Events, Local News

Raise Your Voice: A Day of Empowerment with Ayanna Pressley

We are so excited to be presenting along some incredible local organizations during the second annual Raise Your Voice Summit next Saturday, April 26!

raise your voice // hollaback! boston

Join us at Northeastern University’s Cabral Center for a free summit for youth, adults, survivors and allies to learn intervention and prevention strategies, celebrate survivors of sexual violence and work to make Boston safe for everyone.

Register in advance using this form if at all possible, or print and complete it to bring along on Saturday to save time during registration! The registration packet includes a permission slip for youth, and allows you to pre-register for your first-choice workshop.

Last year over 100 Boston residents turned out to celebrate survivors, learn intervention and prevention strategies, and work together to ensure that our city is safe for everyone and that no one has to remain silent about sexual violence. This year we’re offering more workshops and expanding focus to include issues specific to men, LGBTQ survivors, high school and middle school aged students, and service providers.

For more information, to invite friends and to see full workshop details, stop by Facebook or Eventbrite. Questions? Email We hope to see you there!

image credit: Raise Your Voice

no comments 
Kate, Local News

One Year Later: Boston Strong

Today marks the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, two explosions meant to inflict terror on a population, to maim rather than kill, to break a city’s spirit and instill fear on our streets.

one year later: boston strong // hollaback! boston

There is no shortage of coverage today, no lack of reflection, of story sharing or of tributes to those lost and those affected; there is no dearth of support for runners, past and present, and no scarcity of tears. We’re all proud of our city, with all its strengths and flaws, and Hollaback! Boston doesn’t have much to add on this day.

There is one notable parallel that comes to mind, though: terrorism is carried out with the intent of making a population feel unsafe and vulnerable in public. It instills fear and aims to change the way we move through space, hopes to break apart our communities and raise our suspicions of others.

Street harassment has many of the same effects, on women, girls, LGBTQ folks, people of color and other under-served and marginalized populations: it limits movement, restricts access to opportunity and silences groups with stories to tell. It instills fear and changes the way we move through public space. It raises our suspicions of others.

Boston is a strong city, and our communities have rebuilt in meaningful ways since last April 15. Terror did not succeed here, not this time, but street harassment and gender-based violence in public spaces continue. Read the words of others and hug your loved ones today, reflect on the strengths of our city and how far we’ve come in the past year, but don’t turn a blind eye to the work yet to be done for Boston to reach its full potential.

Holla love and Boston strength to you and yours,


image credit: The Boston Globe

no comments 
Events, Local News, Noteworthy

Walk For Change

Hollaback! Boston is all about stopping street harassment and gender-based violence in the first place: we want to provide a platform for education and discussion, to engage the community in being active bystanders and shifting our culture.

walk for change // hollaback! boston

But we live in the real world. Sexual assault and gender-based violence are realities, and though we’re working hard to change the norm, there are real individuals experiencing real trauma who need real support, right now.

We do our best to offer what support we can to victims of street harassment, to let them know we have their backs, but when people are in need of more, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center is a major resource. We’ve been honored to partner with them as members of the ELEVATE Boston coalition, and in the Global Guardian initiative. To borrow from HOLLA volunteer Delia, “other places may offer similar support services, but nowhere else offers it all for free, or is so good at anticipating all the needs and fears of every type of survivor in order to make them as comfortable as possible.”

This weekend, BARCC is hosting their annual Walk For Change fundraiser – and it’s not too late to sign up! Even if you can’t make it, HOLLA volunteers Liz and Delia and HOLLA alum Brandie are walking and would welcome your support. Check it out, spread the word and support the crucial work that BARCC does in the Boston area!


image credit: BARCC

no comments 
Hollaback! Boston, Kate, Local News

Global Guardian Safe Transit Week

We are honored to have partnered with BARCC, Fenway Health and the MBTA Transit Police to support the Global Guardian initiative for safety on public transit this week!

global guardian // hollaback! boston

We receive a LOT of stories about harassment on the T, and fortunately, the Transit Police are working very hard to combat this particular brand of street harassment. Their SeeSay app allows your to report harassment or assault from your phone, and they encourage riders to report incidents to Transit Police so that they can address them, and track them.

