Bicyclists face numerous dangers as they struggle to share already congested roads with drivers. In the United States, a cyclist is killed every 12.6 hours.
But for gay men, women and transgender bikers, the dangers can be compounded by harassment and the threat of assault.
For Kate, a 28-year-old cycling enthusiast, summer is always the worst. Pedestrians feel free to yell what they perceive as compliments: “Yeah, you look good!” or “Can I ride with you?”
“As a woman, I’m constantly operating with the low-level fear that any man might attack me,” said Kate, a resident of the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast Washington, who asked that her last name not be used because of safety concerns.
Once, a male cyclist pulled up alongside her on the C&O Canal towpath, presumably thinking she wanted company. He asked her to stop because he needed to urinate — not in the bushes, but on the trail, exposing himself for anyone to see. She sped away, but he chased her down. He asked her out; she declined.
Stop Street Harassment, an international nonprofit organization, works to combat gender-based street harassment, which it defines as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation.”
Recently, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association partnered with Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) in the District to give cyclists a safe place to vent and discuss harassment prevention and empowerment strategies, said Nelle Pierson, WABA’s coordinator of outreach programs.
“A lot of women start biking because it is empowering, but also because they can just get away from a situation,” said Zosia Sztykowski, 28, of Columbia Heights, the lead outreach coordinator for CASS, a grassroots organization dedicated to building awareness and ending sexual assault and harassment on the streets. The organization produces a blog that curates women’s experiences with street harassment. “A lot of people think street harassment happens just to them and that they’re alone,” she said.
Workshop participants were asked in an online survey about their experiences with street harassment and public transportation. “The most frequent type of street harassment seems to be having someone from a car or sidewalk shout rude and disrespectful things at you,” whether the victim’s on a bike or a pedestrian, one person said. A CASS study in May found that 90 percent of women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community had experienced some form of harassment while biking.
Bikers shared anecdotes about harassment, their stories ranging from being shouted at to being followed by motorists.
Last year, Liz Gorman, 26, of Adams Morgan was walking in Dupont Circle when she was groped by a man later identified as Oscar Mauricio Cornejo-Pena, who police learned regularly rode his bicycle through the District and sexually assaulted women. Gorman wrote a blog post about the incident, which led to a police investigation. The Washington Post republished Gorman’s post and wrote a series of articles about Cornejo-Pena, an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua.
Although Gorman’s blog post brought Cornejo-Pena to the attention of authorities, her case was not one of the four counts of misdemeanor sex abuse he was charged with; she didn’t see his face. Cornejo-Pena was arrested and later deported, but that doesn’t mean Gorman is no longer fearful when she walks or bikes.
“I’ve also dealt with harassment as a bicyclist, by both pedestrians and men in cars,” said Gorman. “I am actually surprised on days that it doesn’t happen.”
Workshop participants also learned about ways to respond to harassers. “There is no wrong way to respond to harassment, and no magic bullet, but if you respond in a way that is authentic to you, that is a good thing,” said Julie Strange of CASS.
CASS’s techniques are adapted from the 1993 book “Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers” by Martha Langelan, an activist, self-defense expert and former president of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. In the 1980s, the rape crisis center was an integral part of a campaign to turn the District into a “hassle-free zone” by educating residents about the dangers of public sexual harassment.
Sztykowski said there are several methods to engage the harasser, including employing a response such as: “Stop harassing people. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.”
One of the workshop participants worried that she would laugh under the pressure of confronting a perpetrator — a nervous habit — or would face reproach and be the target of a slur. Sztykowski and Strange said those fears may be rooted in women having been socialized to be “nice.”
Strange also pointed out that women have been taught to “protect themselves from being victimized.” She said that point of view is problematic because it places the onus of prevention on the victim. The goal now is to focus on the perpetrator to change the behavior.
Bystanders can help by confronting or distracting the perpetrator or seeking help from law enforcement on the victim’s behalf. Often, bystanders avoid getting involved because they worry that they have misread the situation, think someone else will step in to help or believe that the target attracted the negative attention due to some fault of his or her own, according to Strange.
Strange said bystander intervention can be proactive — for example, confronting a friend who makes an abusive or offensive comment.
A few of the participants liked the idea of placing the shame back on the harasser with a comment like: “When you comment on my body, it makes me barf.” Another participant suggested using the clinical terms for body parts. In her experience, the word “vagina” makes harassers especially uncomfortable.
Mount Pleasant resident Cristina Huidobro, who moved to the D.C. area four years ago to attend the University of Maryland, found out about the workshop from her WABA newsletter. She said she had become desensitized to public harassment in her home country, Chile, because it was so frequent, and she was not aware that it was considered to be such a pressing issue here.
Hearing other women voice their aversion to harassment changed her mind.
“Some things may not bother me, but they bother other women. I have to respect that and support them,” she said.
McEwen is a former correspondent for the Stop Street Harassment blog.