- Vice: How the Far Right Feeds on Male Insecurity
- The New Yorker: The Rage of the Incels
- The Atlantic: India’s Vicious Patriarchy
- The Guardian: The Future Isn’t Female Enough
- Vice: The Best Way to Fight Sexism
- Economist: Activists are Trying to Make French Gender-Neutral
- BBC: Shocking level of Sexual Harassment at Music Festivals
- The Atlantic: The Lost Boys
- The Guardian: Why Feminist Dystopias Must Stop Torturing Women
- LA Times: The idea of an ‘Incel Rebellion’ would be laughable if it hadn’t already resulted in so many murders
By David Michael Newstead.
Last month, I attended an interesting event focused on the role men can play in the #MeToo movement. And although all the panelists offered good insights, one part stuck out to me in particular and those were comments made by the activist and educator Jackson Katz.
Jackson Katz: Guys do come these conversations often defensive and they think they’re going to be lectured and they think they’re going to be told what NOT to do. None of us who have been doing this work, I can speak for those of us that I know, we never do that. That’s not how good education works. You engage people where they’re at. You engage young men. You talk to them about how cultural ideas about manhood have impacted them negatively as well as contributed to them harming other people.
Michael Kaufman, one of our colleagues, wrote an article 31 years ago. It’s called “The Triad of Men’s Violence”. The triad is: men’s violence against women, men’s violence against other men, men’s violence against themselves. And all three are connected. I mean, for example, people don’t make these connections normally, but you have rape on college campuses where young men are raping their fellow students – women and men and others. But you also have men over 50 committing suicide by gun. Gun violence is a huge problem in this country. Some people don’t even realize that the majority of gun violence is suicide. And older white men are the primary category of men committing suicide by gun. In other words, violence turned inward.
The same system that produces young men who rape women on college campuses is the same system that produces older men that take a gun to their head. And when you talk to men about these kind of things, you make these kind of connections and a lot of men realize this isn’t just about altruism although that’s important. It’s not just about social justice although that’s important. It’s also about self-interest. It’s also about taking care of themselves and their buddies. When you broaden the conversation in that way, a lot of men relax. It’s like “Oh my god. I’m not being bashed in this moment. I’m actually being challenged in a way to look inward, to be introspective.” And then, to take that introspection and that new self-awareness and go out and do something about it. Because that’s, by the way, the other piece. It’s important that men have personal self-reflection and critical self-awareness and personal growth, but it can’t end there because with privilege comes responsibility. So, you have to have growth personally and then take whatever you’ve learned about yourself and others and then go out and change the world and change the spheres of influence that you have in your life whether it’s young boys in their peer cultures or men at the highest pinnacles of cultural and political power and authority.
- CNN: What decent men can do in response to #MeToo
- Boston Globe: Toxic Masculinity is Killing Us
- CNN: How America has silently accepted the rage of white men
- BBC: Why so many sexual harassment cases in the US, not UK?
- Euronews: Rallies calling for equal rights for women take place in Sweden
- The Cut: The Men Taking Classes to Unlearn Toxic Masculinity
- CityLab: Street Harassment is a Public Health Problem
By David Michael Newstead.
Revenge Porn and other forms of harassment online illustrate the disturbing gap between our laws and an increasingly digital world. And while people sometimes shift the blame to victims of Revenge Porn themselves, this obscures the fact that anyone can become a target via photo-shopped pictures, a hijacked webcam, or a romantic relationship gone wrong. Recently, I spoke with a woman whose abusive ex-husband continued his attacks on her years after their relationship ended through Revenge Porn. In the aftermath, she was forced to navigate an outdated legal system that seemed poorly equipped to protect either her privacy or her safety online. My conversation with “Gladys” is below.
David Newstead: How did you first learn about these posts?
Gladys: I got a random email from an anonymous account that had the title ‘you know these are out there right’ and the body of the email was the link. I also got an email from a prior business client saying someone sent them the same link. I was completely embarrassed.
David Newstead: What did you do next? Like what were the initial steps you took?