All of this work is terrific progress, but there are still many reasons that a victim of harassment or assault may not wish to involve authorities, and whether those reasons are personally rooted or community focused, we recognize the need to have other options. Not all street harassment is illegal, nor should it be—but that doesn’t mean the behavior can’t be threatening, instrusive and have serious impacts on how we move through public space over time. Hollaback!’s mobile app also allows story sharing on the go, annoymously, and the incident can be recorded without involving police. If a victim feels, after the fact, that they now wish they had reported their experience, our site allows you to do just that.

Why is reporting harassment and assault so important? Sharing your story helps Transit Police and organizations like Hollaback! Boston understand the problem, hear what’s really happening and focus our work accordingly. If you feel comfortable reporting to Transit Police, they are prepared to take your experience seriously and offer support; if for whatever reason you do not want to involve authorities, there are still other ways to make your voice heard and let us know what’s happening in our city.

Hollaback! Boston believes in community solutions to street harassment, not criminalization; we can’t build communities of active bystanders, ready to step in on the T and support victims of harassment, without first talking about experiences and reporting and sharing stories.

global guardian transit flyer // hollaback! boston

Inspired by Global Guardian safe transit week and HollabackPhilly’s recent transit ads, we put together some quick flyers to help identify harassment and provide tips to safely intervene as a bystander.

global guardian transit flyer // hollaback! boston

global guardian transit flyer // hollaback! boston

global guardian transit flyer // hollaback! boston

What common catcalls and harassing statements have we left out? Let us know in the comments! Click through the flyers for larger images to print and share on your own.


image credits: Hollaback! Boston

one comment 
Events, Hollaback! Boston, Local News

It’s Coming: International Anti-Street Harassment Week 2014

We’re prepping for a busy week in Boston next week in celebration of International Anti-Street Harassment Week, and we’ve got something for everyone! Meet us on the street to speak out about street harassment in your community, or to learn more.

international anti-street harassment week 2014 // hollaback! boston

Check out our lineup at the links below, and join us if you can!

March 30-April 5—Meet Us On The Street: International Anti-Street Harassment Week

March 30, 2pm—HOLLA Offline

April 1, 6:30pm—War Zone Film Screening

April 3, 8:30pm—MUTS Take Back The Bar: College Edition with Lesley University

April 5, 12pm—Meet Us On The Street: Chalk Walk

If you can’t meet us in person, perhaps joining us for one of Stop Street Harassment’s tweet chats next week would hold some appeal: check out the full schedule online!


image credit: Hollaback! Boston

one comment 
Hollaback! Boston, Kate, Local News, Noteworthy

Boston’s Bystanders Are Making Our Streets Safer

Boston has seen some incredible instances of bystander intervention lately, and it’s really important to highlight the impact that bystanders can have in creating safer public spaces in our communities. Perhaps even more than collective storytelling, bystanders can change the world!

On Monday night, a man stepped in to subdue a harasser who was escalating to physical violence toward two women on the T:

“Richard Botelho, 43, is accused of first verbally berating the women with insults, Transit Police said. The women moved to another section of the train, but Botelho’s alleged harassment continued. [...] A man intervened and subdued Botelho, holding him on a T platform until police arrived.

This is what people think of most often when they hear “bystander intervention” – it’s what we call direct intervention. If you feel you can step in without turning the situation toward violence, and especially if your privileges place you in a position to speak out safely against the harassment, direct intervention is an excellent option. We commend this man for intervening on the T!

That said, direct intervention is not for everyone, nor is it the only option. Also this week, a local T-rider demonstrated “delayed intervention” better than we ever have. In case you missed her scathing Craigslist Missed Connection, click through for a closer read:

boston's bystanders // hollaback! boston

Here, a bystander witnessed harassment, and stepped in after the fact both to support the victim by asking her what was wrong, AND to publicly share the story and highlight a specific incident and a broader problem that the community—locally and nationally—is now discussing actively. That’s awesome!

