The underbelly of Dunedin streets

A collaborative article written by the feminist group on campus that I contributed some things to.

Note: This article contains potentially upsetting graphic comments.

With street harassment posing a constant threat of intimidation to the women of Dunedin, the OUSA Feminist Group presents a call to action for both bystanders and victims.

“I was walking down George Street with my boyfriend one night when a group of guys walking behind me kept talking aloud between themselves saying things like, ‘She’d get it’ and ‘She looks like she could take a dick.’ It made me sad not only that they were saying things like that to me, but that my boyfriend didn’t really know how to respond at all. I guess if he had stopped and said something to the guys they would have gotten aggressive, so it was a situation that neither of us could have fixed, really. Later he said to me, ‘I guess girls just get used to it,’ and he didn’t really understand my response: ‘Why should we?’”

It is interesting and saddening how normalised street harassment is. It is something that we rarely talk about, and yet, when the subject is raised, most people have a story to tell about how they have personally experienced street harassment, or at the very least, the fear of it. It is also important to recognise that, while this article outlines the gendered nature of street harassment incidents, other groups experience public harassment directed towards them, too. The 2013 European Union LGBT survey highlights that street harassment is also a major concern for LGBT people. 50 per cent of the 93,079 respondents of this survey (aged 18 years or over who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) claimed that they avoided certain places or locations for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed because of being LGBT. Racially motivated street harassment is also an issue that has been raised in the international student community in Dunedin.

Gendered street harassment is unwanted and unwelcome attention in a public space, often of a sexual nature and usually directed at women. Wolf-whistles, excessive staring, graphic sexually violent comments, groping, stalking and public masturbation – most women experience at least some of these throughout their lives from strangers in public spaces. For many women, their regular occurrence prompts us to be conscious of the “safe” routes to our destination, spurs our crossing the street to avoid groups of chads or construction sites, and for some of us, causes constant anxiety in public spaces. International research indicates that over 70 per cent of women, and an unknown percentage of men, experience street harassment.

Even more troubling is that in most of these studies half of the women reported these experiences having a detrimental impact on their lives, resulting in many of them feeling unsafe in their neighbourhoods. The consequences of experiencing gendered street harassment on a regular basis, as is life for many women in Dunedin, are huge. The feelings of fear, anxiety, objectification and disgust do not fade easily, and they inform future decisions that women make when deciding where they can be in public, when and with whom. Self-esteem and self-worth may also be affected for women who are subjected to these experiences. While there is little research available for the New Zealand context, just talking to women will elicit numerous stories of experiences of a wide range of threatening behaviour in public.

While most women will understand the frequent occurrence and level of gendered abuse and intimidation directed at women in public, many men may not know – or believe – how bad it can be. This is not simply an international problem that occurs in far-flung places. Street harassment takes place daily on George Street, on Castle Street, in the Octagon, at any time of the day or night. It’s probably happened outside your flat. The culture of street harassment in Dunedin is not okay, and sharing our stories and shining light on the dirty underbelly of street harassment is a way to tackle it head-on. Make no mistake; we are not talking about genuine compliments from socially awkward, misunderstood guys. Street harassers make their remarks with full disregard and disrespect to the woman targeted, as these quotes illustrate:

“I was browsing in St. Vincent de Pauls when a lone, tattooed, white male, about 30 years old, strode past, sized me up and announced loudly: ‘Tall enough, but you got an ugly face, girl.’ Then he stood and looked at me with a smug grin on his face. I was shaking with anger but was too intimidated to say anything, for fear of being followed. No-one else in the shop said anything to him and it took me months to work up the courage to return to browse again.”

“I have lost count of the revolting comments I have received from men of all ages walking past me while I am minding my own business in the day-time. The most memorable include: ‘That girl looks like she needs a cock up her arse’ (said by a 16-year-old boy in school uniform with his 10 other mates); ‘That one looks like a good pussy’ (said casually in earshot by two young men walking down George Street, middle of the day); and ‘Give us a go!’ (Shouted by a middle-aged man out of his car).”

“I was walking home from Uni when guys in a car yelled, ‘I’m gonna fuck your pussy,’ then they sped off. Not only is this language yuck but it frustrates me that I wasn’t given the opportunity to respond.”

“I was waiting to cross the lights at Albany Street after walking home from the gym and a car full of guys stopped beside me. One of them politely said, ‘excuse me,’ so I turned around. I was then asked, ‘Do you squat?’ I responded by saying, ‘You don’t have the right to look at my body and make a comment about it.’ I was shaking and so intimidated. It had taken years of receiving gross comments from guys to actually say anything. While I’m glad I said something to them it took a huge amount of courage and I was actually really scared responding.”