Gladys: I was in complete shock. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I called up one of my friends was visiting me and told her the situation. I called up a couple of other close friends and I really just was clueless. No one had any advice for me. They just felt bad for me.
I was really hurting. I spent most of the day in bed, crying. I was afraid to leave my house. I was even feeling suicidal. Men were finding me all over the world to message me about my photos: showing interest, giving warning, just ‘wanting to chat.’ They found me on Skype, my business website, Facebook, email, you name it. Along with the photos, it even says the town you live in. So, this was no longer just embarrassing. It was dangerous. I had no idea where these photos could end up or what sicko might take this information to his next level.
David Newstead: Do you know who was responsible?
Gladys: The person who put up the photos was somebody I knew. It was my ex-husband from eight years prior. He was extremely abusive. The marriage only lasted ten months because of the intense amount of abuse. I had folders of photos, police records, restraining orders. He even went to jail. I did everything I could legally. And that day, eight years later, it felt like the abuse was never going to end and I couldn’t fathom putting up with his abuse for the rest of my life. It was terrifying.
Up until that year, I had made myself invisible. I changed my number several times. I change my address several times. And no information could be found on me online at all. What changed that year was I started a business. I had to get myself online and visible to grow my business. I thought eight years later he had moved on with his life. I figured I was safe. But he had proven once more, it wasn’t.
David Newstead: What happened next?
Gladys: I cried for about a day. Then I decided it was time to face this. I couldn’t hide forever. This is when I started the research. I googled everything I could about this. This is the first time I had ever heard about Revenge Porn. I couldn’t believe it was legal, of all things.
The website will allow you to ‘buy your photo back’ for $800. But they cannot guarantee that they won’t put it back up once I’ve done this. Blackmail was all I could think of. Followed up with a ‘fuck you, you won’t get my money.’
After more online research, I found a legal team that specifically deals with this situation. I can’t remember the lady’s name, but she literally saved my life. They could take my case for $600. We traced the person that sent the link by finding a fake Facebook account. She said ‘copy and paste this link and don’t say a word’ the link was to an address or something. It was supposed to scare him. She said that will shut him up. I sent it and it worked. He deleted his fake profile and I never heard from him again. I didn’t ask questions. I was just relieved!
Next, she said she would get the photo down within 24 hours. She also said not to read the comments section under the photo. People can be mean. I confided in her I felt suicidal over all of this. She replied ‘People kill themselves over this. This is why our firm exists. We will stop them, but you have to be strong okay?’ I felt empowered. For the first time.
She also explained how the legal structure currently works we have no rights to take any actions against my ex-husband. But what I can do is talk to my local government about passing a law as it was coming up for vote in my state. I had a lobbyist friend who connected me to all the most powerful people. I posted a petition on Facebook. I wrote all the people I could, the ones who wouldn’t take my calls. I didn’t have to share my story publicly, no one took me up on that offer. At the time, I felt relief. Now, I think I have a different view. These stories need to be acknowledged.
A few months later, the bill was passed. Revenge Porn is now illegal in that state. But remember it’s state-to-state. It should be illegal everywhere.
David Newstead: Were the people you spoke to sympathetic? And did they understand the extent of the problem?
Gladys: The one guy who spoke to me was. The rest, I left messages with their secretaries.
David Newstead: Earlier you said it was your ex-husband. How were you able to determine that and were there literally any repercussions for him at all?
Gladys: I knew, because that photo was a photo I sent him while we were still married. Also, where the photo was taken and the fact that I dyed my hair blonde and kept it short back then.
To your second question: Nothing. We legally could do nothing. Since he was in one state and I was in a different state, that fact alone. But also, it’s completely legal to take any photo you want that someone gave you and use it in any way you please. There is no expiration date nor are there restrictions. It boggles my mind.
When I first saw the photo online, I didn’t even recognize myself. It was that old. I recall saying ‘That’s not me, but damn that’s embarrassing.’ And slowly it all came back to me. The conversation I had had with him right before, the room I was staying in, who I was back then. Everything.