Curious about other ways, directly and indirectly, that YOU can be an active bystander in Boston? We’ve got a list for that – check it out! Have a bystander story of your own? Tell us about it! Solutions to street harassment lie within our communities, not in criminalization; active bystanders help make our streets safer for everyone. THANK YOU!


image credit: Craigslist

no comments 
Hollaback! Boston, Local News

No Laughing Matter

This morning, DigBoston released its latest cover art: on the surface, timely and cheeky.

upskirting is not just for women // hollaback! boston

Then began the backlash.

As feedback poured in and the Hollaback! Boston team discussed, we were disappointed; making light of harassment and sexual violence, regardless of gender or what a person is wearing, isn’t okay.

It was just Monday that we wrote about legislative updates being just the beginning in changing the norms that condone upskirting and similar violations in public space. We were thrilled at the speed with which the legislature updated Massachusetts’ outdated peeping tom laws, and share the artist’s excitement that the illustrated behavior is now illegal—but especially now, less than a week after those changes, we can’t afford to make light of the very real experiences of victims of sexual harassment and violence in public.

There are so many ways that women and queer folks are violated in public every day beyond upskirts; there are so many ways in which men and trans* and non-conforming folks can experience the very same humiliating, degrading violation depicted cartoonishly, laughably, here; there is so much more work to be done.

Hollaback! Boston needs to respect the stories that are shared with us online, in workshops and at events. Collective storytelling is at the core of our mission, and we are continuously inspired by the courage of everyone who shares their experiences—their fears, their violations, their anger and their vulnerability—with us. These experiences are no joke, and unfortunately, this week’s cover makes light of and minimizes very real violations happening in Boston and around the world.

–The Hollaback! Boston Team

image credit: DigBoston

Hollaback! Boston, Kate, Local News, Noteworthy

Outlawing Upskirting is Just the Beginning

This morning, before I left the house, I got dressed. One might argue that by putting on clothing, barring a wardrobe malfunction, I could reasonably assume my privates would stay private even as I move through public space.

Last week, the court ruled that under existing Massachusetts law, up-skirt photos—photos taken surreptitiously, without consent of the subject, up skirts or down shirts in public space for private or public viewing—were not illegal.

There was immediate public outrage at the ruling—but let’s not lay blame with the court. Massachusetts’ rules were outdated on this subject, along with most states in the country. Lawmakers very quickly jumped to support changes to the phrasing of the law, in which photos taken up the skirts of fully-clothed adults failed to meet the “nude or partially nude” litmus; this flurry of action is a good sign. Technology advances rapidly, and our legislation can’t always keep pace—which is why it’s so crucial, right now, this very minute, that we commit to updating other loopholes and legislative gaps to reflect modern threats.

Our focus should lie with thoughtful, thorough solutions: updates to legislation that protect citizens from this new technological violation as well as others, which also consider the impacts criminalization can have on marginalized communities. The law needed to be updated, in short order, absolutely—but we need more than a rapid response to public outrage that will burn out and lead to other, similar legislative changes taking a back burner.

Why did previous proposals to update peeping tom laws in Massachusetts languish? What other, new ways are women and girls and people of color and the LGBTQ community being violated in public? What other outdated laws need to be updated, loopholes for modern realities closed? These issues need our collective energy and attention, too, and not just for the brief days it took to make upskirting, specifically, illegal.

When we allow protections like an updated, modernized peeping tom law to take a back seat, we reinforce a societal norm that devalues the experiences of already marginalized citizens; by declining to keep our codes current, we refuse to offer means of recourse or support for victims of creepshots and up-skirt and down-blouse photographs. We reinforce the widespread belief that assault, harassment and violation are an invariable fact of life for a large portion of our population and support the assumption that to enter public space is to risk mental or physical harm. Hollaback! Boston works alongside myriad other organizations to challenge these norms, locally and globally, every day: shouldn’t everyone be entitled to feeling safe in public space, on public transit, and to have access to various means of recourse if we do not feel safe?

