'Hey, Shorty!': Ending Sexual Harassment in Public Spaces

I was twelve years old when the threat of sexual violence became a concrete reality in my preadolescent life. As I was walking home from school one day in Athens, GA, a well dressed, middle aged, white man walked alongside me for several blocks attempting to lure me into his car with promises to drive me where I was going because "a little girl so beautiful should never walk alone." It was only when the man leaned close to my face and stuck his tongue into my ear--a disappointing penetration substitute, no doubt--that I finally found the courage to run. I never told anyone what had happened, but the way this incident changed me was fundamental: I no longer had the luxury of feeling like I was safe when an unknown man waylaid me on the street.

Through this inappropriate exchange, I learned about the gendered nature of fear--the kind that irrepressibly grips the female body when in locations where safety is elusive, which for girls and women is everywhere. I also changed my behavior; instead of walking home, I read books in the library until my mom was able to pick me up after work. My experience, unfortunately, is not unique. Holly Kearl's research in Stop Street Harassment details the ubiquity of gender-based violence in public spaces and the lengths to which women and girls go to avoid it. Given that these experiences happen so frequently, at some point the behavior becomes normalized, an inevitable bothersome interaction.

Nearly two decades after my introduction to gender-based intimidation, girls and women--from Crown Heights to Cairo to Calcutta--have begun getting worldwide attention for their use of creative activisms to establish their agency and equal right to public space. At Brooklyn nonprofit Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), teen women of color in the organization's Sisters in Strength youth organizing program are naming salacious verbal and physical intrusions as forms of abuse on a continuum of violence against women, a manifestation of male privilege and entitlement intended to silence and restrict them. They are recording their own stories, and the stories of others, on film with the intention to move from impotence to action. They are leading workshops in public schools to shift the conversation about the normalization of violence and, little-by-little, change all of our lives.

In a moment of serendipity three years ago, I left my job at GGE to try my hand at freelance writing... just as the Feminist Press approached GGE founder Joanne N. Smith about writing a guide to youth-led, anti-sexual harassment organizing in schools. Knowing an opportunity when she sees one, Joanne asked me to co-write what would become Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. The book, which will be released mid-April, provides a narrative of the work of more than fifty teen women of color from 2005 to the present as GGE worked with the girls to developed a model for youth to teach one another about the causes and consequences of gender-based violence that impacts the lives of girls and LGBTQ youth. The young women also formulated grassroots methods of resistance that have begun to yield some success in the New York City public schools.

Joanne Smith, Meghan Huppuch, and I wrote Hey, Shorty! because we had looked for a comprehensive tool for youth and adult allies to use to guide our work to end sexual harassment in schools, but found none. Moreover, what little information did exist was extremely outdated and didn't speak to the reality of contemporary teenage life--much less the lives of urban-dwelling girls of color who attend the largest school system in America. In writing Hey, Shorty!, we were purposeful about crafting a malleable tool that teaches changemaking strategies while inspiring youth and adults to think critically about the intersectional power dynamics of acts as seemingly simple as sitting in a classroom or walking down the street.

We were concerned about the role of men and boys in tackling this issue. Change is not created through distancing and alienation; it is created by intentional and radical acceptance of those some may label as "the enemy". Although it would be easy to dehumanize them as such, the men and boys who sexually harass women and girls are not creeps or perverts. Some of them are our family members; others are our friends. They are all, as Sisters in Strength teen organizer Chiamaka succinctly puts it, "victims of society's definition of what a man should stand for and how much power he should have." While Hey, Shorty! considers how men can use their social location to advocate for gender justice, a text with this focus would be entirely different book. One I would be happy to pen one day.

Today, GGE's innovative work continues. And though I feel sad to finally be moving on, I do so heartened by the knowledge that there are many girls and women fighting daily to ensure that some day girls and women won't have to feel fear when a strange man approaches us on the street.