It’s a state-to-state law. So, anything done by someone else in another state is untouchable. Because it was still legal in the state he lived in, at least when I checked four years ago during research. Also, nothing can be done to the company that hosts the photos. Because they have an IP address in China and it’s hosted overseas or somewhere else. Also, the company isn’t putting up the content, so they aren’t liable. The site is called ‘myex.com’. They can shut it down, which I believe they did, and someone will start a new one.
David Newstead: So for more substantial legal responses in the future, the Feds basically have to get involved and figure out what to do?
Gladys: Yup. It has to become federal law, not state-to-state. And there isn’t enough concern.
David Newstead: What do you mean?
Gladys: This is why it happens to celebrities too. Because it’s legal. The federal government doesn’t care enough to pursue it.
David Newstead: So, you don’t think the Feds view this as a priority or as a problem?
Gladys: I don’t think they even bother one way or another. There was a case where someone’s computer was hacked into and the naked photos were collected and distributed. It’s legal. There was this one gross guy who did it to all the time to celebrities. I forgot his name. He was all over the news. This guy!! I think this was him. I haven’t done any research or given it any thought in four years. I think I wanted to put it all behind me. I’m feeling accomplished that I helped at least one state.
David Newstead: Without many legal options, how do you think someone can safeguard against this? Or is it even possible to safeguard against this kind of thing?
Gladys: I’m not sure what the new info is on it. There has to be a federal law. That’s about it, because at this rate you can take my public photos off Facebook and use them for whatever you want.
David Newstead: Or hypothetically hack someone’s camera or just superimpose their faces onto other photos. I’m confused why peeping tom laws and things like that wouldn’t be applicable. Did you ever talk to police about this?
Gladys: They can’t do anything. I didn’t even try. I can’t imagine calling them up and say ‘Hey for personal safety of a threat that may or may not come to fruition of an online threat made by my ex-husband of eight years that lives in another state. Can you keep an eye out for me?’ Cops need hard evidence and an immediate threat.
David Newstead: How did your friends, family, and business contacts react to everything?
Gladys: I didn’t tell my family. I was too ashamed. Lots of shame in this process.
Everyone else… they just felt really bad for me. One friend went through Google to make sure my photos weren’t public and she shared the petition to end Revenge Porn. I only told four people at the time. Then, a couple of dudes who asked for nude photos in my relationships, including my now husband. I still won’t do it.
There are a lot of men and women who shame people who share nude photos. They say it serves us right. I can’t say I disagree. But I also can’t fully support that way of thought. It’s important to not judge people, until it’s you. I work on this daily.
David Newstead: Well, it could be done to anyone even those who don’t take nude photos of themselves. So, I think it’s important for people not to blame the victims.
David Newstead: Also, your ex-husband sounds like an extremely toxic person.
Gladys: Evil. Really. But I chose him! I had to do a lot of soul searching at twenty-two years old: how in the hell I got there and how to never choose that again.
David Newstead: Do you see this incident as an extension of the abuse you went through during your marriage to your ex-husband?
Gladys: Absolutely! Actually, it was kind of nice. Keeping invisible in fear of him for eight years was another form of abuse. To have my fears realized and then finding the strength to stand my ground and make a positive social impact, I think that’s when I finally began to truly heal.
David Newstead: Is there any advice you’d give to others based on your experience?
Gladys: You can take your power back! Don’t give up and let them bully you. It’s not your fault, you are not a bad person.
By David Michael Newstead.
Crash Override recounts author Zoe Quinn’s experience at the center of GamerGate in 2014. Yet you don’t have to care anything about video games to recognize her ordeal as a case study on gender and technology’s dark side. So if the underbelly of the internet ever decides to make your life hell, Quinn outlines the weapons at their disposal. These include:
- False and abusive comments online
- Threatening phone calls
- Posting your address, social security number, and other personal information online
- Detailed threats of rape and murder
- Revenge Porn
- Stalking and cyberstalking
- Hacking your accounts
- Setting up fake accounts in your name
- Tricking police SWAT teams into raiding your house in the middle of the night
- And targeting your friends, loved ones, and contacts with all the abuse listed above
This opens the door to discussions about a whole range of important things from lack of responsiveness on the part of government authorities to tech giants not enforcing their own terms of service that would help to address these problems. Another aspect to this abuse is how it can mirror and exacerbate issues surrounding violence against women and discrimination faced by people of color and the LGBTQ community who are the most frequent targets of online abuse.