“I was walking down the street with my mum when these guys drove past us. They lifted their shirts and pressed their chests against the car window, screaming at me. I was only 14 at the time and it made me feel so uncomfortable.”

“Walking down Moray Place on a weeknight I have experienced a group of five or so men standing across the road – all of them continuously wolf-whistled at me the entire time I was in their line of sight – for over a block. That level of scrutiny and invasion still makes me feel on edge whenever I hear someone wolf-whistle, wherever I am.”

Moreover, some at-first seemingly harmless harassers become aggressive when their comments go ignored or are confronted. Victims of gendered street harassment are often targeted when they are by themselves, and often by a group of harassers. This adds another level of fear for the victim as they are instantly at a disadvantage, and may feel powerless to either verbally or physically protect themselves. Dunedin women have shared scary experiences of men objectifying them, treating them as property and escalating the abuse when challenged; suggesting that they have a sense of entitlement to women’s attention and
bodies, as these experiences highlight:

“A friend and I were walking home past The Cook at night and a drunk guy was outside. He called out ‘Hello, ladies’ and we kept walking, engrossed in our conversation, so he aggressively spat on the ground and yelled out ‘SLUTS!’”

“I was walking home and some dude yells from a car, ‘you going to town?’ I ignored them and as they drove off he yelled, ‘I’ll shove my cock up your ass.’”

“I’ve had a dude physically stop me on the street before when I wouldn’t pay attention to his cat-calling and I actually thought I was gonna be attacked. It’s fucking scary.”

These are the experiences of women from our local community and they occurred in public places that you have probably frequented before. These stories represent the tip of the iceberg; and are only a few examples of the countless incidences women experience on a regular basis. People that you know probably have many more stories of their own that they could share. The striking prevalence and normalisation of harassment is why we felt compelled to write this article. So why does it happen? Is it just individual assholes? Then why is the aggressive language so similar? The above quotes from different women illustrate similar sexually violent language that these men used to frighten women – much of the language invokes the threat of rape to gain a sense of control over them in public. There may be a variety of motivations; some harassers band together in groups to show off to their mates, while others are alone and have no-one to impress. Regardless of their individual motivations or character flaws, these stories are indicative of a minority of men’s assumed right to appraise women’s bodies, degrade them and assert authority over them. The feminist project of gender equality is still a much-needed and attainable goal. For example, this from a Dunedin women,

“I was in town with my friend, and as we were walking past a bar, a man grabbed me and refused to let me go. When I managed to forcefully pull away, he began shouting at me saying things like ‘Fuck you! You’re MY property,’” exemplifies the gendered power dynamic that exists in these instances of street harassment. As long as there are some men who believe they have the right to act this way because they are men and towards women because they are women, then we need to see this as a gendered issue and not just a case of individuals being assholes. It is attributable to a broader social set of gender relations that this behaviour is a regular, normalised occurrence. All people should be able to freely move around public spaces without fear of harassment and the negative emotional consequences that can arise from this harassment. The fact that this is not possible for all women demands our calls for action.

Solutions

There are a plethora of things that each of us can do to tackle this culture of street harassment in Dunedin.

First, we need to acknowledge that gendered street harassment is NOT a compliment, nor is it the victim’s fault. Street harassment is unwanted and makes the victim feel uncomfortable, scared, intimidated or embarrassed and shares no common ground with a compliment. By dismissing street harassment as a compliment, it dismisses the experience of the victim, and the way it made them feel.

Secondly, we need to start standing up for people who are harassed. This can be done in a variety of ways and is one way that men can really help lower occurrences of street harassment.

Bystander intervention is one such strategy. Created as a rape prevention strategy, it is most associated with the work of Vicki Banyard and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. The bystander approach works from two key premises: First, that sexual violence is a social and structural issue rather than the problem of individuals. Second, it works from an understanding of sexual violence as a continuum of behaviours ranging from healthy, age-appropriate, respectful, and safe behaviours to sexual abuse, rape, and violent behaviours. Between these two points are other behaviours – where street harassment is situated – that begin to feel inappropriate, coercive, and harassing.

