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Stop Street Harassment Week (March 30th – April 5th, 2014)

Last year, I wrote a very controversial post regarding something that the actor Matt Smith said about the actress Jennifer Lawrence at Comic Con. My basic premise was that I felt that his actions seemed similar to me to street harassment. In some ways, today, I would say they were possibly more like sexual harassment in the workplace. But that post is not the point, because people’s reactions to it were. I heard time and time again from Middle School and High School students responding to this post about how they were harassed walking down the hallways of their schools from boys around them commenting on their bodies, propositioning them for sex, etc. And I recalled that even I, in the 8th grade, had a student that I had never seen before reach out and grab my breast as I passed him in the school hallway. This, too, is a form of street harassment.

According to Stop Street Harassment, street harassment is “catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation, and assault. Most women (more than 80% worldwide) and LGBQT folks will face gender-based street harassment at some point in their life. Street harassment limits people’s mobility and access to public spaces. It is a form of gender violence and it’s a human rights violation. It needs to stop.”

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And yes, street harassment happens in our schools. It happens on the way to and from school both on the street and on the buses, it happens in the hallways, and it happens at school sponsored events.  “According to a 2008 study of 811 women conducted by stopstreetharassment.com, almost one in four women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90% had by age 19″, as reported in this excellent YCteen Story: Street Harassment is No Compliment. Just think on that for a moment, by age 12 – the age my daughter will be this year – 1 in 4 girls surveyed had already been subjected to some type of street harassment. And in the responses from teens that I received, many of them have resigned themselves to this fate saying things like, it’s always been this way, boys will be boys, etc.

If we are looking for examples of street harassment in YA literature, there are some really good examples in both Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama and in Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt.

In Monstrous Beauty, the main character, Hester, is working at a historical re-enactment tourist trap when a group of boys begin to harass her:

“What have we here?” a cocky teenage voice said.
A group of boys ducked under the short door frame into the room.  A particularly tall one stared through the open window with his mouth gaping, as if she were an animal in the zoo
“Good day t’ ye,” Hester said. “I did not see ye at my door, or I should not have carried out such a graceless act.  Would one of ye care to rest yourself?” She motioned to the chair near the door.
A boy with a Boston t-shirt who looked to be about her age pushed his way past the others. He pointed in the direction of the bed. “I’d like to rest myself there, with you.” Machine-gun laughter burst from behind him.” – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama


Infographic found at Hollaback

And in Uses for Boys, the main character, Anna, is walking home from work when she sees a man masturbating in his car and trying to engage the women around him. In one interview, Scheidt even mentions how nobody seems to comment on this scene: “That some see the book as dark, unrelentingly dark, was a surprise. I think Anna has some terrible experiences–nobody even comments on the street harassment, which to me is one of the really dark moments in the book–but I don’t see her story, the way that she tries and reaches and keeps moving forward, as dark” from an interview at The Rejectionist. Is street harassment so commonplace at this point in our lives that when we read about it in books we don’t even feel it’s worth discussing? My fear is that perhaps yes, yes it is.

In fact, the street harassment depicted in Monstrous Beauty was so profound to me that I wrote an entire post on the topic. It made me want to talk about street harassment and how it affected the way I now moved through the world.

In the past couple of years, there have been major movements, in part spearheaded by author John Scazli, to put anti-harassment codes of conduct in place at cons around the globe. And this year ALA even put forth one at it’s own national convention, which was met with very mixed reactions. But what about our schools? Our schools need to have clear sexual harassment policies in place and clearly outline the steps of recourse that students can take in the event that they are harassed. In addition, they need to have training – the same way that work places are required to have training – that engages teens in the discussion of respect, harassment, and what the consequences are. Our schools now have zero tolerance policies for violence, but why don’t they have zero tolerance policies for sexual harassment?

This week is a week dedicated to raising awareness about Street Harassment. Street Harassment is an issue that affects our teens. We need to be engaged in the discussion and raising awareness. It’s a good time to go to your administrator and make sure that you have the policies in place to protect your teens, either at school or in the public library. And it’s a good time to be putting up displays and sharing resources. The bottom line is this: all people deserve to walk through their daily routine without fear and harassment, are we doing our part to make sure we are moving in that direction?

To learn more and get involved visit these organizations:

Talking with Teens About Street Harassment (a part of the #SVYALit Project)
Street Harassment
What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
That Time Matt Smith Perpetuated Street Harassment Culture at Comic Con

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