Street Harassment: Getting the Message

Street Harassment: Getting the Message

FINAL_11x28_Septa2014_Property_72

Originally posted on Huffington Post on 4/4/2014. 

On April 1st, HollabackPHILLY (a project of Feminist Public Works) launched a series of anti street harassment ads in the Philadelphia public transit system, including subway car interiors, bus shelters and subway station platforms throughout the city.

This is an expansion of the small but high-impact pilot campaign we ran last year, that quickly went viral online, attracting significant local and national press. Our goal with both campaigns was to familiarize the public with the term “street harassment” (gender-based harassment by strangers in public spaces) and define it as a solvable problem, as opposed to an inevitable “fact of life.” However, this year we took it a step further, employing some killer messaging strategies that we hope will generate even deeper conversations.

Last year’s ads were almost exclusively definitional. For example, since most people are unfamiliar with the term “street harassment,” the below ad links the term with specific examples.

2014-04-03-HeySexy2013.jpg

Street harassment is often minimized as a “compliment,” and the below ad aims to start conversations around that issue, while linking the term “street harassment” to “unwanted comments.”

2014-04-03-NiceAss2013.jpg

This year’s new set of ads build on last year’s definitional work by broadening and expanding it. For example, the below ad distills why street harassment is a problem: harassment communicates that people’s bodies are open for public commentary, and limits our right to move comfortably through public spaces.

2014-04-03-FINAL_11x28_Septa2014_Property.jpg

This next ad highlights the seriousness of the issue, making a complete break from the common minimization of street harassment as “just a compliment” or “annoying.” Street harassment can make people feel unsafe in lots of ways — for example, street harassment is unpredictable. An example we hear all the time is how a simple, “Hey, beautiful” can quickly turn to, “Stuck up b*tch!” or worse when ignored. Never knowing what might come next means that even relatively mild statements can make people feel unsafe.

2014-04-03-FINAL_11x28_Septa2014_Safe.jpg

Other ads take it a step further, straight into bystander intervention. The following two ads give specific examples of what a person can say to support someone who has been harassed, or how to call out someone who has just said or done something harassing:

2014-04-04-FINAL_11x28_Septa2014_Okay_72.jpg

2014-04-04-FINAL_11x28_Septa2014_EverWork_72.jpg

The following ads give examples of harassing statements, and pointedly shift the responsibility to respond from the victim to the bystander:

2014-04-04-21x22_Septa_2014_blindeye_72.jpg

2014-04-04-FINAL_21x22_dude_72.jpg

2014-04-04-21x22_Septa_2014_smile_72.jpg

2014-04-04-21x22_Septa_2014_fags_72.jpg

Some of the ads focus on calling out a stranger on their behavior or giving support to a victim after the fact, while others focus on how we can react when those closest to us — our friends — are engaging in harassing behaviors. All of these ways of intervening are powerful and important. If we want to see social change around street harassment, we need to start building up social pressure both out in public among strangers, and privately within our inner circles. This means it’s time to start stepping in when we see harassment happening, because simply being a person who doesn’t harass is not good enough. According to the principle of social proof, our silence when we see harassment happening to others is easily read as acceptance, and reinforces in the harasser’s mind (as well as others witnessing the behavior) that the harassment is socially acceptable.

The shift from individual responsibility to a community sense of responsibility is commonly known as a bystander intervention approach, which has become a gold standard for gender-based violence prevention. Viewing the problem of street harassment as a shared responsibility is a revolutionary shift, not only because our culture emphasizes individuality at every turn, but because this shift puts the focus squarely on the harasser. If we’re active bystanders, ready to intervene, it’s because we see someone (the harasser) doing something wrong. What the victim is doing or wearing is not even part of the equation.

To get technical, this campaign works to establish a new injunctive social norm. Injunctive social norms regulate our perceptions of which behaviors we consider socially desirable or undesirable. There is another kind of social norm, called “descriptive social norms” which describe our perceptions of those behaviors we see as typical or normal. We avoided focusing on descriptive social norms in this campaign, because they tend to backfire by reinforcing a perception that the behavior the campaign is fighting against (in this case, street harassment) is in fact widespread, and therefore acceptable. One of the most famous cases of this happening is the famous “Crying Indian” anti-littering campaign in the 1970s, which actually resulted in more littering by reinforcing the perception that everybody was doing it.