For me, two facts standout when thinking about this and they’re interrelated. First, that there is a well-documented lack of diversity in the tech industry. And second, that the internet has become central to our lives in ways that public policy hasn’t caught up to yet. Because of that, just telling someone to quit social media in response to attacks like this isn’t a real solution (and wouldn’t stop the abuse anyway). Access to and participation in all the positive things that the internet has to offer is no longer optional in our society. So then, the ability for everyone to enjoy what is essentially a public good takes on real significance. In the book, Quinn writes:
GamerGate wasn’t really about video games at all so much as it was a flash point for radicalized online hatred that had a long list of targets before, and after, my name was added to it. The movement helped solidify the growing connections between online white supremacist movements, misogynist nerds, conspiracy theorists, and dispassionate hoaxers who derive a sense of power from disseminating disinformation. This patchwork of Thanksgiving-ruining racist uncles might look and sound like a bad joke, but they became a real force behind giving Donald Trump the keys to the White House. Online abuse is by no means uncommon and can affect just about anyone for any reason, including totally normal people minding their own business. However, just because it can happen to anyone doesn’t mean that it strikes totally at random. The less you look and sound like a 1950s sitcom dad, the more likely it is that you’ll find yourself where I did – having your life torn apart by neo-Nazis.
In vivid and horrifying detail, Quinn describes everything that happened during GamerGate. The most admirable thing about the book though is that the author explains the tangible steps she’s taken since then to help other victims of online abuse (including former perpetrators of it) through her organization Crash Override. And even when discussing possible policy solutions, her measured and thoughtful perspective illustrates that she really does value the integrity of these online platforms. Whether these platforms value their own integrity seems to be an open question.
By David Michael Newstead.
Nikki van der Gaag is a gender expert and author whose latest book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Feminism, is a wide-ranging examination of the issues impacting women’s rights around the world. Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Nikki about her work and about feminism today. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: What do you hope people will get out of this book? And why do you think it is significant right now?
Nikki van der Gaag: I did a No Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights almost 10 years ago. And I said I’ve got to completely re-do it, because the political and social and economic framing of the way that we’re looking at gender has changed so radically. We needed something which tried to look at the way that feminists are responding to the world in the way that it’s changing. Both in terms of the things that have improved and will continue to improve and in terms of the things have and will get worse.
David Newstead: There’s really a wealth of material in this book and you cover a lot. You have conversations with people, you talk about sex workers, and climate change. That’s a wide range. What are some of things that stood out the most to you, while you were writing it?
Nikki van der Gaag: Good question. And a difficult one to answer. Inevitably when you’re writing something short, you’re really condensing things down. But I also wanted to make it readable. I wanted the statistics in there, but I also wanted the stories. I didn’t want this to be something that’s only read on an academic course. I wanted it to be read by people who are interested in the issue from all walks of life, men as well as women. So, I was trying to write it in a grounded and accessible way.
The reason I wanted to do it was because I felt really excited by young feminisms and those from the Global South feminisms that were growingly vocal and growingly public, saying some really interesting and different things. In addition, in a context where women have clearly made huge gains in lots of different ways, there has been such a pushback from conservative agendas all over the world. I’ve got Indian friends who are talking about what’s happening in India with Modi and it’s not actually that different from what’s happening with Trump. So, I wanted to take a global perspective. I wanted examples from lots of different countries.
But I also felt really strongly that the stories and the way that things have changed began to form a pattern as I was writing. For example, the way that conflicts within feminisms sometimes are presented as a negative thing and women pulling apart. It can be. But actually when you’re doing a book like this, you get such a sense of the diversity. I think that very diversity is really exciting and vibrant. It means we’re dealing with the difficult things as well as the easy things. And that really excited me. Whether that’s between younger and older women, whether that’s between Global North and Global South, or black, minority, ethnic and white. The kind of vibrancy of it I think is exciting. And it is the diversity itself that builds a strong movement that is capable of discussion and dissent.
