This is an article I wrote for Hollaback Philly, a non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment. They’ve posted it on their blog, which I really hope you go and check out. Hollaback is in many other cities as well.
I distinctly remember walking down the sidewalk with my friends at the age of thirteen, getting honks and lewd comments hurled at us. I repeat: WE WERE THIRTEEN. Imagining ourselves cool and grownup, we would give offending drivers the finger and gleefully yell “Perv!” as loud as we could. After the shock of the first time or two, I considered it old hat in the nonchalant way that kids who don’t know better have. Maybe it had happened to me earlier even than thirteen, because I developed very early — but if it did, it was too traumatizing for me to not block out of my memory.
I’m in my early thirties now, and not much in the way of street harassment has changed. I’ve heard everything from “Nice ass,” and “Show me your tits,” to the relatively milder “You’re looking good today,” and “Hey baby.” I’ve heard it all, and I don’t care what the words are, I hate them all. I no longer have the blase attitude of laughing and yelling back, because no matter what I do, I’ll be called a bitch, or maybe worse. I hate that I have to fear speaking up, fear threats of violent confrontation, fear for my safety for the grave crime of being a woman in public. “What, I give you a compliment and you don’t even look at me? Bitch.” “You act like I’m not here? Bitch.” “I was being nice. Bitch.” Bitch. Bitch. Bitch.
Street harassment is not about compliments. It’s certainly not about being nice. It’s about intimidation and dehumanization, about objectification and making the recipient feel powerless and scared while the perpetrator feels powerful and aggressive. It’s about keeping its targets firmly in a place of submission and fear, and perpetrators (in my personal experience, they have invariably been men, of all races) in a place of power.
I’m a survivor of abuse. It happened early and often up through my early to mid 20’s, and I’ve spent years coming to terms with it and learning that healing is a journey, not a destination. For me, part of being a survivor and not a victim, part of continually healing, is speaking up — of ensuring that through my words and actions that neither I nor others are silent victims ever again. But even this is a journey, not a destination. It’s exhausting at times, terrifying, daunting; but also exhilarating, empowering, and deeply fulfilling.
Street harassment almost always catches you unaware. I am usually biking, concentrating on navigating Philly traffic and deep in my own thoughts. “Nice ass,” along with a jeering face staring back at me from a car as they drive ahead of me, violently tears me out of the present and can take me all the way back to my abuse — despite the years of therapeutic work I’ve done for myself. It doesn’t matter whether a flashback lasts for seconds, minutes, hours — or even if I’d never been abused at all, and there was nothing to which to flash back. Street harassment makes my heart pound, makes my stomach churn, and it makes me absolutely seeing-red livid. It doesn’t matter whether I’m wearing a potato sack or a ball gown, or even, as in the case of Philly Naked Bike Ride, nothing at all. You have no right to talk to me like that. Harassment is illegal in the workplace, at school, at home — pretty much anywhere that’s indoors. So why is it that when we’re outside, it’s like the Wild West? It’s violent, it’s wrong, and it needs to stop.
I am deeply passionate about fighting injustice with my words, which, paired with my intelligence, are the mightiest weapons I possess. I use words to reclaim myself, to reclaim my body and my soul. I write romance, and I write erotica, and I love that I am able to make a living at it. I write other genres too, and plan to eventually publish those as well. I love my queer sexuality, and I love that I am free inside myself to be able to claim it without shame or self-reprisal. I love that I can use words and verbal images in any way I like to reclaim my soul from my broken past, and to create my own future.
Despite what the children’s chant says, words can hurt you — but it fails to mention that they can also heal you. That’s why the growing Hollaback movement is so damn brilliant. It fights words with words, voices with voices, and shows the silent ones that it’s okay to speak up, that they are not alone. It empowers the victimized and gives them a constructive outlet for their fear and rage. Hollaback is a brilliant concept, one that I hope will soon create positive change in policies, laws, and cultures.
Not all words are created equal, and we all know it. You have a voice. Use it for positive change.