Yes. We should.

Last week saw an enormous amount of outrage over the ruling, and understandably so; individuals, and lawmakers, assumed we had a right to privacy beneath our clothes, and we’ve seen again what happens when you assume. The court has highlighted the need for this specific update and the challenge our legislative system faces in keeping up with technological advances that may or may not be covered under current laws.

Until we dig deeper, and sometimes test them in court, it’s difficult to set priorities among so many proposed laws. What this instance should highlight for everyone is that, despite our communities’ best work to eradicate the sexual and gender-based violence that colors our movements through public space, there are new and unregulated means of violation that must also be addressed. Let’s not allow the outrage cycle to turn the important discussions surrounding last week’s ruling into a flash in the pan.


one comment 
Hollaback! Boston, Local News, Noteworthy

Time to Upgrade: Up-Skirts and Expectations of Privacy in Public

Technology is a funny thing, and quick; advances are often made more rapidly than changes in legislation, leaving loopholes that our justice system is frequently unable to close. In Massachusetts today, the court has ruled that current state law does not in fact prohibit up-skirt, creepshot or other surreptitious photography on public transit.

“At the core of the Commonwealth’s argument to the contrary is the proposition that a woman, and in particular a woman riding on a public trolley, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having a stranger secretly take photographs up her skirt. The proposition is eminently reasonable, but § 105 (b) in its current form does not address it. [FN17]“

Hollaback! Boston is glad to see that we agree – in that we find it eminently reasonable to expect privacy beneath our clothes in public. Like other forms of sexual harassment and violence, there is a power dynamic at play in this type of photography, a taking of what the perpetrator deems rightfully theirs (be it a phone number, a conversation or a private photo) while the victim is left without a chance to consent.

Unlike snapping a photo of a stranger, intentionally or in the background, where that person is fully clothed and presenting themselves as they see fit in public, up-skirt photography disregards the intent of the subject – getting dressed to keep parts of their body private – to place higher value on the desire of the perpetrator. Like harassment, it’s not a compliment; up-skirt photography is not intended to benefit the subject, only the photographer, while a true compliment would do the opposite.

Like many states, Massachusetts’ laws have not been amended to address the new ways harassers can and do use technology to violate women, but we are hopeful that this ruling will shed light on the issue and motivate work toward legislative updates, and we’re thrilled that Massachusetts lawmakers are already voicing interest in bringing our state laws up to speed.

For more on the larger trend of upgrading up-skirt laws, take a look back at Time’s coverage of the topic last fall, and read up on what other local sources have to say today:

Boston Magazine: State’s Highest Court Says Taking ‘Upskirt’ Photos on the MBTA Is Within the Law

Universal Hub: Victory for camera pervs: Court rules state law doesn’t prohibit taking photos up women’s skirts on the T

Boston Herald: Mass. court: Subway ‘upskirt’ photos not illegal Speaker DeLeo vows to fix law after ruling says ‘upskirting’ — shooting a picture under a woman’s dress — is legal

Mass Live: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Upskirt photos not illegal under state law

Boston Metro: Mass. lawmakers rush to close ‘upskirting’ loophole in wake of MBTA court ruling

We think that up-skirt photography is a violation of a reasonable expectation of privacy, and we look forward to supporting legislative changes to provide protection for victims choosing to report the behavior. What do you think? Do you expect that what you intend to keep private beneath your clothes can be up for consumption when you leave your home?

–The Hollaback! Boston Team

Local News, Noteworthy

Gaining Perspective: The Wellesley Debate

Director’s note: Last week, the Hollaback! Boston team got wind of controversy brewing over the placement of a hyper-realistic statue of an undressed, sleepwalking man, placed outdoors on Wellesley’s campus as part of a larger exhibition. The Hollaback! mission is very specific to street harassment, and does not generally include art critique, but a core tenet of our work is the belief that everyone deserves to feel safe in public space—and, through that lens and in the interest of sparking conversation, we reached out to students currently petitioning for the removal of the statue indoors to offer our online space as a platform for respectful discussion.