Having done the Feminism and Men book, I did think about doing a whole chapter on men, because it seems to me that is absolutely key. But in the end, I tried to weave it in. It’s the old story of if you put something in a chapter on its own, then it doesn’t become part of the fabric of what you’re doing. The way men are getting involved in gender equality has been something I’ve been exploring for about ten years. I wanted to bring that into this in a different sort of way.
Then, I was trying to think about: what are the main threats to feminism and women’s rights? Consumerism and capitalism, conflict, climate change, and the broader agenda of religious conservatism, which isn’t just about Islam and isn’t just about Trump seem to me to be absolutely key – not just in terms of the rise of misogyny, but the rise in intolerance and violence more generally as well.
David Newstead: I remember the line about “our diversity being our strength” coming up. And I liked it quite a bit just because I don’t think I had ever seen it articulated that way. Because usually like you’re saying it’s mentioned as a sign of lack of consensus, when really it’s a sign of everyone being engaged with diverse opinions.
Nikki van der Gaag: Yes, they are difficult discussions. For example, getting involved in some of the debates around the women’s marches in January. In some countries, they were quite bitter about the fact that in many northern countries this was organized by white middle-class women and where’s the black, minority, and ethnic equal participation? But actually, I think we learn far more from the areas where it’s difficult than from the areas where it’s not.
David Newstead: I’m sure this stands in contrast with some of your previous books, but one thing that stood out to me is you talk about online abuse that women and prominent feminists face. You know that existed 10 years ago, but not to the extent it does now and I was hoping you could say more about that.
Nikki van der Gaag: It has existed, but it’s booming now. I think it does put a lot of women off. If you’re out there in a public space talking about feminism, you know you’re going to get attacked. When I did my TEDx talk, it got on some horrible Men’s Rights website and I stopped looking at the comments, because they’re so abusive. So, you either stop looking at them. Or you try to fight back. In the UK, for example, the historian Mary Beard had a lot of abuse on Twitter. I thought she was really brave. She didn’t ignore it. What she did was to contact the people who were saying these horrible things and I actually she met with them and talked to them and engaged with them.
Online abuse, particularly for young women, is just terrifying. How do you separate online and offline abuse, because there’s clearly a link there as well? I don’t know if there has been a rise in violence against women, but there certainly hasn’t been a decrease. It seems to be often increasingly accepted and violent and part of a culture of intolerance. And I don’t know what you do about it. There’s been lots of lobbying of Facebook and Twitter to monitor better. And I think Facebook just employed a lot more people to do that kind of monitoring job. But in the end, unless you actually work with people so they don’t make those kind of abusive comments then you’re shutting the door after the horse has bolted. That’s why I think working with young people, particularly young men, is so important.
I was on a board of a small NGO here in the UK called Great Men Value Women, which worked with young men in schools and I went along to watch them do a couple of sessions. Just really interesting, because they were getting these young men who were between 15 and 17 to think about what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. They did an exercise cutting out pictures of women from magazines and getting them to discuss it. Once they started talking about, often for the first time, they were really shocked at the ubiquity of naked women, women being used to sell things, or used in provocative positions. So you’ve got that bit of it. In addition, pornography seems to be increasingly driving lots of young men’s (and young women’s too perhaps) ideas about what sex and relationships are about. And we just have to work with that. We have to be open and honest and discuss it.
David Newstead: Two combine the two strands of your response, I don’t know if you’re familiar with revenge porn at all?
Nikki van der Gaag: Indeed.
David Newstead: A friend of mine got revenge porn’ed once by her ex-husband from like six years earlier. Anyway, it was very dark and not a good experience. But the fact is that online abuse can take multiple forms and it’s hard to separate out what is an actual threat from an attempt to slander and demean you. You know, is it somebody just rattling off? Or is it something more serious than that? And how can it affect your life?
Nikki van der Gaag: There’s a group of men’s rights activists that are just out and out misogynists and horrendous. Then, there’s a group that I’ve tried to engage with globally and in the U.K. who would say that they are not misogynistic, but not feminists. I remember one tweet, somebody saying “I don’t know why women are making such a fuss about their body’s being objectified. Here’s an example of a man’s body being used in an advert.”
