D.C.’s fight against street harassment

Marty Langelan, with a few deft moves, could kick a towering, 300-plus-pound man off her 5-foot-2 frame. She knows this, because she’s tried it.

But on this night, as she walks up to a group of young men sitting outside the Columbia Heights Metro station, Langelan looks more like a librarian than a martial arts expert. Her hair is swept into a loose updo, and her outfit is smartly layered in shades of blue. The young men, in the baggy mismatched clothes of a different generation, don’t notice her until she hands them a sheet of paper. The heading, in bold-face type, reads: “International Anti-Street-Harassment Campaign.”

“What’s this?” one of the young men says, scanning the sheet. Hooting, sexual comments, kissy-sucky noises, leering, groping, grabbing, molesting: It’s not friendly — it’s crude, it’s creepy and it’s over. STOP DISSING WOMEN. WE DON’T LIKE IT — NO ONE LIKES IT. SHOW SOME RESPECT ON THE STREET.

“I tell you one thing, I don’t touch no [expletive] females.”

“That’s great,” Langelan says, smiling. “But if you want to go for the gold star, if you see someone disrespecting us, say something.”

“That’s how people get killed,” he says.

“People have guns,” adds his friend, pulling a cigarette from his mouth. “And females ain’t as innocent as you think they are.”

“The point is women feel afraid,” Langelan says.

“Y’all ain’t afraid,” he says.

The truth is Langelan is less afraid than most. She teaches self-defense and has tested more than a hundred ways for women to respond to unwanted attention from men in public spaces.

Consider the flier. There is no such campaign — at least not officially. Langelan printed the fliers after another Washington-area activist declared March 20 Anti-Street Harassment Day and two local women used their blog to find volunteers for a safety audit, one that’s been done in only three other U.S. cities.

How these women came to know one another and how Langelan ended up walking the streets this night, fliers and audit forms in hand, is a story about a local movement that has become part of an international crusade. It’s about what “Hey, Sexy!” means to different people and about how, for a growing group, it’s neither a compliment nor a tolerable nuisance.

For them, it’s a form of street harassment, the unwelcome words and actions of strangers that can encompass everything from passing comments to physical attacks. And, for them, the catcalls that others might ignore, or even welcome, are not only something to vent about — they’re grounds to act.

***

“You Look Tired,” reads a recent headline on Holla Back DC!, a Web site created for people to share their street harassment experiences. This post continues: A man walking past me on my way home from work: “You look tired.” The only thing I’m tiredof is men providing unsolicited commentary about what I look like while I’m trying to go about my business.

Scroll up a little higher:

I’m only 15 years old, and I was walking down from my HIGH SCHOOL . ... [The guy] said “Girl, you a classy bitch”, presumably because that day I had on a nice outfit for an interview. I didn’t turn around and I just kept walking, so his friend sped up, and grabbed me by my shoulder. ... They called profanities and stuff like I should be happy they’re saying it after me, but the rest of the day I was really shaken.”

Up a little more:

I was exiting the Waterfront Metro station and was riding up the 2nd escalator. ... I felt something graze my inner thigh and turned around quickly. He had his arm reached out under my skirt and was snapping a picture.

Three years ago, Shannon Lynberg, 27, and Chai Shenoy, 31, volunteered at the DC Rape Crisis Center and landed in a class led by Langelan, a former director of the center whose teachings include how to identify and address street harassment.

At the time, Lynberg says, she couldn’t walk through a park near her home without men following her or commenting on how she looked. Suddenly, she had a term to describe what she was experiencing. “That was a life-changing experience,” she says.

A month later, in a District teahouse, she was telling Shenoy about her park encounters; Shenoy in turn described the time a man had exposed himself on the Metro.

They had both heard of Hollaback, a New York Web site inspired by a woman who snapped a photo of a man masturbating on the subway, posted it on the Internet and watched as the public and police took notice. The site became a haven for women seeking to vent. Shenoy and Lynberg decided that if the two of them had stories to tell, other Washingtonians probably did, too, and set out to launch a D.C. branch of the site.