One student at the center of the debate, though she declined to guest post at this time, pointed us to a piece on the topic written by a Wellesley alum; we connected with Alix, and asked if she might have anything else to say about the statue and its impact on safe spaces.

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence and assault, PTSD, street harassment, public masturbation and the like. –Kate

Hi. My name is Alix. Once upon a time, I attended a women’s college, I worked in an art museum, and I was sexually assaulted.

A few days ago, I would have never thought those three things belonged in the same sentence, but here we are. Last week, my former employer erected an art installation at my alma mater that has sparked an intense debate about sexual assault, public safety, and artistic freedom, on an international scale. To quote one of the great movies of our time, “The shit hath hitteth the fan…eth.”

I already discussed many of my personal feelings on this story on my own blog (tl;dr: I recognize the value of getting campus more involved in talking about art, but not at the expense of public safety), but Hollaback! Boston invited me to elaborate on the subject as it relates to the wider topic of street harassment and rape culture.

In the past few days, I’ve answered a lot of questions about why this is an issue we should be talking about, and I’m going to try and address some of those here today. Before we begin, though, I’d like to include some important caveats:

I am an alum, and as such, I am primarily coming at this story from the perspective of someone in the alum community. I don’t keep in touch with anyone currently on campus, and at the end of the day, those are the only people who should really get a say in this story. Not me, not other alums, not the artist, and definitely not some trolling commenter on a news article who has absolutely no relation to the Wellesley community. I don’t think this invalidates my perspective as a former student, former museum employee, and sexual assault survivor, but it is something to bear in mind as you read this or any other article on the subject.

I also do not speak for all survivors of sexual assault or rape. I can only speak for myself, and use my own experiences as a frame. I’ve seen plenty of Wellesley alums who are also survivors and do not support the petition to move the installation inside. That doesn’t negate the concerns of the many students for whom this is an issue.

At the heart of this debate is context. Every victim’s experiences are uniquely horrible, and everyone deals with trauma in their own way, in their own time. Likewise, every survivor is going to respond to similar situations differently. Moreover, trauma is a dynamic problem. For my own part, this would be a very different piece if I had written it a year ago instead of today. My assault experiences haven’t changed, but I have. In another year, I’ll probably view things differently still. The context in which we process and deal with sexual assault is always evolving. In my own life, the perspectives of my past and future selves are equally valid as mine is today, just as the perspective of a survivor who supports this art installation is equally valid to that of a survivor who doesn’t.

So, with all this in mind, here are my answers to the most common questions I’ve seen regarding this debate.

How many students could this possibly affect?

First and foremost: if it’s one student, it’s too many. Wellesley’s primary job is to provide an educational environment in which its students can thrive, and public health and safety is an essential part of that environment. If I had a physical disability—say, I were in a wheelchair—Wellesley would be ethically and legally obligated to make sure that all my classes were scheduled in accessible classrooms. No university would say, “Sorry, you’ll have to negotiate those stairs or else not go to class.” So why is it ok for Wellesley to say something similar to students struggling with mental health issues? “Sorry, you’ll have to negotiate this triggering statue or else not go to class,” is not an acceptable answer. The placement of the statue is such that for many students, it is simply impossible to get anywhere on campus without encountering it. Whether it’s one student or five hundred, the university has an obligation to provide access to education to all its students in a safe, healthy environment.

But it is not just one student, or even a couple students, that could be affected by this. I could list statistics about the number of women who are raped or assaulted, or the number of women who will suffer from PTSD in their lives. But you probably already know those numbers. I love math, and I love statistics, but sometimes they are difficult to relate to on a real life level. Well guess what? You definitely know a woman who has experienced sexual assault or rape. Maybe it’s even you. More than likely, you know many women who have experienced some form of sexual trauma.