But what they do is they completely lose the hundreds of years of objectification and abuse that women have had to face. And they completely ignore the current relationships into which that one image is slotted. You can’t take one event and just disassociate from everything else that’s gone before and everything that’s happening everywhere else. I think often that’s what happens. Revenge porn, is kind of angry men too, isn’t it? Trying to take revenge on the people they can most take revenge on.
David Newstead: Last time we spoke, I asked you about what you thought of the state of feminism in the world. And what I’d like to ask now is, I’m curious what you think the state of patriarchy is in the world today?
Nikki van der Gaag: One of the difficulties of doing a book like this is ending up making vast generalizations about what’s happening. Because what’s happening in a rural village in Indonesia is so incredibly different from what’s happening in New York or in Kigali.
But I’m still an eternal optimist. That’s partly because I have the privilege of doing the kind of work, which takes me around the world meeting the most amazing women and men who are very aware of what we mean by patriarchy and are really concretely trying to put into place to challenge it and change it and questioning their own power and privilege. Meeting those kind of people all over the world gives me a huge amount of hope.
But that said, if you look at the kind of structures that are still in place… You know next year in the UK, it’s going to be a hundred years since women got the vote. And we still have less than only around 30 percent of women in parliament. Patriarchy is still pretty stuck in there and that’s why I feel it’s so important for men to challenge it as well, because women have been doing it relatively successfully for quite a long time. But we also need to work with men in power as well as women. It’s still alive and kicking, I reckon.
David Newstead: As you detail in the book, you know you talk about all the progress that’s been made with girls’ education over the years. So maybe, that’s a lot of the seeds of future progress.
Nikki van der Gaag: I think it is if you also make sure that you look at structural barriers. Thinking about some of the girls I met in Pakistan a couple years ago, they were living in a very rural area and a few of them were going to the local boys school, because there wasn’t a girls’ secondary school. I could see that they might want to grow up to be leaders and teachers and have these dreams for the future. But actually, the society they were living in and structures and institutions around them were not going to allow them to do that.
I’ve been quite critical of the discussions around simply empowering and supporting girls whether that’s through education or in others ways without looking at the wider patriarchal structures.
I remember being invited into one project that had been started in Morocco. There was a young woman that this organization had worked with who was fantastic and had really challenged what was going on around her. And basically, her dad had beat her up. He said “I’m not having my daughter speak to me like that,” because that wasn’t the kind of cultural ambiance where she was growing up. So, we absolutely look at the structural issues, patriarchal issues, and we need to look at questions of power as well as giving girls education and knowledge and working with boys.
David Newstead: Especially considering everything that’s happened even since you wrote this, where does feminism go from here?
Nikki van der Gaag: That’s a good question. I think for the moment: more of the same. But my point I made at the beginning about diversity becomes even more important. Sounds like Star Wars, but there are forces out there who are desperate to divide people whether that’s by gender or race or class or geography. What the Women’s March was trying to do, not always successfully, was to bring people together. So, that’s one of the things that I’m working on in Oxfam, to think about the fact that working with women overseas for example is not so different from working with marginalized women in the US or the UK.
Some of the issues are the same. Bringing people together feels like a really important task at the moment, even if that’s bringing people together who don’t agree with each other. You know, that whole idea about building bridges and countering the divides that we see and talking to the people who we don’t agree with. You must be struggling with that in the U.S. We’re certainly struggling with that around the Brexit decision here: trying to understand why people make the decisions they do. And There are reasons why people vote the way that they do and think they way that they do.
I think the really scary thing in the last six months here in the UK is how much more acceptable it’s become to say the really nasty things that people were probably thinking, but now they’re saying. That kind of openly voiced intolerance and misogyny is really scary and those of us who are more progressive need to find ways to talk to those people in the same way that historian talked to her Twitter trolls. So, I think the biggest task for feminists today is building bridges, with each other and with those we disagree with. That is the way our movement will grow.
By David Michael Newstead.
This was originally posted on Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Learn More.
