Other Human Rights

YWA 2013 Nominee: Holly Kearl

Holly Kearl

In 2008 I launched the website www.StopStreetHarassment.org where people around the world share their stories. I now have 15 correspondents who write monthly articles about the issue from seven countries.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Young Women of Achievement awardees Jessica Livoti-Morales and Angelique Roche (community organizing/labor work), Elizabeth Lindsey (innovation), Tenley Peterson (leadership), Ali Rozell (political/campaign work), Merry Michelle Walker (service/nonprofit advocacy), and Julia Reticker-Flynn (women in the choice movement).

“I like the way your tits bounce when you run,” is one of the many offensive and upsetting comments men I do not know have said to me in public spaces. Like so many women, I was raised to be polite, to not cause a scene, and to think that any male attention was a compliment, so for most of my life I smiled politely or hurried away from these men. Then I stayed away from the places where I had been harassed. Even though I took women’s studies classes in college and volunteered at domestic violence organizations and I spoke out against campus rape, I did not connect my experiences to gender violence or gender inequality for a long time.

During graduate school, I had to pick a topic for my master’s thesis. Around that time I learned the term “street harassment” from feminist websites. I quickly identified it as what I was experiencing, ranging from the leering and whistling to sexualized comments to flashing, following, and groping. I was relieved to not be alone and to find tips for dealing with harassers. I decided to write my thesis on how women were turning to online spaces to share stories and advice in lieu of social recognition of the problem. I finished my thesis in 2007 and it was featured on CNN.com.

Over the past six years, I’ve become a leading expert on the topic, in part because, especially at the beginning, there were few people talking about this issue. Even though I work full-time, the more women’s stories I heard or read, the more I realized that most men have no idea this happens, and the more I witnessed the media, police and government agents turning a blind eye to the issue or engage in victim-blaming, the more I wanted to do something about it.

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In 2008 I launched the website www.StopStreetHarassment.org where people around the world share their stories. I now have 15 correspondents who write monthly articles about the issue from seven countries.

In 2010, I wrote a book on the topic and have given over 150 media interviews and 75 talks on the subject. I’ve presented at UN conferences and testified before the New York City Council.

Since 2011, I have undertaken offline activism, too. In partnership with Collective Action for Safe Spaces, I helped organize more than 50 volunteers to conduct community safety audits in Washington, DC neighborhoods. Also in partnership with CASS, I testified before the DC City Council and I am part of a taskforce that works with WMATA to address sexual harassment on the transit system.

Each spring, I organize Meet Us on the Street International Anti-Street Harassment. This year, the week will take place April 7-13 and there are lots of ways people can be involved in speaking out against street harassment from anywhere in the world.

Going forward, in addition to organizing the week of awareness, I’m fundraising to conduct the first-ever national study on street harassment and gained 501(c)(3) status so that donations are tax deductible. We must have more data before politicians, government agencies, and law enforcement takes this issue seriously. I’m also in the research stages of setting up a hotline for survivors of street harassment who want advice or support. This may be launched in partnership with other DC-based groups.

My motivation for continuing this work is the stories I hear. I am outraged over and over by the many ways women change their lives directly because of harassment: from altering routes and routines to giving up hobbies or never returning to stores or parks where they’ve been harassed to even moving neighborhoods or quitting jobs.

The many ways women feel they must change their lives to stay safe makes street harassment a human rights violation. No country has achieved gender equality and no country ever will as long as women have unequal access to public spaces. Street harassment must end!

Analysis Law and Policy

Texas ‘Upskirt’ Decision Latest to Protect Constitutional Rights of Harassers

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A Texas court decision ruling "upskirt" pictures constitutional is the latest example of the courts protecting rape culture in the name of the First Amendment.

Texas’ highest criminal court last week threw out part of a state law that banned “upskirt” pictures, holding that the law violated free-speech rights and penalized thoughts at the expense of trying to protect people from unwanted harassment. In doing so, it effectively perpetuated rape culture in the name of the First Amendment.

The case involved a section of the Texas penal code making it a crime to photograph or record a visual image of someone without the other person’s consent and “with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”

As reported by the Houston Chronicle, Ronald Thompson was charged in 2011 with 26 counts of improper photography after taking underwater pictures of children at a San Antonio water park. Before his trial on the criminal charges, Thompson challenged the constitutionality of the Texas law, arguing that it threatened to throw amateur photographers, entertainment journalists, and “even the harmless eccentric” in jail based on their thoughts. Thompson also argued that the improper-photography statute impermissibly penalized not just the expressive act of photography but also the “right to receive the public expressions of others.”

