dressed? I am wearing long pants, a top that goes almost to my neck and I had a sweater on. Wait did I put the sweater on before the catcalling or after? I hesitated. Does it matter? I am wearing flat shoes. There is nothing in how I am dressed that seemed to draw this on yet I stood there wondering. Is it because my hair is down in a plait but bits are loose from walking in the wind. I usually wear it up in a bun - is that the reason for this sudden unwanted attention? I started to tear up in the elevator about all of this. Which seems crazy given that nothing really happened right?

By the time I got to my *very important* meeting, I was really distracted and upset and feeling like a female rather than my usual scientist self.

I want to share this here because I think it is somehow worth knowing the effect that these sorts of interactions may have within our work environment.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 - you want to know what can be done "administratively" to stop harassment at conferences? That will take associations stepping up to adopt, publicized, and enforce anti-harassment policies. Until the people who produce the meetings (associations, scientific societies, etc.) are willing to eject harassers from their meetings, they won't stop.

Me=You: Sexual Harassment Awareness said...

Very enlightening and personable article; thank you for sharing your experiences.