Street harassment is unfortunately an issue in our neighborhood, as it is around the world. A few times I've witnessed it and many people I know have experienced it first hand. A few weeks ago I saw a man catcalling a woman and wasn't sure what the best way to intervene was, so I reached out to Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a DC area nonprofit that focuses on the issue, to learn more. They answered some questions about street harassment, and also announced their yearly event called Right Rides, which offers free, safe rides home for women and LGBT people on Halloween.
Read on for more about street harassment, what you can do to stop it, and the Right Rides program.
Tell us about Collective Action for Safe Spaces.
Founded in 2009 as HollaBack DC!, Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) works to empower people in the DC metropolitan area to build a community free from public sexual harassment and assault, or street harassment. We do this through workshops, innovative direct services, policy advocacy and community outreach. Some of our proudest moments have been helping push the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to address sexual harassment and assault on metro and helping pass critical legislation to protect survivors of sexual assault in DC.
At CASS, we believe everyone should be able to get to move in public spaces without fear of being harassed or assaulted because of their gender or sexuality -- but sadly, that’s not the reality for the 65% of women and 25% of men who experience the “gender safety gap”. CASS works to close this gap by using diverse strategies that help meet DC residents’ immediate safety needs and also empower them to change the culture that allows this violence to continue.
What do you recommend someone do if they're a victim of street harassment?
Getting harassed when you’re trying to go to grocery store, get home, meet friends, or simply trying to enjoy a nice walk can really put a damper on your day. Sometimes, it can be really scary, especially if there aren’t a lot of people around, or the harasser is being really aggressive. CASS believes that there is no wrong way to respond. People should say or do what feels safe and right in that moment. This can be as simple as saying, “You’re harassing me; stop it,” in a calm but firm voice. I’ve heard some great responses over the years, including “Hi, my name is _______. That made me feel disrespected, but I bet your ma taught you better.” Sometimes if you see someone who is coming towards you on the sidewalk, make eye contact and say hello. By being the first to speak, you’re establishing your agency and self control with a would-be harasser. More often than not, they’ll say hello back and leave it at that. If the person chooses to harass you anyway, you can follow up with a simple all-purpose statement, like “Stop harassing people. I don’t like it, no one likes it. Show some respect.”
You can also get creative. You can ask a Socratic question: “That’s so interesting--can you explain why you think you can hiss at me when I walk by?” Once, when a guy started grunting at me, I let the chewed-up bite of sandwich I had in my mouth just fall out onto the sidewalk, and he was so caught off-guard (and probably disgusted) that he turned and walked away.
Regardless of how you choose to respond, safety comes first. If you don’t feel comfortable or safe responding -- or just don’t want to -- you don’t have to say a thing.
How about if someone witnesses it?
One way to stand up to street harassment is to actively intervene. This approach is referred to as bystander intervention in the sexual violence prevention field, and there’s a lot of evidence that it’s an effective approach. An easy way to remember your options is to keep the “3 Ds” in mind: Direct. Distract. Delegate.
- Direct means that you are directly interacting with the people involved in the situation and addressing that you are concerned: “Hey, it doesn’t look like she/he wants to talk to you,” “Is everything okay?”
- Distract focuses on creating a diversion. You can diffuse a situation by diverting the attention of the people involved, and giving the person being harassed a chance to leave: “Do you have the time?” “Do you know where Euclid St. is from here?” “Is there a metro station nearby?” It doesn’t matter what the question is, it breaks up the harassment and also lets the harasser know that you’re watching the situation.
- Delegate is a useful approach if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable intervening on your own. You could grab a friend to come with you, alert the bar bouncer or a store employee, or if the situation seems to be escalating, call law enforcement.
How can men (or anyone) help prevent this from happening?
Everyone can play a role in preventing street harassment. If you witness someone getting harassed on the street, step in (if you feel safe doing so!) and say something. Even if it’s a friend of yours who is street harassing others, let them know what they’re doing is wrong. On a broader level, community building plays a critical role in holding harassers accountable. Be active in your neighborhood, get to know your neighbors, watch out for each other.
I once saw something about construction companies firing workers who harass women, is this common?
Companies respond in a variety of ways to complaints of street harassment by their employees -- and unfortunately, some companies don’t respond at all. CASS believes it’s important for businesses and companies to be held accountable and to get ahead of the problem by establishing clear anti-harassment policies. Businesses should also provide anti-harassment training to their employees, which -- thanks to CASS’s advocacy -- is currently the case with WMATA. We’re continuing to push for similar anti-harassment efforts by Uber and the DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC), which play a huge role in safety from sexual harassment and assault. Back to construction companies, we recognize that there are many stereotypes around street harassment, especially around the profile of who harasses. I’ve been harassed by men in hard hats and men in three-piece suits. So while we’re fighting street harassment, we also want to challenge folks to examine their own assumptions and stereotypes.
How common is street harassment? Is harassment more common in some areas rather than others?
Street harassment is very common. According to a recent national study by our sister organization, Stop Street Harassment, 65% of women and 25% of men have experienced some form of street harassment. And we believe that’s a conservative estimate; other surveys have found that close to 100% of women have experienced some form of street harassment, including leering, groping, catcalling and sexual assault. Harassment happens everywhere. I think there’s a perception that this happens more frequently in urban areas; however, I grew up in a small midwestern town and I remember being street harassed for the first time at age 11. That said, people of color, people from low-income communities, young people, and LGBTQ people are disproportionately affected by street harassment. It starts early, especially for those who identify as LGBTQ.
Do you have any upcoming events?
Why, yes, we do! We’re excited to announce the launch of RightRides DC, a free, late-night safe rides program for women and LGBTQ folks. Our first night of service is Halloween, , where we’ll provide free rides home between the hours of . We’re celebrating the RightRides DC launch on Wednesday, October 29th from 5:30-8pm at Right Proper Brewing Company in Shaw. You can find more details on the Facebook event page here, and you can register here (it’s free!).
Even if individuals can’t make it to the launch event, they can save the RightRides DC number in their phone and tell their friends to call or text 202-556-4232 for a free, safe ride home from . With enough support, we will be able to sustain the program with the goal of operating every and night.
How can someone get involved with your organization?
CASS’s work is made possible by volunteers, and we’ve got several opportunities right now: volunteering for our RightRides DC program, and joining our Fundraising Advisory Committee. You can fill out a volunteer application here. You can also donate at any time. When it comes to community safety, we’re all in this together!