One of the keys to successfully influencing injunctive norms through advertising is to be specific. Just telling people that a behavior is wrong is not the same as giving them the tools to change it. Our campaign ties the problem of street harassment to specific situations, like “Your friend just said, “Is that a dude?” within earshot of a woman walking by and. “You see someone persistently hitting on the girl sitting two rows up.” We also suggest some possible responses, like “That was not OK,” and, “Does that ever work for you?” to start getting people thinking about specific ways they might feel comfortable intervening in the moment.

While we work to broaden our messaging through social change strategies, the bystander-focused ads circle back to deepen the definitional work as well. The ads above delve into how street harassment specifically affects trans* women, the ever-prickly issue of telling people to smile, and the harassment of queer couples. Street harassment is an incredibly complex issue that doesn’t lend itself to a simple, watered-down slogan. Our campaign aims to be as specific and direct as possible, while making space to open up conversation.

We would love to hear your feedback on this campaign. Share your thoughts here.

 

Advertisements

How the “Ban Bossy” Conversation is Getting Derailed

How the “Ban Bossy” Conversation is Getting Derailed

Last week, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook, of “lean in” fame), former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez teamed up to launch the “Ban Bossy” campaign. In a nutshell, this campaign introduces the general public to the idea of “bossy” as a highly-gendered word:

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.”

The campaign also links “bossy” to the other “b” word often aimed at women in leadership positions, which is an important connection for people to think about (remember this recent Pantene commercial that got a lot of attention for addressing workplace stereotypes?). There is certainly an important place for conversations about degrading gendered language, but this is not the central focus of the Ban Bossy campaign, which states that its mission is to “encourage girls to lead.” Do you see the disconnect between the slogan and the mission? Because the Ban Bossy campaign specifically focuses on a word, it imposes distinct limitations on public discussion of the idea that the Ban Bossy campaign is trying to address: the leadership gap.

The choice of a word over an idea means the overall mission is getting derailed in a million ways: from people wondering whether “bossy” is actually “a useful descriptive word” to focusing on whether “bossy” should be reclaimed rather than banned (side note: hmm, are we really going there again?) to exploring the idea that not all good leaders are bossy. Don’t get me wrong – the money and celebrity power behind this campaign are certainly succeeding in drawing attention to the leadership gap in a big way. The problem is that most of the discussion around it is bounded by the distracting parameters of the word “bossy”, rather than focusing on the forces sustaining the leadership gap. The message is getting derailed because the Ban Bossy campaign breaks Rule #1 of framing: you cannot reframe by negating the existing frame. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, suddenly that’s all you can think about. It’s just how our minds work. The word “bossy” is a powerful, loaded word and it activates a certain set of ideas in our brains. That’s why 99% of the conversation around the Ban Bossy campaign is about the specific word “bossy” … NOT about the powerful cultural forces keeping girls and women from exercising their legitimate power to lead.

This recent New Yorker article on the Ban Bossy campaign is a perfect example of a journalist falling right into this trap:

“… ‘bossy’ is a useful descriptive word that invokes a particular kind of behavior. It’s not actually a synonym, derogatory or otherwise, for leadership or authoritativeness, nor necessarily a criticism of women who embody those qualities. What it usually connotes is someone who is not in fact your boss, or a boss at all, telling you what to do. It’s the kid in your social-studies class informing you that you’re doing the assignment all wrong, or the person on the bus dispensing unsolicited advice on child rearing. Bossiness is a common human foible—though it could also be true that women with authoritative ambitions who have been denied chances for actual authority may historically have resorted to it more. In my experience, the word ‘bossiness’ is a solid little stand-in for officiousness.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s missing from this paragraph? Here’s what: it completely ignores the fact that girls are being told that they are “bossy” in situations when they are actually fulfilling a leadership role and/or exercising legitimate power to speak their minds. Why would someone choose to use a “useful descriptive word” so inappropriately? Clearly, it’s to keep girls in their place. It’s called “gaslighting” and it’s not a new concept. Convincing a girl that she is being too “aggressive” or “pushy” when she is not is an extremely powerful manipulation technique. Gaslighting is meant to make a person question their “memory, perception, or sanity” and in the case of “bossy”, this gaslighting is specifically meant to make a girl question her legitimacy as an opinion-holder and leader. Adding a “-y” to the end to “boss” trivializes the word, so a “boss-y” person is a person with no legitimate power. Now, let’s stop for a minute and think about what we would call a girl who is exercising illegitimate power over other children in inappropriate ways. Do we have a word for that? Yes, we do: bullying. If so-called “bossy” girls are not bullying, then what is the problem here? It’s actually pretty serious: they are disrupting the social order.