In order for this strategy to be effective, individuals need to notice that something is happening, recognise the event as a behaviour along the sexual violence continuum, take responsibility for providing help, know how to intervene and choose to intervene safely. From this perspective, people may intervene in situations at one end of the continuum, such as stopping a friend from making sexually harassing comments to someone in the street. The value of this approach is that it means each person can be engaged in preventing sexual violence by taking small and straightforward actions in less extreme situations. When you hear someone harassing someone else, call them out on it. Tell them it’s not okay. Coming from a friend or a peer, being told that harassing behaviour is not okay is an effective way to tackle street harassment.

Third, we can share our stories of harassment in Dunedin with each other and support people who have been a victim of street harassment. This can be done by providing a sensitive and caring place to talk through what has happened, rather than dismissing the harassment as a compliment, joke or not important. Not only does this legitimise the feelings that victims of street harassment experience, but it also makes clear how normalised and invisible this culture of harassment is and may spur the community to acknowledge the problem, and harassers to examine
their behaviour.

The global mobilisation of feminists and their allies raising awareness about street harassment has spurred the development of online websites, smart-phone applications to record incidences and map harassment “hot spots,” regular news articles highlighting the problem and a variety of poster campaigns aimed at problematising this behaviour. ihollaback.org is one such website which states that it is “powered by local activists in 71 cities and 24 countries.” It provides a platform for people to share their experiences and receive support from others. At the local level, the OUSA feminist club has created a tumblr page and is inviting people to share their street harassment diaries. This space gives people an opportunity to detail their experiences within a length of time – depending on how regular street harassment is for them. You can submit your experiences here: mystreetharassmentdiary.tumblr.com. We will also be holding events throughout the year, so watch this space. The more we speak out about this issue and its prevalence, the more support we can mobilise to change this culture of abuse.

This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2014.
Posted 4:32pm Sunday 18th May 2014 by OUSA Feminist Group.

 

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Bystander approaches to sexual violence prevention

In 1964, the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese shocked Americans from coast to coast. While a man attacked, raped, and killed a young woman over an hour and half, it was reported that over 38 witnesses watched and did nothing to help. This story sparked research into what is known as the ‘bystander effect’ the phenomenon in which people do not offer help to another person in danger even though they are present. While the Kitty Genovese story has now shown to be a myth, as in actual fact several people tried to intervene or called for help and the police failed to respond, work around bystander intervention approaches have proven to be very effective in sexual violence prevention work.

Bystander intervention as a rape prevention strategy is most associated with the work of Vicki Banyard and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. The bystander approaches works from two key premises. First, that sexual violence is a social and structural and social issue rather than a problem of individuals. That is, sexual violence impacts and affects everyone, not just those who are direct perpetrators or survivors. Second, it works from an understanding of sexual violence as a continuum of behaviours ranging from healthy, age-appropriate, respectful, and safe behaviours to sexual abuse, rape, and violent behaviours. Between these two points are other behaviours, ranging from those that begin to feel inappropriate, coercive, and harassing.

In order for this strategy to be effective, individuals need to notice that something is happening, recognise the event as a behaviour along the sexual violence continuum, take responsibility for providing help, know how to intervene and choose to intervene safely.

From this perspective, people may intervene in situations at one end of the continuum, such as saying something at a party when a person makes inappropriate sexual comments or speaking out against a friend who is sexually harassing their partner. The idea is that this then stops these behaviours from progressing to acts at the other end of the continuum, thus stopping acts of rape and sexual abuse before they happen. The value of this approach is that it means each person can be engaged in preventing sexual violence by taking small and straightforward actions in less extreme situations.

You can find resources, publications and online e-learning courses for bystander intervention at the National Resource Center for Sexual Violence

Revisiting ‘Tomorrow when the war began’

 

***Content warning for: sexual violence, post traumatic stress disorder, colonisation***

I spent my new years break re-reading one of my favourite series from my childhood, the Tomorrow When the War Began series by John Marsden. There are seven books in the original series, and an epilogue that consists of three books called ‘The Ellie Chronicles’. The books follow Ellie (the ‘writer’ of the story) and a group of her teenage friends during the invasion and colonisation of Australia by an unnamed foreign power. Ellie and her friends avoid the occupation and operate as a guerrilla group throughout the war. My 12 year old self was obsessed with these books and waited anxiously for each one to come out. My present self enjoyed re-reading them too, there are lots of positives in the way violence is explored in the series that I am glad my young self was exposed too. Ellie often discusses the complexities surrounding the gangs use of violence, and you hear her experiences first hand of the way her use of violence changes her, traumatizes her and results in the loss of many lives. Including the lives of some of her loved ones.