When I finally started sharing my history of assault several months ago, more than half of my female friends responded by telling me their own horrific stories. This art installation may only be a problem for a very small minority of women who’ve experienced sexual trauma, but the number of women with those experiences is so great that even that small minority is almost certainly larger than a handful. Survivors often do not widely discuss their trauma experiences for a variety of cultural and personal reasons, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Come on, how could this be a trigger for anyone? It’s inert!

Triggers can be anything. You don’t get to pick them, and there’s not always a clear explanation as to why something is a trigger. For a while, I couldn’t go into any grocery store without having a panic attack, for no discernable reason. I’ve never been attacked in a grocery store, and yet the produce aisle now gives me anxiety. No idea.

Here, it’s a little more cut and dry. Again, it has to do with context. Wellesley is a women’s college. Generally, there is a minimum of men walking around campus in their underwear, so this hyper-realistic sculpture is going to be surprising at best. (In most contexts, I think a random man wandering around in his tighty whities is going to be surprising at best.) Wellesley also has a history of flashers, public masturbators, or otherwise creepy men showing up on campus from time to time. My senior year, we had a man known as “The Fondler” who would loiter in the woods around campus and then masturbate in front of students, until he was eventually caught. Strange men wandering around campus in their underwear is rarely a good thing, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be alarmed by the perception of one.

For someone who doesn’t struggle with PTSD or anxiety, you might simply be startled until the moment that you do realize that it is an inert sculpture. But for many people who have experienced trauma, including myself, it only takes a fraction of a second for that startled feeling to turn into a panic attack, for reasons that I’ll try to explain more thoroughly in my answer to the next question.

It’s not going to be a trigger for everyone, but the bottom line is: it is a trigger for some people. Full stop.

Ok, well once everyone knows it’s just a statue, how can it still be a trigger?

Oh man, how I wish triggers worked that way. My life would be so much easier if the part of my brain that controls anxiety was able to better communicate with the part of my brain that controls logic. Think of all the groceries I would buy! I wouldn’t have had to eat the very sad, very oniony, and very stale sandwich I had for dinner last night, because I would never run out of food again!

To answer this properly, we’re going to have to get a little neurosciencey, so bear with me. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I have spent a lot of time listening to counselors and doctors explain all the ways in which my brain is trying to sabotage me, so I’ll give it my best shot.

The amygdala is a part of your brain that processes memories and emotions. When you perceive a danger or threat, a little warning alarm starts sounding in your amygdala that kicks your body into survival mode. Your brain sends signals to your endocrine system to flood your body with adrenaline, which triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response. Because this is a survival mode, it supersedes any other kind of brain function or logic. Even if you know, logically, that a situation is not dangerous, there’s no override function that the rest of your brain can use to stop this reaction.

The problem that many people who’ve experienced trauma face is that we can get stuck in this hyper-sensitive, high-alert mode. Not only real, present threats, but even the mere memory of threats can trigger this panic survival mode. The amygdala cannot distinguish between what is a real, present threat, and what is only the memory of a threat. This is how, 8 months ago, I was walking down a busy street, and something about the sound of footsteps and a man’s voice behind me brought me back five and a half years, to a December night in Paris when a complete stranger followed me home and attacked me. The logical part of my brain knew that this situation was completely different, but in the tiny moment when my amygdala linked the sound of footsteps to that horrible, traumatizing memory, that was enough to switch on survival mode. That’s why articles like these come with trigger warnings, because even reading that sentence can dredge up enough feelings for some people to flip that switch.

Unfortunately, that is not the worst part about anxiety or PTSD. The worst part is that you become so afraid of your own anxiety that it becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy. I’m not afraid of grocery stores because they are somehow inherently threatening. I’m afraid of them because one day, I had a panic attack in a grocery store, and now I’m terrified that every time I run out of milk I’m going to have another.