The word “bossy” derives much of its power from another highly-destructive, gendered word: “nice.” The two of those words together set up a framework with significant power to keep girls “in their place.” By definition, a “bossy” girl is not a “nice” girl. A “nice” girl is generally considered to be pleasant, agreeable, and cooperative. She waits for permission and does not make waves by assuming power or challenging others’ assumptions or ideas. Where is the space between “bossy” and “nice”? It’s like the virgin/whore dichotomy. Unless we want to stay stuck in this no-win space, we have to step outside of the “bossy” v. “nice” frame and choose new words that do not reinforce old patriarchal ideas. If we set ourselves up to discuss the word “bossy”, then that’s what we’ll discuss. Yes, the Ban Bossy campaign has gotten people thinking about the word in a new way, and that’s amazing. But instead of taking away the word’s power, this campaign is inadvertently shoring it up.

Uncomfortable? You should be.

Every October, YWCAs across Canada mark a “Week Without Violence” during which they hold a series of community events and campaigns focused on violence prevention. The Vancouver Metro YWCA, one of the largest in the country, creates its own public awareness campaign. This year, it decided to focus on the sexualization of girls, saying “Seeing girls and women as sex objects makes people more tolerant of sexual violence and the exploitation of girls and women.

Uncomfortable? You should be.

Source: YWCA Metro Vancouver

I love how this ad says “develop a critical eye and speak out against sexualized images” because what it is really saying is “media literacy is important.” If you’re new to the idea of media literacy, check out FAAN Mail (Fostering Alternatives and Action Now!). FAAN is a media literacy and activist organization formed by women of color, based in Philadelphia. It has great resources on media literacy, which is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media. Being media literate means that instead of taking media at face value, we instead pause and ask ourselves a few questions:

Who created this message?
Who is the target audience?
What is the message?
What is left out of the message?
Who is harmed and who benefits?

The YWCA ad above directs people to its website, where they can find a guide to media literacy for girls. This is a great idea, and I think it’s the first PSA I’ve ever seen that explicitly encourages media literacy development. If you know of more, please send them my way!

As far as the framing of this ad goes, it chooses not to change the frame and instead asks the viewer to take a critical look at his or her own reaction to it by saying “Uncomfortable? You should be. Develop a critical eye.” I admit that I felt a little bit shocked myself when reading that, because it made me realize that I actually hadn’t been that creeped out by the image at first glance. Whoa. And THAT is why media literacy is important. Without it, we start absorbing these images with less and less resistance.

If this ad had simply used the current frame (“little girls = sex objects”) and switched the “Uncomfortable…” line to read something like “Little girls are not sex objects” it would have completely failed at getting people to think critically about the frame of “little girls = sex objects.” This is because when someone says “Don’t think of an elephant” (which is actually the title of a great book on framing) suddenly, it becomes a struggle to think about anything else. If I show you a little girl dressed in a sexy, adult way and tell you “little girls are not sex objects”, you may think to yourself “I agree! That’s terrible!” but your brain is stuck thinking about little girls as glamorized mini adults. To get your brain unstuck, I have to completely change the frame by showing you another way to think about that little girl (maybe with an image of her riding a bike or doing homework). The YWCA ad, however, chooses not to reframe because it wants us to stop and look at the image with a critical eye. It is teaching us a skill; the ad itself is an exercise in media literacy.

One important thing to note is that the ad language does not refer exclusively to girls. It says “seeing girls and women portrayed as sex objects…”. So why does it choose to use a picture of a sexualized young girl? Because ad space is already flooded with pictures of sexualized, objectified adult women (check out The Gender Ads Project if you have any doubts). We’re already so desensitized to those images that they might make us angry, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as an image of a sexualized young girl.

I found out about the Vancouver YWCA’s yearly campaigns through an awesome Pinterest follower who posted an image from the YWCA’s 2012 campaign on my group board. Stay tuned for a separate post on that campaign – which is very different from this one – later today.