Since the site went live in March 2009, more than 600 anecdotes yes about harassment have found a home there, from accounts of being groped or witnessing public masturbation to complaints about wolf whistles or whispered come-ons. Shenoy and Lynberg say they don’t distinguish among them.

“It’s not up to the two of us to decide if this is street harassment,” Shenoy says. “Who are we to say?”

They call every person who submits a story a “survivor.”

***

Consider this scenario, Lynberg tells a group of young people: A woman is walking down the street when a man tells her to smile. Is that harassment?

All say no.

Metro TeenAIDS, an organization that aims to prevent HIV among the District’s youth, invited Holla Back DC! here after several teens raised concerns about being harassed in school and on the street, Executive Director Adam Tenner says. In the room near Eastern Market, eight young men and two young women spread across sofas and chairs facing Lynberg. Sitting nearby is Ben Merrion, one of the few male Holla Back board members. He donated $5,000 to the cause after he was robbed at gunpoint; he says he knows what it means to feel unsafe.

“A lot of women feel they should be able to walk down the street without smiling or being asked to smile,” Lynberg says.

“If you say a girl has nice lips, is that street harassment?” one boy asks.

“If you call her cute, is that street harassment?” another wonders.

“Me, I’m the kind of person when I think something, I say it,” says Deron, a 17-year-old. Take this woman on the Metro. “I said, ‘Your heels are beautiful.’ The rest of the ride she was smiling. You can make somebody’s day with a compliment.”

It’s not just men, Paul, a 21-year-old, points out.

“Females do it, too,” he says. Once, when he was performing with a band, he stepped off the stage and a woman grabbed his crotch. “She was OC” — out of control, he says. “Girls touch boys’ butts all the time.” Adamant nods ripple across the room.

If some of them started the hour as skeptics, by the end, they seem to agree that people shouldn’t be bothered if they don’t want the attention.

“Do you think there’s anything we can do as a community to end street harassment?” Lynberg asks them.

Throw a parade, one suggests, pointing to gay pride efforts.

Make T-shirts, another offers.

“We have to teach each other at a young age it’s not okay,” Deron says.

Before the presentation is done, he will invite Lynberg back to talk to his friends (they left because they thought it was going to be boring, he explains), and he will sympathize with the women in the room, saying, “I don’t know how y’all do it.” But he will also ask Lynberg a question that will leave her later explaining that some people take time to change:

“Do you get sexually harassed?”

“All the time,” she says.

“That’s cause you have nice hair.”

“Thank you,” she says, smiling uncomfortably and reaching a hand toward her blond locks.

***

Langelan, who wrote a book called “Back Off! How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers,” breaks offenders into four types: those who have no malicious motives and might think they’re passing on a compliment; those who do it for a sense of power, one they may not have otherwise; those who are “defending their turf”; and the predatory harasser who may be turned on by his actions or looking for a target to assault.

A woman who finds herself the object of any of their attention has seconds to decide which type stands in front of her. If she says nothing, will he get angry? If she confronts him, will he apologize?

“What gives harassment its power is the underlying risk of assault,” Langelan says. “For women, because we’re not mind readers, if some jerk says something that’s a little off, we’re immediately put into this mode of, Is he following me, does he have his buddies with him?

Langelan doesn’t only encourage individuals to take control of the situation, she shows them how. “You don’t need to be a screaming crazy lady, and you certainly shouldn’t be a helpless doormat,” she says. “There are things in between that work.”

On a recent afternoon, she stands in a room in front of a group of mostly 20-somethings, explaining what they shouldn’t do: yell obscenities, insult a person’s manhood, cry. She then shows them a few techniques she has found successful, including one she calls the Socratic question.

To demonstrate, she asks three men and a woman to huddle next to her as if they were on a crowded bus. One of the men, barefoot and in gym shorts, plays the harasser and pulls close behind Langelan. She grabs his hand and lifts it above his head.

“That is SO interesting,” she says, loudly. “Can you explain why this hand was on my crotch?”

The other three participants then turn around, and, in unison, say the all-purpose statement she has taught them: “Stop harassing women. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.”

