Leading activists against street harassment spoke of the need to raise awareness and continue to build the movement at a Monday panel, “Talking Back: Facing Gender Violence on NYC Transit,” hosted at Hunter College and co-sponsored by MYD’s Transportation and Women’s Issues Committees, as well as the Hunter Women’s Rights Coalition, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, Hollaback, and the National Organization for Women.
Professor Gail Garfield of John Jay College moderated the panel, which included four speakers:
- Emily May, executive director of Hollaback, an international movement which combats street harassment through mobile technology.
- Hilary Nemchik, who chairs Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s Domestic Violence Task Force.
- Jerin Afria, of the National Organization for Women’s Young Feminist Task Force.
- Susan Moesker of the Center for Anti-Violence Education, which teaches leadership, self-defense, and violence prevention.
Street harassment is pervasive. In the Borough President’s 2007 report Hidden in Plain Sight, Nemchik said, nearly two-thirds of survey respondents reported being harassed on the subway system. According to May, harassment seems to occur across the spectrum, with the stories submitted to Hollaback implicating harassers of all races and socioeconomic statuses. The panelists did agree that people of color and members of the LGBT community are disproportionately targeted, since there are more “reasons” a potential harasser can seize upon.
But despite the pervasiveness of gender violence in public spaces, the panelists agreed that awareness of the issue is too low and that authorities often fail to take it seriously, which deters reporting of harassment. Moesker said that many victims attending her classes shared feelings that they hadn’t known where to go or what to do in response to street harassment. And when the MTA’s anti-harassment ads urge victims to contact police and transit workers, but transit workers are increasingly scarce (due to layoffs) and station intercoms too often broken, what message does that send? By contrast, when the city made a serious commitment to cracking down on gender violence in South Slope (including a increased police presence), reporting of harassment increased. Also important to combat this lack of awareness is additional research, as is currently being conducted by Cornell University researchers.
The panelists were optimistic about the progress made thus far. Nemchik said the street harassment was relatively young, and May agreed, arguing that in many ways the street harassment movement was closely tracking the progress made by workplace harassment advocates in prior decades. “We are at the center of the movement today,” May said, pointing out that her group began as a handful of friends in 2005 and now and now has dozens of chapters across the world. Panelists encouraged audience members to get involved with their organizations and in events like March’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week.
Action also begins with us as individuals. As Afria pointed out, gendered violence “exists in a spectrum,” with rape and murder at its extreme end and catcalls and harassment at the other. In a culture where harassment is seen as normal, actions further down the spectrum begin to seem more acceptable. There’s one thing anyone can do, even if you’re unable to take the time to volunteer, Afria said: “Hold the people around you accountable.”