Brianne Nadeau is a member of the D.C. city council representing Ward 1, which includes Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and parts of Shaw among other neighborhoods. Over the past year, Councilmember Nadeau has spearheaded efforts to address widespread street harassment throughout the District and today she joins me to discuss her work and the issues affecting residents of the nation’s capital.
David Newstead: Last December, you pushed for a roundtable on street harassment in D.C. What motivated you to do that?
Brianne Nadeau: When I first moved to the District of Columbia, I started getting involved in groups that were working to address street harassment. It was not my first time living in a city, but it was definitely my first time experiencing street harassment with the frequency that I did. And so, I sought out a community for that.
When I came to the city council, I realized that I could bring a new focus to this issue and bring more attention to it. Working with CASS and working with other community organizations that care about violence against women, we got the roundtable scheduled.
The roundtable was a big victory, but it is really only the beginning.
David Newstead: Did any of the experiences people shared at the roundtable make an impression on you?
Brianne Nadeau: Yes. I was actually brought to tears several times during that discussion. I think partially because I could relate to the stories, but also the stories about how young the girls or the women had been when their harassment began really moved me. We had a mother and daughter come testify. And the daughter is in school in D.C. and she was talking about the way she’s been harassed as a young girl. A lot of the women told stories about being harassed as young as age twelve. And the reason that was so moving to me is that it really makes me think about the spaces that we’re creating in our community or not creating in our community. For a young person, I want to be able to protect you and keep you safe and also let you be who you are. And a lot of times when we’re being harassed in public – women – we shrink. We make ourselves smaller. We try to not be seen. And that’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been trying to teach women all these years. Which is, you should shine. You should exert yourself. You should be heard. So, it’s really a mixed message.
David Newstead: If you’re comfortable talking about it, what’s been your experience with street harassment?
Brianne Nadeau: I’ve had several incidents. I shared a couple of them in the hearing. One was a time when I was walking to work down U Street near where I live and I was professionally dressed. I was just passing by a corner that I would always go by on my commute. This was in the morning before work on a weekday. And a man was just harassing me and I said “You know, I don’t appreciate that.” And he said “Well if you don’t want to be harassed, why do you dress like that?!” Which was strange to me. I mean, it was rude and inappropriate, but also I was dressed in a suit. So, what does like that mean? Right? What is the definition?
I’ve had countless experiences where I’ve just been walking up and down 14th Street. I sometimes describe it as the gauntlet and I pretty much assume if I’m doing that route that I’m going to be harassed on one side of the block or the other.
But since the roundtable hearing, I had one other incident that I’ve been sharing quite a bit, because really it’s the intersection of my world. So, I was up on 16th Street in Ward 4 in a fairly residential area and I was there for an event. So, I was walking down to the school up there. And as I was walking down 16th Street, a municipal vehicle passed me and a municipal worker in uniform on duty started harassing me. I was wearing a red dress, so he started off with “Hey, lady in red!” And I shook my head at him as he passed by and they stopped at a light. So, there he was. I’m walking and he has full access to me, because he’s stopped and he just keeps harassing me. And I think I said, “You know I’m sure you don’t mean it, but this is not something that we all appreciate. It’s not appropriate. Please stop.”
I said “Please stop” several times and he kept at it. I can’t even remember now what he said, but it was something like “Enjoy it” or whatever. Totally demeaning, but I had to keep going to my event. As I was walking, I typed a message to the director of that agency explaining what had happened. The director immediately responded and acknowledged that it was not appropriate, that it was not acceptable, and that it was not what those staff are trained to do. Of course, they are trained not to do that. And that the director would address it.
But I was struck in that moment that A.) how unlucky for that worker that he harassed the person who introduced the bill, right? But also he’s probably done it to many, many people and the odds are that he eventually would have gotten to me. A bigger piece is, you know what if we just started with training every D.C. city employee? That would be thousands and thousands of people who had the training not only about what street harassment is and not to do it, but also how to be an active bystander. So, I’m thinking more and more about that now and perhaps making that part of our Human Resources program, because it’s a start! These are our people.
David Newstead: Tied to that, you’ve recently been working on legislation to form a taskforce on street harassment. What do you hope to accomplish with that effort and where do you see it going?