That’s what makes this sculpture’s continued presence on campus so troubling to me—the memory of being triggered can sometimes be more powerful than the trigger itself. I know from experience that anxiety is something that can spiral out of control quite quickly. For five and a half years, I functioned remarkably well without ever dealing with my assault experiences. I’m not saying that things were perfect, but on a day-to-day basis, my trauma was not something I thought about. Literally in the course of one afternoon, all of that changed, because that one trigger, that one day, quickly became lots of triggers, lots of days. Now, there is not a week that goes by that I don’t have to think about how my PTSD is going to affect my life on the most mundane levels—my job, my sleep, even my ability to buy groceries.

Isn’t it unrealistic for survivors to expect that all triggers be removed from their lives? Shouldn’t they learn to deal with it?

I don’t think anyone is requesting or expecting to go through life avoiding all triggers. All that’s simply being asked of the college is to help minimize that risk, which they are refusing to do. I don’t resent the existence of grocery stores or people on the sidewalk because they give me anxiety, but it does help me manage my anxiety to be able to control when and how frequently I interact with them. I deliberately go grocery shopping at times when the store is less crowded, or I walk down less busy streets to get somewhere. The college is not giving students that option by keeping the sculpture so prominently displayed in the middle of campus.

What’s wrong with the artist telling students that see this as a statue as a trigger to go to counseling? That seems like good advice.

For context, this is a quote from the artist:

“What they see in the sculpture is not in the sculpture,” said Mr. Matelli, who added, “If you have bad feelings toward this and it’s triggering you, you need to seek sympathy, you need to seek help.”

First of all, let me just say that nobody gets to tell you how to interpret a work of art, not even the artist. So there’s that. But on to the bigger issue—why do some people (such as myself) view these remarks as unhelpful or insensitive?

All too often, our society treats mental illness in a very different way than it does other illnesses. If I’m physically sick, say, I wake up with a migraine, I can call my boss and tell him or her “Sorry, I have a migraine, I can’t come in to work today.” But if I’m having a day where I’m suffering from panic attacks, I would never say, “Sorry, I can’t work today, because my PTSD is too bad.” There’s a perception that people with mental health issues are fragile, unbalanced, and even untrustworthy that makes it very difficult for many people to work up the courage to go to counseling.

Furthermore, it took me over five years to seek professional help because for a long time, it felt like giving into the PTSD and admitting that I needed help was handing power over to my assaulters, like I was conceding defeat. I also just wasn’t ready to process some of the things that happened to me; dealing with these kinds of issues can be really, really difficult, and it is a long, ongoing process. When I started counseling, things got much worse for me before they started to get better again. Everything was harder; my panic attacks were more frequent, and my triggers became more numerous. And in all likelihood, PTSD is something I’m going to continue to struggle with for the rest of my life. Mental illness isn’t a cut or a break that you can solve with some plaster and bandages; there’s no magic cure, and I don’t get to walk away from a few weeks or months or even years of counseling not having to worry about when my next panic attack is going to be.

Counseling can also be extremely expensive and hard to come by; I am very fortunate in that I have access to a local rape and sexual assault counseling center that provides me indefinite counseling, free of charge, but that’s about as common as unicorns. Many universities put caps on the number of times a student can seek counseling services within a year (according to their website, Wellesley’s counseling center offers only short-term counseling of 6-8 sessions). The sad truth is that many women might not have access to the resources they need.

And of course, the last thing any victim needs is someone on the outside telling them that they’re broken, that they need to somehow fix themselves. That’s not only insulting and condescending, but it also feeds back into this idea that women need to take responsibility for their own rapes.

Talking about mental illness is already fairly taboo in our culture, but when you add any kind of sexual violence into the mix, the problem becomes even more complex. We live in this deeply entrenched, rape apologist culture where we’re so good at covering and ignoring the problem that in addition to the systematic blaming of women for their own assaults, even victims learn to blame themselves. If you want evidence that our society doesn’t support victims of sexual violence: a few days ago, I was quoted in a news article about this statue business, and someone in the comments with a PhD in psychology implied that I am a “drama queen” because I have PTSD. I could not make this stuff up if I tried.