Prosecutors countered that the kind of activity the law targeted placed it outside the kind of “expressive activity” the First Amendment was designed to protect. But the Texas criminal court disagreed, finding the state’s goal of protecting its citizens from “creepshots” to be an unacceptable extension of the government.

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The 8-1 majority on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals described the law as “paternalistic” and said photos—like films, books, and paintings—are “inherently expressive” and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment.

“The camera is essentially the photographer’s pen and paintbrush,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “A person’s purposeful creation of photographs and visual recordings is entitled to the same First Amendment protection as the photographs and visual recordings themselves.”

Keller continued, “Protecting someone who appears in public from being the object of sexual thoughts seems to be the sort of ‘paternalistic interest in regulating the defendant’s mind’ that the First Amendment was designed to guard against.”

Keller is correct, of course, that pictures and visual images are protected by the First Amendment, but she’s not correct that those First Amendment protections can erase the consent of the person photographed just because the person so happens to be in public.

If guys like Thompson have a constitutional right to be a creeper, what about my corresponding right to be left alone and exist in public in peace? According to the Texas criminal court, that apparently does not exist. “A person who walks down a public street cannot prevent others from looking at him or her with sexual thoughts in their heads,” the court wrote, adopting part of an argument advanced by Thompson that the improper-photography amounted to, as his attorney put it, “Orwellian thought-crime rather than the reasonable advancement of an important government interest.”

The Texas “upskirt” decision is hardly the first time the courts have ignored the right of a person to be free from unwanted harassment in the name of protecting the free-speech rights of the harasser, but it is one of the clearest examples of the court misapplying the First Amendment to insulate rape culture. In this case, both Thompson and the court brushed aside the issue of unwanted sexual contact by reframing the injury at issue here. They positioned as equal Thompson’s constitutional rights and those of the kids whom he photographed underwater, without their consent, because it turned him on—even though Thompson’s position of power as an adult man makes their situations inherently lopsided.

In doing so, the court specifically disregarded the rights of the children to be safe from creepers like Thompson, while making it even less safe in the future for vulnerable people to exist in public. Simply put, the Texas court’s decision confirms that when the law delves into an “objective” balancing of constitutional rights, there’s nothing balanced at all.

Last term, the Roberts Courts did a similar re-framing when it sided with the abortion clinic protesters and ruled their right to “counsel” strangers on the street trumped the rights of patients and providers to safely and privately access health-care services. More recently, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a white supremacist who sent threatening emails to a university professor on the grounds that a “reasonable person” wouldn’t feel threatened by the message stating the supremacist planned to “convene to detain and slay you.”

The Supreme Court will venture back into this debate of free speech versus harassment later this year in Elonis v. United States, a case that looks at Facebook comments and when speech is a “true threat” of violence or merely the constitutionally protected misogynistic lyrics of a budding rapper that just so happens to be directed at his ex-wife.

When the Supreme Court hears the Elonis case in December, it will be asked to determine if a “reasonable person” would feel threatened by Elonis’ posts detailing how he wanted to kill his ex-wife. The law sets this up as an objective inquiry because that supposedly levels the field between those people who find everything offensive and those who find nothing offensive. In other words, does the speaker’s intent govern whether or not something can be a threat, or should the courts take the side of the listener in these types of cases?

But despite what the courts say, there is just no way this can be an objective inquiry. By erasing the way gender, race, age, and other factors help define the limits of whether we can exist safely in public spaces, they tilt the situation in favor of the harasser every time. This is especially true when the “injuries” involved seem more remote—like taking a picture of someone while in public, or posting rants online—where victims of harassment find themselves without a remedy because of the court’s unwillingness to consider how privilege functions to control how we do, or do not interact with others in public. We see that in the Texas “upskirt” decision, with the court’s evident incredulity that Texas would even try and make taking a picture of someone in public without their consent a crime. “People do not ordinarily even think about being photographed when they appear in public,” Keller wrote.

In each of these cases, courts sided with harassers under the altruistic banner of robustly protecting the First Amendment. Protecting speech is certainly a good thing. But these decisions don’t protect the First Amendment as much as they advance rape culture by insisting that all people can, and do, exist in public with the same degree of privacy rights.

Racial profiling and street harassment data tells us otherwise, which is why it is so critically important that reality factor into the court’s analysis in these kinds of First Amendment cases.

Commentary Media

Sexism Is Alive and Well Among ‘Generation Z’

Emily Spangler

Generation Z—made up of people who were born between the early 1990s and 2010—is so accustomed to everyday sexism that most of us do not even notice when demeaning language is used, let alone call it out, when we hear it in songs like "Blurred Lines."

Emily Spangler is a 15-year-old high school student and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

“Wow, look at that sexy body!”

“She has another boyfriend? What a slut.”

“Dude, go tell her how hot she looks today.”