But in the real world, the response doesn’t always go as predictably. Confrontation can quickly turn a come-on into an insult — “You’re ugly, anyway” — or worse. Earlier this year, a District man was killed when he tried to help a woman on the street who was being harassed. And in May 2010, a college student told Fox 5 that she and her cousin were leaving a party when a man asked for her phone number and threatened to shoot them if she didn’t give it. She refused. A bullet lodged in her ankle.

It’s impossible to know how many street harassment incidents occur in the region each year. Police departments and federal law enforcement agencies categorize crimes by type — rape, assault, public disturbance — which mean the details of each case would have to be dissected individually to determine whether it also fits the category of street harassment. Even then, it’s largely subjective. While some incidents are clearly criminal — grabbing someone’s privates, for example, can besexual battery — most fall into a gray area. Even if people call the police, it’s difficult to say how each case will be handled. Catcalling is not a crime but depending on what is said and how it’s said, a person could be charged with disorderly conduct, says Montgomery County police officer Rebecca Innocenti. Harassment is also a potential charge, but a pattern of behavior must be shown and the person must have been warned to stop.

“What I would say to people, women or men, is if you have an area of concern, call police,” Innocenti says. “Call us.”

And do it quickly to improve the chances someone is caught, says Robert Icolari, a detective with the special victims unit in Arlington County.

Icolari’s name appeared on the Holla Back DC! site last year after a woman posted a photo of a man who snapped a picture up her skirt on the escalators at the Court House Metro station. In it, a round-bellied man in a baseball cap is blurred. The woman who took it wrote that on the day of the incident she waited a few hours to call authorities “even though I was clearly ASSAULTED.” Among the 30 comments that followed her story was one from Arlington police, saying the subject was in custody and that other victims, some who shared similar experiences on the site, should contact Icolari.

But, as Icolari said recently, it turned out the man who was arrested wasn’t the man from the photo after all. Instead, his habit involved standing at the bottom of the escalator, looking up women’s skirts from afar. He was charged with public nuisance.

***

On the Holla Back DC! site, under a tab labeled “anti-racism policy,” is this warning: “Due in part to prevalent stereotypes of men of color as sexual predators or predisposed to violence, Holla Back DC! asks that contributors do not discuss the race of harassers or include other racialized commentary.”

Shenoy and Lynberg say they adopted the policy early on after talking with Emily May, one of the founders of Hollaback NYC. May warned them that without it, the conversation could easily slip from sexism to racism.

“A common misconception about street harassment, especially among the educated, is it’s a cultural thing,” May says. But based on the locations of the incidents that are reported on the site, “we see it evenly across race and across economic background.”

May and a group of friends started Hollaback in 2005. Today, more than two dozen sister sites exist, most of them formed in the last year, and a dozen more are expected to launch by the end of the summer. Now, May says, the fight against street harassment is reaching far beyond computer screens. In Israel, Hollaback activists are pushing the government to add streetlights for safety. In Kabul women participated in a march against harassment, carrying signs such as one that read “This street also belongs to me.” In dozens of cities, crowds have gathered for SlutWalks, in which women, some in purposefully revealing outfits, march together as a statement about a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants without being victimized.

“This is the beginning,” May says. “If I went to the White House tomorrow and said we need a public service announcement on street harassment, they would say, ‘Street what?’ But if I go in a couple years,” when there are more sites and more data, she says, “it’s going to be a very different response.”

But a movement’s momentum is not just determined by its supporters. It is also fueled by its opposition — of which the anti-street harassment effort has plenty. Nestled among the sympathetic comments that follow the Court House Metro story is this one: “Oh, c’mon, lighten up — why so uptight about a guy taking a pic of your panties? Upskirting is practically a national sport in Japan.”

Lynberg and Shenoy have 200 comments that they have saved but never published because of their contents. Among them are racist rants and profanity-punctuated insults.

“You’re lucky,” one reads, “your ass was all he slapped.”