Brianne Nadeau: CASS has done a great job of studying anecdotally what happens in D.C., but we would like some hard data on incidents of street harassment. So, we want more study and we also want educational resources. We’ve talked with the Office of Human Rights who would be managing this process if the bill passes. And they’re excited about it, because they feel like they can really contribute and do a real educational campaign around this issue. Because this isn’t about locking people up, right? That’s not what we seek to do. What we seek is to change behavior.
David Newstead: So, a lot of the groundwork is being laid?
Brianne Nadeau: We are laying it little by little. And you know no pride of ownership for me, really. We just want to get it done. So if my bill doesn’t pass, but we still get all these pieces done – I’m happy!
David Newstead: What are some of the barriers that you’ve encountered regarding your bill or just facing this wider effort?
Brianne Nadeau: Interestingly enough, there are two incidents that surprised me of people really being opposed to what I’m working on. I went on the radio to talk about the bill and the issue. Actually, the Director of the Commission on Arts and Humanities was also there, because they put money into arts grants around street harassment. Which is very exciting too! There’s a whole public art grant now.
David Newstead: Like murals? That’s cool.
Brianne Nadeau: Yeah! He’s a great person to talk to too. Very enthusiastic. So, the two of us were on the radio and a woman called in basically to be like “I don’t understand why you’re dealing with this issue. This isn’t a big issue.” And I always try to gently explain that it really is a big issue, because I think a lot of times women are conditioned to accept the behavior because they’ve had to. So, my goal is that we look at street harassment ten years from now the same way we look at workplace sexual harassment. I was just watching the HBO film that was made about the Anita Hill hearings and actually getting very worked up while watching it and thinking about all she went through at the time. But back then, you know your boss could proposition you, harass you, and it was just the sort of thing people would go to work and say “Well, that’s what happens to us, because we’re women,” like it was a fact of life. And now it’s completely unacceptable.
David Newstead: Like in Mad Men?
Brianne Nadeau: Exactly! But also, this was in the 1990s! In my lifetime, women were harassed in the workplace and it was totally acceptable. Or at least, it was accepted and now it’s not. And what did it take? It took some laws and it took a lot of education. I’d like to be able to do that with street harassment in this country, in particular in the District where I have a little bit more influence. But if we could do that and eradicate that from women’s lives, then we could start tackling other issues.
David Newstead: Just to broaden our discussion, there have been several incidents recently that CASS has been highlighting involving violence and harassment against the trans community and the LGBTQ community writ large. Can you speak to how these efforts would address the issues that they go through?
Brianne Nadeau: Well, the thing that we know about street harassment is that women of color and trans women are targets of it more than anyone else. And so, one of the goals in tackling this is to really address that as well. Because as a young white woman, my experience in the world is very different than a woman of color, than a trans woman. I want to insure that we are supporting those communities.
David Newstead: Just to ask about this, because I know Jessica Raven and other CASS people have been working on it a lot. Do you have any thoughts on their Safe Bar program and how does it factor into your work?
Brianne Nadeau: I love the Safe Bar program. Safe Bars is really exciting not only because of all the bar staff that are getting trained in the District, but how it’s really expanded beyond the District. You know, CASS says it in their name: the more we create safe spaces in our communities, the safer our women are going to be. And I think a lot of it is also just about reminding everybody in our community that it’s our responsibility to look out for each other and when we see harassment to say something about it, to diffuse the situation, and through all of that work ultimately be safer in our community.
David Newstead: You touched on this when you mentioned going on the radio, but you know there are a lot of issues affecting D.C. residents. Why do you think this is so important?
Brianne Nadeau: I think it’s important, because it touches the lives of so many women living in the District. There are very few women I’ve ever encountered that haven’t been harassed on the street. And when you start talking to women about this, they open up. I mean, the stories just pour out. So, it’s clear that it’s pervasive and it’s clear that it impacts people’s lives. In the most severe cases, it means women are afraid to take transit or they’re afraid to walk down the street and that’s deeply impacting their ability to have a career, to have a social life, and to just have a good quality of life.