Last year, my student Grace did a very brave thing. Before a packed room of reporters, politicians, activists, and fellow testifiers, she shared her personal experience with street harassment to the leaders of the New York City Council.
During her testimony, Grace described how a man publicly masturbated in front of her on the subway and the humiliation and shame she felt as a result:
The moment which I have felt most degraded, belittled, and humiliated was at 6 p.m. on a Saturday getting on to the 1 train at Chambers heading uptown . . . His eyes flashed up to meet mine and I quickly dropped my gaze into my lap. I didn’t want to make eye contact with him, just like with any stranger; I was worried he would misinterpret the eye contact . . . but I glanced up at him, against my better judgment.
The hands I thought were in his pockets were not. They were under the big sides of his tan coat. Masturbating.
I guess I must have been angry. I don’t think I could feel it though. My fear and shock overpowered everything else such as the shame and embarrassment. The vulnerability and victimization. The fact that I was frozen. Unable to say a thing. Unable to move. Unable to fully comprehend, or at least, not letting myself.
Grace’s powerful testimony was one of many shared at that hearing, which was organized by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras, chair of the City Council Women’s Issues Committee. Ferreras hoped that it would “cast light on this depraved practice and that women and girls will no longer have to adopt a veil of caution when they want to do something as basic as walk down the street.”
As a teacher, watching my own student testify against street harassment made me all the more galvanized to be a part of the growing global movement against street harassment. Her story not only confirms the experiences of so many girls, women, and members of the LGBTQ community on both national and international levels, but also confirms that my very own students are subject to this very real form violence as they travel to and from school, hang out with friends, and in short, live their lives.
For me, stopping street harassment is a part of my work in making the lives of my students safer, just, and whole. The numbers alone should make every educator wince and take action. Indeed, Holly Kearl, street harassment expert and author of the groundbreaking book, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women, tweeted just this morning about her own research of over 800 women in 23 countries and 45 U.S. states: “90% of girls under age 19 face #streetharassment.”
If that many girls and young women are being harassed on the street, then teachers need to be concerned. The emotional toll that street harassment takes on our students is considerable. In addition to feeling shame and humiliation, many young women feel silenced, even hopeless in the face of harassment, as many do not know who to turn to for support.
Once at school, moreover, girls and LGBTQ youth face harassment from their own peers. According to a recent report by the American Association of University Women titled Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, which was co-authored by Kearl: “Nearly half (48%) of the students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010-11 school year, and the majority of those students (87%) said it had a negative effect on them.”
Given the data that Kearl has collected on both street and school harassment, we can infer that those same girls who are having trouble sleeping and who do not want to go to school due to facing harassment at school are probably also more than likely to face the same harassment going to and from school as well.
The picture is grim for LGBTQ youth as well. In their 2009 National School Climate survey, GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educators Network) reports that “84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”
Given all of this sobering data about the harassment that both girls and queer youth face daily, if we want to create safe schools and safe communities for our students, then as educators, it is absolutely our moral imperative to address both the harassment occurring at school and the harassment happening on our streets.
As Grace reminds us in her testimony:
Please remember, that the experiences I shared are not unusual. They happen on a daily basis. I do not know one girl or woman in my life that has not experienced some form of sexual harassment in their life. I’m sure that this is true for almost every female you all know too.
For all of these reasons, I’ll be joining Grace and another student Emma on stage on Saturday, March 24 at the Meet Us On the Street rally in New York starting at 1pm at Judson Memorial Church at Washington Square Park. You can RSVP on this Facebook page. Along with amazing activists from the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth, Girls for Gender Equity, Hollaback!, RightRides, and Sydnie Mosley from the Window Sex Project, we’ll be sharing our stories about street harassment and why it matters that we live our lives free of all forms of violence.
I’m honored that I can stand alongside my students and stand up for making their lives that much more safe. Will you join us tomorrow with your students?
Find out more about International Anti-Street Harassment Week on the Meet Us On the Street website.