However, my young self never got around to reading ‘The Ellie Chronicles’, because at the time I was so disappointed in the ending. Ellie, who has dreamed of finding her mother since the war began and returning to their farm, find her mother who is so traumatised by the process of colonisation that she can barely speak. Instead of things returning to as they were before, the colonisers remain and the land is split up. Ellie and her family only end up with a small portion of their land returned, and have to lease out the rest of it at exorbitant rates to the occupiers. So, as is the reality of many countries, colonisation continues and is ongoing, something my young self couldn’t seem to fathom. As an adult, I am disappointed that at no point during the series was the parallels to this situation and the lived experiences of the indigenous people of Australia ever mentioned. The fact that Ellie often refers to Australia as ‘my country’, when in fact, that country was stolen from indigenous aboriginals using many of the same tactics of violence and dispossession outlined in the story (and many others) is conveniently invisibilised, taking away from a powerful way of teaching young people about the ongoing trauma and violence caused by colonisation, both in Australia and in Aotearoa New Zealand. But that’s another blog.

What I wanted to write about today, is the treatment of sex and sexual violence in the series. Again, there are really encouraging moments in the books where Ellie is represented as a desiring and initiating sexual subject. There are explorations of her sexuality as something that is purely physical and sexual, and also as something that is intimate and emotional. Conversely, there are also very tired representations of women’s sexuality as passive, where she often acts at as gate-keeper to her sort-of-boyfriend’s (Lee’s) sexual advances. Lee too, represents the dominant discourses of male sexuality. He is aggressive, always wants to go ‘all the way’ and often acts coercively towards Ellie, being angry and sulky when she refuses him. At one point telling her ‘thanks for nothing’, when she chooses not to have intercourse with him.

That aside, what agitated me the most was the book in which Ellie gets raped by an acquaintance at a party. At one stage during the books, Ellie and her friends are taken to New Zealand where they stay at an army base before returning to Australia. Ellie meets a young man when she is giving talks about the war at secondary schools and he invites her too the party. She gets extremely drunk and the man (Adam) rapes her. She describes trying to pull her jeans up but eventually thinking she just wants it to be over so she can go home. Needless to say Adam never asks if she is interested in what is going on. Ellie describes the situation:

“I was gone, I’d had it. And he changed really suddenly…it wasn’t working for me, I was just doing it, I don’t know, because I was expected to, I suppose, he expected me to…I felt too sick and drunk to stop him, to even try to stop him. I’m not saying I was too drunk to do anything about it, it wasn’t like that, I mean that’d be rape”

Which it was. But it’s never addressed further, her friend tells her she should have known better, because Adam was obviously a creep. Her counsellor tells her the whole situation is just her reaction to witnessing and living with the death of one of her closest friends. Throughout the following three books the rape is constantly on her mind, she frequently describes feeling dirty and ashamed, she says it felt like he attacked her, that when she slept with Lee she could feel his love for her but Adam made her feel like he hated her. At one point, while fighting with an enemy soldier she has a flash back to Adam raping her and has a panic attack. Basically, the series tells the realistic story of a survivor. However, as a child I didn’t know anything about sexual violence. When I re-read the books I didn’t remember the rape scene, although I remembered her having a sexual encounter with a gross guy. I imagine that 12 year old me absorbed that situation as just one of the many ‘risks’ associated with sexual relationships.

And it occurred to me that hundreds (maybe thousands) of other young people have read these books and thought the same thing, or maybe someone has read this and it has reinforced their own self blame and denial of an abusive situation. Or maybe it has justified a reader’s perpetration of harmful sexual behaviour, as something that they are not responsible for.  There are many implications of writing a narrative like this for a young audience with no analysis of it as an act of violence, of power and control.

But it also highlights the power of the media and of storytelling to change the way young people think about sex, sexuality and sexual violence. Teen fiction has a major influence on young minds and there is massive potential there to reach wide audiences with messages that promote positive, ethical and respectful sexual encounters and/or relationships. Those early years, before young people start engaging in relationships, are a crucial time to promote prevention messages and much research shows that young people want to know about how to have respectful relationships, how to communicate, negotiate and engage in sexual activity. Changing the way we write and talk about sexual violence or even the discussions we have with young people when they encounter messages like this, is a powerful way to help shape a violence free future.

Creating a violence free future

**Content warning for discussions of rape, coercion and sexual violence**

Sometimes it feels very difficult to look forward and imagine a world free from sexual violence. As a crisis worker, and a person who has to live within rape culture, it is often very challenging to be surrounded by the stories of violence, trauma and sadness that are so commonplace in everyday life. When I first started to do this work, I faced a huge change in my perception of the world and the people in it. Hearing about the terrible things that some people do to others and being faced with the reality of the impact this has on so many survivors, was in many ways too difficult to comprehend. And while all the stories I have ever had the honour to hear from survivors have been courageous and inspiring it is, as i’m sure many supporters will tell you, extremely affecting.

