Street harassment in Atlanta

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

A young woman was videotaped recently enduring catcalls and harassment as she walked through Manhattan. The video immediately went viral, prompting outrage, parodies, criticism and dialogue. The local director of the activist group that disseminated the video writes that sexual harassment is also prevalent in Atlanta. (MARTA and the city of Atlanta declined to write on the issue for this page.) Our second column comes from local artists who turned the tables on men in a resonant art installation near Woodruff Park.

Atlanta: Not too busy to harass

By Kiersten Smith

Being groped, catcalled, followed and flashed should not be everyday experiences for women, but living in our culture of entitled men, it’s a frightening norm.

The truth is, some people regard catcalling as a compliment, or a price women must pay because of their gender. At its core, street harassment affects the mobility of women. If women cannot feel safe walking down the street or taking public transit because their bodies suddenly become public property for men to comment on, there is a problem.

Unfortunately, this issue is often downplayed by men claiming their “nice rack” comments are well-intentioned. It is important to understand that while men may feel their statements are not coming from a place of harm, many women don’t appreciate the comments and view them as serious threats to their safety. That alone should be enough for us to want to end the harassment.

By now, you’ve probably seen the controversial video created by Rob Bliss Creative with Hollaback!’s name attached to it: It showed a woman walking through various parts of Manhattan, experiencing multiple forms of street harassment. You’ll hear the catcalls, witness the stares and even watch one man follow her for five minutes. It shows the prevalence of street harassment and it’s mistaken to pretend that it isn’t incredibly scary for those experiencing it.

The video, posted to YouTube (http://bit.ly/1tFnonu), has garnered over 31 million views.The woman’s experience may be shocking to some, but it comes as no surprise to many of us.

While the video accurately represents the frequency of everyday street harassment, it also falls prey to the unforgiving myth that harassers are predominantly black or Latino, and those who experience street harassment are only white women. (Hollaback! has apologized for presenting this single narrative. It is also creating its own video series to demonstrate the multiple narratives of street harassment.) Through thousands of stories submitted to www.ihollaback.org, there is no denying street harassment crosses the lines of race and class.

Atlanta is not immune to this boorish, damaging behavior.

After being followed down my street, shouted at and chased in one of MARTA’s busiest train stations, I decided to take action and join Hollaback! Atlanta, a growing organization devoted to ending street harassment, with sites in 79 cities and 26 countries.

When I attended Georgia State University downtown, walking to class or hanging with friends in the park resulted in numerous experiences of harassment. I was never able to enjoy the walk to class without some form of verbal harassment. Each time, I was left feeling humiliated, defeated and unsafe. I often instinctively braced myself before walking past a group of men on the sidewalk. If I rode MARTA, I made sure to do so during high-traffic times, making sure that if anything were to happen, there were others around. It was exhausting having to rearrange my day in an attempt to avoid it all.

Upon graduating college, I came to realize this was taking place all over our city. “Smile for me, baby!” and much, much worse have been shouted at me while walking through a crowded MARTA station in Buckhead and on my way to work in Midtown. I’ve been harassed by neighbors, security guards, cashiers, valet attendants and men in cars. I’m not the only one experiencing this. Since its start in 2011, Hollaback! Atlanta’s website has received countless submissions detailing street harassment in our city.

Victims of street harassment must know they’re not alone, and there are ways to respond if they decide to. While Hollaback!’s name may suggest addressing one’s harasser face-to-face, this is not always the safest way to respond. The Hollaback! movement empowers victims to fight back using mobile technology. Hollaback!’s mobile app allows users to record instances of street harassment — even sharing photos of creeps who harass them — and share their stories with a supportive community.

If you’ve never been harassed, I would encourage you to ask your female co-workers, friends or family members if they’ve ever felt uneasy or tense as they walked past a group of men, or if they wear earphones walking down the street to muffle the catcalls. Ask them if they felt empowered and safe after a man “accidentally” groped them on the train.

While the viral video has brought a lot of attention to the issue of street harassment, we shouldn’t let it be the end of the conversation.

Kiersten Smith is director of Hollback! Atlanta, atl@ihollaback.org.

Empathy through art

By Anne Archer Dennington

Catcalling is a behavior predominantly directed at women by heterosexual men. So what happens if the roles are reversed?

In March 2011, Flux Projects presented “I Go Humble …,”an interactive public-art installation by Stefani Byrd and Wes Eastin during which two women and two gay men catcalled straight men for nine hours in downtown Atlanta.

The artists devised a structure for the project and selected four improv actors as performers. They were stationed inside the studio at the Digital Arts Entertainment Lab at Georgia State University, at the southeast corner of Woodruff Park, an area traversed by business people, college students and a fair number of homeless persons.

Performers and passersby interacted in real time through a two-way video system. The faces of the performers were seen on video monitors in the picture windows, and their voices were heard through speakers. Performers watched passersby on television monitors inside the studio, and people could stop and speak back to them through microphones.

Typical of Byrd and Westin’s collaborations, there was an element of play. Byrd likens it to using candy to lure people into participating, using humor to disguise the seriousness of the subject matter. The performers were funny and good-natured in their advances as they pulled people into the project. With a public work of this nature, you can never be certain what will happen. You carefully plan what you can, then, as Byrd says, “You place the work in public space and watch what happens.”

So what happened? We found many men liked being catcalled; they saw it more as flattery than harassment. Granted, people on a video monitor may not seem threatening. The screen mediates the experience; they are not actually able to approach you. This removes the threat of violence that women often experience when sharing a physical space with their harassers. Yet even in real life, it’s been noted that a man is unlikely to experience the same fear of being physically overpowered that a woman does.

The four performers managed to walk a fine line, delivering calls and requests that were quick, funny and smart, never degrading. This too had its consequences.

Many of the men laughed, acknowledged the invitations and even responded to requests to bend over or take off their coats; others took the microphones as invitations to engage. The female performers were asked for their phone numbers and when they would be leaving. Even across the video monitors, they felt their safety challenged at times. At the end of the project, they were uneasy stepping out onto the street, so they slipped into disguises, left out the back, and were escorted to their cars.

Not all conversations were negative. Some people saw the project as an opportunity simply to talk to someone — something they were craving out of loneliness, lack of friends in a new city, or intrigue.

Byrd refers to her work of this nature as “empathy training … putting people on the opposite end of inappropriate behavior so they can experience it for themselves.” In the case of “I Go Humble …,” did it work? Given the nature of the project, we will never know the impact it had on most of the guys, but one did take the time to share his impressions. Visibly moved by the experience, he confessed to having engaged in the same behavior when he was younger and now being filled with regret.

For the past five years, Flux Projects has been placing temporary public art on the streets of Atlanta. The best of these have contained an element of surprise and sparked people to reconsider public spaces and personal ideas. There is also a magic that keeps us talking about them long after they are over. That’s been the case with “I Go Humble …” — which, coincidently, took place the day after the first-ever Anti-Street Harassment Day.

We had selected the timing of the installation by comparing the schedules of the performers with the availability of the site; we had never heard of Anti-Street Harassment Day until a few days before the project went live. Byrd was contacted by Hollaback! an organization and international movement to end street harassment. Sometimes, things just align.

Anne Archer Dennington is executive director of Flux Projects.


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