But it’s art!

gaining perspective: the wellesley debate // hollaback! boston

To me, this is the most maddening part of this entire discussion. What the artist, museum director, and college administration all seem to refuse to acknowledge is that they are having an entirely different debate than the students who would like this statue moved inside. I am trying to address each of these questions in as objective a way as possible, but I have to admit here that nothing in this story has incited rage in me quite like this quote:

“I was completely taken aback by this response,” said Ms. Fischman, who hopes to use the discussion around the work as “a teachable moment” on “creative freedom and what it means to honor that on campus.”

Wow. That is… very condescending and also completely missing the point. Dear Ms. Fischman: please let this be a “teachable moment” for you about rape culture and how the first amendment actually works.

My right to express myself extends exactly as far as the point where my act of expression infringes upon someone else’s rights, and no further. This is why we have libel laws and movie ratings and all sorts of other legal and cultural structures that we, by and large, accept as functional pieces of our society—because expression, as wonderful and necessary as it is, can be dangerous in certain contexts. That’s all anyone is saying—this art installation, in this specific context, is a public safety hazard. It’s going to cause traffic accidents, negatively impact student health, and ultimately prompt vandalism if it stays up. Moreover, nobody gets to come into my house and put up art I don’t want; neither Tony Matelli nor the Davis Museum has any inherent right to put up art in the middle of a private, residential institution.

The fact that all this is happening in an academic setting is all the more insulting because it doesn’t comply with any sort of academic research ethics. Let’s say tomorrow, a Wellesley professor decides to conduct a study in which she observes how students react to different art works. Without the informed consent of the experimental participants, that study would never receive ethical approval from any academic institution. At its core, that’s what this art installation is—an experiment in student perceptions of art. Only, the students did not consent to participate.

Finally, as another alum pointed out, in the above article, Ms. Fischman chose not to install the equivalent female sculpture outside because she thought it would seem “too exposed” (um… ok. It’s a women’s college; literally every person there sees a pair of boobs every morning in the shower), which suggests that she herself is aware that certain contexts are not always appropriate for certain art works. Apparently, though, that argument is exclusively limited to what she feels is appropriate, not other people’s opinions. Thank you, Ms. Lisa Fischman, for being the arbiter of all that constitutes propriety in the art world. We would be eternally lost without your wisdom.

This is such a trivial issue. Shouldn’t we be worrying about starving children in Africa?

If you take away nothing else from this post, please take this: that is a logical fallacy. Both as a society and as individuals, we are capable of caring about multiple things at once. We also don’t have to individually place the same weight of importance on the same issues. If we did, nothing would ever get accomplished because we’d be so busy fighting over the best way to solve really big problems that no one would bother with anything small and immediately addressable.

Look, I have a master’s degree in sustainable development. Believe me, I am acutely aware of what a hot mess the world is. That doesn’t nullify the importance of this issue to this community of people. An issue doesn’t have to be important to you particularly to be important to someone else.

Moreover, this debate is part of a larger discourse about gender inequality that is intrinsically tied to a whole host of other issues, including starving children in Africa. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s set aside how problematic foreign aid can be and momentarily accept the premise that we, the Wellesley community and Americans in general, are somehow necessary to alleviating global poverty. Even if that’s true, there is endless research that indicates that poverty is inextricably linked with gender inequality. You cannot solve one without dealing with the other in some measure.

These conversations, small and insignificant as they may seem, are tiny cogs in a very big machine that’s trying to change the way we treat sexual violence in our culture. I don’t write about my own trauma experiences because I enjoy it—I do it because I genuinely believe that in talking about these issues, and hearing the voices of more and more survivors, we are changing rape culture. In doing so, we are able to address so many other difficult issues in the world simultaneously. No one story is insignificant or unimportant. As a culture, we need to stop minimizing and trivializing the little struggles, because each tiny battle is a turning point in someone’s life, somewhere.

Enough of those turning points, and we’ve changed the entire landscape of our society.


image credit: The Importance of Being Alix

Page 1 of 41234»
Powered by WordPress