In my lowest moments it is hard to think it is possible to change rape culture, to eliminate rape and, indeed, I have had many conversations with people who would argue that rape is inevitable and there is no way to create change. I can understand why people feel that way, when we are surrounded by rape and rape culture. And also because it is difficult for those of us who do rape prevention to show and quantify for people what is not happening-which is after all what we are trying to achieve. It is easy to feel that way when I read Australian National Crime Prevention Survey stats which show that 14% of men and 3% of women think ‘It’s okay for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on, that 15% of men and 4% of women think ‘It is okay to put pressure on a girl to have sex but not to physically force her.’

But despite all of this, as Andrea Dworkin has said: “I came here today because I don’t believe that rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is.” Feminism is a hopeful politics and it has taught me that even when we are bombarded with the negative this does not mean that change is not possible. Sexual violence prevention work is for me, something that reflects the concepts of feminism more generally. It is about believing the world to be capable of being something other than it already is. And change is so achievable, I know it when I read things like ‘Where Men Stand: Men’s roles in ending violence against women’ by Michael Flood which states:

Compared to 14 years ago, men and women are now
more likely to:
• Agree that physical and sexual assault, and threats, are
domestic violence;
• Recognise the spectrum of domestic violence
behaviours as ‘very serious’;
• Agree that domestic violence is a crime;
• Agree that forced sex in an intimate relationship is a
crime;
• Reject the myth that women ‘ask’ to be raped;
• Support public rather than private ways of dealing
with violence and harassment;
• Report that they would intervene in some way in a
situation of domestic violence.

While the work of primary prevention takes time, there is a growing body of evidence that shows it is effective and we can change people’s behaviour in a way that operates in accordance with feminist norms of equality and respectful relating.

 

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The ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’- Nottinghamshire Police Anti Rape Campaign

Nottinghamshire Police have launched a new anti rape campaign in time for Christmas, a reworded version of the well known story which now features a rhyming rape narrative. 

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The BBC news reads: 

Helen Chamberlain, from Nottinghamshire Police, said she did not believe the poem was misguided at all.

“We have been heavily criticised in the past for focusing on victims and giving out persistent warnings to victims about keeping safe.

“This year we decided to try a different tactic and target the perpetrator.

 

And indeed, other Christmas time anti-rape posters (of which there are many examples) by the police have featured the ‘let your hair down not your guard’ and featured news articles telling women to ‘not become a rape victim this Christmas’ 

These ads have been (rightly) criticized for the emphasis they place on women to avoid rape, so while the Nottingham police posters present rape in a way that is deeply problematic, trivializing and probably extremely triggering there is merit to some parts of the message which reinforce that survivors are not responsible and perpetrators are to blame. Nevertheless, there are significant problems with the image overall, apart from the fact that 70% of people only look at the visual in the ad so for most people it will make no sense whatsoever, the image and the text reinforce worn out tropes of all women as potential victims and all men as potential perpetrators, something that rape prevention theory has shown to be ineffective (as well as being generally offensive to men and women). Furthermore, the tag line ‘don’t think you can take what you want because you want it’ is a terrible way to represent the violation of survivors’ freedom, self determination and bodies through rape, reinforcing a discourse which says women and sex are something that are merely objects, an ‘it’ according to the poster.

Finally, while it is reassuring in a sense that the poster aims to highlight that the police take rape seriously and prosecute sexual offences this is not really the case. Statistics show that one survivor in 30 will see their rapist convicted, and this is out of a pool of only 15% of survivors who report in the UK. If this image is aimed at perpetrators and wants to deter people from raping it won’t because consistent with other behaviour change campaigns (drink driving, etc) deterrence appeals only work if perpetrators think there is a real possibility of being caught, convicted and facing a substantial penalty. Which there isn’t.  

The most disappointing aspect for me is that Cathy Saunders, of Midlands Women’s Aid, said: “I personally think it should be withdrawn and replaced with something that has a little bit more insight and advice for women on how to keep themselves safe.” This is depressing advice from a specialist service, particularly because that message is always given to women, it does not work and strategies that focus on women work to depolitcise sexual violence, obscuring women’s understanding of rape as a social issue with structural causes and collective solutions (Vetten, 2011).