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Last week, we were invited to set up a table in the lobby of Rosie’s Place, a community center and sanctuary for poor and homeless women. We were very excited to have the opportunity to bring the message of our organization to a population of women who experience street harassment in different ways than the majority of people that have access to our website and mission.
The staff member at Rosie’s that asked us to come in was hoping to empower the women to, if not share their stories with us directly, begin to think about the harassing and threatening behavior that they experience on the streets of Boston as being something that is not okay. I think that oftentimes behavior can become normalized when we exerience it day in and day out, and women who live on the streets are exposed to much more omnipresent harassment and violence than those of us that do not. I think that’s it’s easy to expect and accept that behavior because you see it as something that comes with the territory of living outside or working as a prostitute or having a substance abuse problem or just plain being a woman because that’s how it’s always been.
Here at Hollaback! we want to change the conversation about harassment and violence on the streets and make the streets safer for all women, not just those in privileged positions that can access our website via their smartphone or hear about our mission in a classroom on their college campus. I feel so privileged that Jane and I had the opportunity to speak to women that were coming into Rosie’s to get lunch that day. Many women stopped by and shared snippets of their experiences, and all of them acknowledged that harassment on the streets was something that they struggled with on a daily basis.
One women disclosed a story of harassment that she said that she’d never told anyone before. She said that she’d been afraid to reveal it even to her husband for fear that somehow it was her fault. Another woman told us that she had been stalked for years, and that she was very hypervigilent about her safety now because of it.
One women spoke to us about the constant harassment that she experiences when she’s on the streets. She spoke of men constantly yelling, “Are you straight? Hey, are you straight?” at her. She said, “What is it any of their business if I’m straight? They think they’re gonna get some if I am? No way!” She also said that she doesn’t like being outside after dark because that’s when the harassment is worst. She said that she hoped that the streets will be safer for her grandchildren than they have been for her.
A woman who got visibly agitated when we described street harassment to her said, “What happens to me out there on those streets makes me want to get a weapon. People think I’m kidding but I’m serious! That’s what it does for you. I need a weapon, for real.”
One woman shook her head sadly and said to us, “It happens every day, all the time.”
Saundra, who shared her story with us, talked to us about men who “judged a book by its cover.” She explained that men see her as one thing, and that is a sex object. She spoke about the fact that she had worked as a prostitute in the past in order to survive and men that don’t even know her still see her as that. She said that when she walks down the street, she feels like men think she will have sex with them just because that’s what she used to do, or just because she’s someone who lives on the streets. She said, “They don’t even know me.”
I think that it is so important to hear experiences of marginalized populations of all kinds. So often women who are fighting for basic resources and just trying to survive from day-to-day are overlooked. Their voices have been taken from them in so many ways, and we hope that we can begin to give them a voice in even the smallest way and give them even a little bit of hope that someone wants to hear what they have to say and their experience is valid. So many of the women that we spoke with were women of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and women with substance abuse problems. These are all women that our society is quick to overlook and when someone falls into more than one of those boxes, they can really and truly feel invisible. We want every one of them to know that we see them and we value everything that they shared with us that day. I feel so privileged to have spoken with each of the women who took the time to approach our table and hope that I will have the chance to do so again.
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