Shenoy and Lynberg say they initially didn’t publicize their last names for fear of the backlash. They had seen the eye-rolling the topic could induce — even among friends — and feared worse. They changed their minds only after requests began coming in for them to give public presentations on the subject. To date, they have given more than 50 throughout the Washington region. They have also conducted focus groups, gained nonprofit status and formed a board of directors.

The idea for the recent community audits came from Holly Kearl, who four years ago was a graduate student at George Washington University writing her master’s thesis on street harassment; now, she is one of nation’s top experts on the subject and runs Stop Street Harassment, an internationally read Web site and blog.

Kearl, 28, was at a conference in India last November when she learned that other cities had conducted safety audits. Immediately upon her return, she called Lynberg and Shenoy to see if they would partner with her to try it in the District. In February, they met to plan. The goal, Kearl wrote on her blog, was to use the findings to make recommendations to lawmakers that would ultimately lead to the first D.C. City Council hearing on street harassment.

In March, on a day Kearl declared “Anti-Street Harassment Day,” teams fanned out across the city with questionnaires that encouraged them not only to look for signs of harassment but also opportunities for someone to take it to a more violent level: ill-lighted nooks, deserted areas, the absence of a police presence. In May, the audit teams went out again, this time at night.

***

After leaving the young men the night of the audit, Langelan motions toward a bank machine tucked in a corner. “Did you see that dangerous ATM?” she says. A few blocks later, she stops in front of waist-high barrier separating the sidewalk from a building under construction. “If someone was attacking you, they could throw you over that wall.”

Across the city, more than 50 people are asking the same types of questions, looking with similar skepticism at nooks they might not otherwise notice.

Fast-forward three weeks to a meeting around a horseshoe-shaped table topped with Hershey miniatures and stapled sheets of papers. About a dozen people have shown up. Langelan sits at the table. Shenoy and Kearl stand at the front of the room. Lynberg conferences in by phone.

The question on all of their minds: What was learned from the audit?

The data are at best a rough sketch and reveal few surprises. The majority of participants reported seeing graffiti, trash on the ground and dark streetlamps. Most also reported that, day or night, they would feel safe waiting for a bus alone, would feel comfortable seeking help from someone at a store nearby and believe if they screamed for help, someone would hear them.

During the daytime audit, three people reported witnessing or experiencing harassment. At night, one person did.

The findings will be broken down further, Kearl tells the group, but even then it’s not enough to take to the City Council. The picture is incomplete. Volunteers did not come forward to survey Wards 7 and 8 and among the participants who showed up to canvass other areas, there wasn’t enough diversity — racially, economically or otherwise — to declare a representative effort.

Kearl is disappointed. But the positive side — one that is not lost on her, Shenoy or Lynberg — is that in just a few months they motivated dozens of people to analyze their city and to think about what would make them feel safer.

“You made it happen,” Shenoy tells everyone in the room. “I know the data we collected is not research-worthy ... but it starts adding numbers to something we’ve never had numbers on in D.C.”

At the table, hands go up, and suggestions are thrown out on how to improve the audit — everyone assumes there will be a next time.

What about using an iPhone app?

What about writing on maps since one block can differ greatly from the next?

What about having people keep personal logs?

Langelan supports the idea of logs.She says that when she has asked her classes to keep track of street harassment experiences, some people have recorded three incidents in a week and others 300.

She, like others in the room, appears undaunted by the audit results. Langelan, out of everyone, knows the challenges that come in trying to change the status quo. In her book, published in the early 1990s, Langelan wrote about an effort in the mid-1980s in Washington dubbed “The Hassle-Free Zone Campaign.” At that time, a group of women from a half-dozen community organizations came together with the goal of declaring the nation’s capital a harassment-free area. Posters were printed, the mayor passed a proclamation and speakouts were held in known hot spots.

“Did we succeed in ending street harassment once and for all in Washington, D.C.?” Langelan wrote in the book. “No. That might take a few more years.”

Or a few decades.

Before the meeting is over, Langelan offers another suggestion — one that is less ambitious than a city-wide audit but promises immediate results. She pulls out a stack of papers and starts passing them around the table.

It’s her flier.

Theresa Vargas is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at vargast@washpost.com.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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