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This sexist language sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? It’s used every day, including in schools, public places, and on sidewalks. It’s not only used by disrespectful classmates or cat-callers; it can be used by teachers, family members, and close friends. Even you can be spreading sexism without realizing what messages you’re sending.

My generation, Generation Z—made up of people who were born between the early 1990s and 2010—is so accustomed to everyday sexism that most of us do not even notice when demeaning language is used, let alone call it out. From accepting slut-shaming, promoting degrading music in pop culture, and not addressing street harassment, my generation often overlooks sexism in our society. Although it is easy to overlook sexism, it is not the most moral thing to do.

Let’s start with the widespread acceptance of slut-shaming within my generation. Slut-shaming means shaming or attacking women by making them feel guilty or inferior for their real or presumed sexual behaviors or desires. As a teenager, it is normal to walk down the halls in high school and hear the demeaning word “slut” used to describe a young woman wearing short shorts, as a nickname for someone’s best friend, or to describe the young woman in your math class who has a new boyfriend every week.

The word can be used in many different ways to demean women, but the real question is what exactly constitutes a “slut”? The answer: No one is a slut. Not a single human on this planet. Yes, including that girl your ex-boyfriend cheated on you with during freshman year. Society uses the term “slut” and “whore” to attack women for simply being sexually active, wearing “revealing” clothing, or having sexual behaviors or desires. A woman can have sex with one person or ten people and still be called this sexist term. The fact is, no one should be using it for any purpose. Whether using the actual degrading word or having your actions suggest it, slut-shaming is unacceptable and does not create an environment that embraces equality.

My generation often tends to overlook the true meaning of a “slut” or “whore,” with the words popped into sentences as part of everyday vocabulary usage. But they are hateful and demeaning terms to use to describe someone, their sexual behaviors, or the way they dress. So rather than overlook the practice by ignoring it the next time it is used, call the person out on it. Fighting back against our patriarchal society, including minimizing the use of disempowering language, is one step toward achieving equality.

My generation also tends to overlook sexism by promoting degrading popular music that demeans women in every way possible. Perfect example: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell, which was one of the most popular songs on the radio this summer. The catchy tune seems to hide the song’s sexist lyrics. The first few lines of the song shout, “Everybody get up!” which makes you want to get to your feet and dance. But nearly a minute into the song, you start to hear the repeated rape-culture infused lyric “I know you want it,” which should make people feel uncomfortable, as it suggests a sexual act that might not involve consent.

Songs like these are not uncommon. Plus, it’s not the first time misogynist artist Robin Thicke has pitched in on a song that objectifies women. For example, take a look at his past contribution to the less-catchy tune “Pregnant” by Thicke, R. Kelly, Tyrese, and The-Dream. The lyrics include, “Girl you make me wanna get you pregnant,” “She’s more than a mistress enough to handle my business, now put that girl in my kitchen,” and “Put them pills on chill and girl give me my baby.” These lyrics are derogatory to women, treating us as objects who are just baby-makers, not human beings.

Sadly, these are the types of songs that are played on the radio, and many in my generation embrace them as if they are no big deal, no matter how sexist or demeaning they are. Even condoning rape culture can be part of a popular dance song! Music is a part of everyday life and surrounds us everywhere we go. To embrace less degrading songs, or at least acknowledge that the current songs on the radio are sexist, would be another small step toward equality for Generation Z.

In addition to giving slut-shaming and degrading music a free pass, many in my generation also overlook a serious issue that has affected women for generations: street harassment. Street harassment can vary from cat-calling and whistling to honking cars and threatening behavior that puts women’s lives in danger. Across the country, women of all ages are prone to experience street harassment throughout their lives. According to two Stop Street Harassment studies, 99 percent of women respondents said they had experienced street harassment, including honking, whistling, sexist comments, vulgar gestures, and being followed.

My generation often sees street harassment as something women have to deal with every day and accept for what it is. The problem with that is that street harassment is inappropriate. My generation can be the generation that comes to realize how shameful street harassment is and helps to stop it once and for all. For example, we can work with groups aimed at limiting inappropriate public behavior, including Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment. By not overlooking street harassment and accepting it as the norm, but rather calling it out, we can help pave a path toward equality and appropriate public behavior aimed at women.

Generation Z overlooks slut-shaming, degrading music, and street harassment all too often. These practices should not be tolerated in today’s society, as they are demeaning to women and are an encumbrance to achieving equality. It would be a step in the right direction for our society if we understood that no one should ever slut-shame, if we discouraged degrading music that promotes rape culture, and if we put an end to street harassment. Our generation is the future, and for young men and women to be guaranteed equal opportunities in the world we must start taking a stand to end these demeaning practices.


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