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Confronting the everyday power of street harassment: What can be done?

Harassment almost never occurs when women are around male friends; instead it’s something women deal with when they’re alone and most vulnerable.

'Cards Against Harrassment' features videos of a Minneapolis woman named Lindsey who confronts men as they catcall in the downtown core.

Street harassment in Minneapolis is making headlines these days, and not in a good way. A few weeks ago a project named “Cards Against Harassment” went viral. The project is the work of a Minneapolis woman named Lindsey who confronts men as they catcall in the downtown core. Watching her series of videos, and reading through the accompanying cards that Lindsey hands out to her objectifiers, is a object lesson. Through the cards, which are both serious and funny, the project attempts to explain how women feel while being harassed by men. And the project’s YouTube videos, which document Lindsey’s diverse conversations with the men who make remarks to her, shows awkward social interactions in a way that is painfully unvarnished.

Street harassment lies somewhere on a spectrum with “the male gaze” on one end, and sexual violence (i.e. rape) on the other. In my conversations with different women over the last few weeks, catcalling, wolf whistling and unsolicited sexual comments seem to slide easily up and down along the line of male power, often fading into the background, but occasionally becoming gateways to more explicit forms of assault.

Street harassment is a difficult topic to confront because, for many men, it remains almost invisible. Harassment almost never occurs when women are around male friends; instead it’s something women deal with when they’re alone and most vulnerable. (This is a key reason these incidents can leave such deep impressions.)

The public flexibility of street harassment also makes it a difficult problem to solve through policy, because it’s deeply wrapped up in social and cultural habits — and perceptions of what is and is not harassment can vary widely. Are there things that the city can do to make street harassment less likely? Does confronting a harasser help the situation, or exacerbate it?

Women’s right to the city

The bottom line is that women should have the right to move around the city without having to experience unsolicited sexual language from men. But for hundreds of years, this hasn’t been the case. As Rebecca Solint describes in “Wanderlust,” the best history of walking I’ve found, women’s rights to walk in the city have been restricted by men from Ancient Greece to the present.

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“Access to public space, urban and rural, for social, political, practical, and cultural purposes is an important part of everyday life, but is limited by fear of violence and harassment,” Solnit writes. “The routine harassment women experience ensures, in the words of one scholar of the subject, ‘that women will not feel at ease, that we will remember our role as sexual beings, available to, accessible to men.’ “

For example, Solnit describes how women walking alone through 19th-century cities were viewed as morally corrupted, not part of the respectable domestic caste. For all but the lowest classes of society, women could be fined, arrested or forced to prove they were not prostitutes simply for walking unaccompanied through a city.

Just because control over women’s access to movement has become less visible today doesn’t mean it has vanished. For most women, the ability to take the bus, ride a bike, or walk down a sidewalk is shaped by their ability to tolerate the various forms of harassment that persist in the Twin Cities. Memories of these experiences form individual mental maps for women that shape their experience of the city.

“The weird part of it is when you begin to blend maps and temporal experiences,” Sarah Brumble explained to me. Brumble is a travel writer who has experienced increasing amounts of street harassment in Minneapolis over the last few years, including being groped at a South Minneapolis gas station. “Sometimes you just decide that this street is bad at night. Or maybe there’s some construction going on … and it’s equidistant to avoid that pack of construction workers. It’s the same thing with bus stops: Try to avoid masses of people.”

Different experiences in different modes

For some women, a partial solution to the harassment problem is to drive a car, where spatial security is guaranteed by a steel shell. Yet this solution poses a problem for cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul that are trying to reduce automobile dependency, and increase the number of people walking, biking and taking transit. If women don’t feel safe using non-motorized transportation, our cities will be leaving half the population behind and reinforcing longstanding spatial inequalities.

Laura Kling is a transportation expert who has spent years organizing Grease Rag, a bicycle community that focuses on empowering women, trans and femme riders.

“One reason I ride my bicycle is to get away from public transportation,” Kling told me. “I feel like I have more space between me and someone who’s going to harass me, but I feel like I can independently move myself from one place to another without having to sit next to someone that I don’t know.”

“There’s also the power structure of the mode of transit that you take,” Kling continued. “If you’re a pedestrian, you’re a slow-moving, isolated target. Walking down the street, it’s really awkward if someone says something disgusting to you. You can tell them to go to hell, but you still have to finish walking the block.” As Kling explains it, each of the modes of movement has distinct vulnerabilities. Once you’re out of your car, you’re fair game for harassment.

Rules of engagement and tricks of avoidance

Meanwhile, women who (through choice or necessity) end up taking more public forms of transportation end up using a variety of tricks to dealing with the persistent behavior, ranging from body language to sunglasses to different forms of spatial avoidance. Probably the most common trick is “the headphones thing,” where women wear headphones (often without even listening to any music) just to keep men from bothering them.

Janne Flisrand is a housing consultant who lives in Minneapolis who shared with me some other anti-harassment tricks for riding the bus in the city:

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“Don’t be small in your seat,” Flisrand told me. “Basically, act like a man in your bus seat. Take up more of your fair share, using your elbows. I always put my bag in my seat next to me so it’s socially awkward to try and sit next to me. I used to knit on the bus; it creates a conversation starter that isn’t about how I look or my age.”

“Finally, there’s a very definite way about how you carry your body,” Flisrand continued. “Don’t ever make eye contact. If you do, give them the snake eye. You don’t ever smile at anybody. If somebody says hi, you don’t respond verbally. Instead you put on your ‘city face.’ ”

What is to be done?

“There’s not been much progress if I feel like I can’t go biking by myself,” Beth Bowman told me. Bowman is a visual artist who lives in St. Paul, and remembers being coached by her grandmother about how to deal with cat callers on the street.

(Grandma’s No. 1 tip? “Don’t make eye contact.”)

“When we talk about walkability and streets and urban planning,” Bowman explained, “if women don’t feel safe on the streets, if they feel like they’re going to be harassed, that’s a walkability issue. That’s a planning issue.”

Because the culture of street harassment is so ubiquitous across time and space, it seems the only real solution lies in changing male culture.

“The best thing women can do is to continue sharing their stories and encourage others to do it,” Sarah Brumble told me. “It really helps when guy friends step in from a position of empathy rather than cracking a joke about it or try and make us smile.”

Meanwhile, Brumble, her friends, and women all through the Twin Cities continue to endure a daily gantlet of subtle and overt abuse just for trying to move through the city. Lindsey is out there, handing out cards and documenting discomfort like a superhero. But without a broader recognition of the problem, women will continue to be excluded from city streets through the everyday power of street harassment. When this happens, everyone loses.