Category Archives: Words Hurt Series

A Crime without Repercussion: How Street Harassment has gone Unacknowledged for Too Long

By Becky Owens Bullard

This year, International Anti-Street Harassment Week March 18-24 highlighted an important new movement to raise awareness about an issue that affects an extremely high proportion of women and girls every day.  This movement to bring attention to harassment by strangers in public spaces is an exciting new focus that anti-violence groups have historically been silent on. While there are a number of organizations, campaigns and events surrounding violence against women and girls, stranger-street harassment is often times left unacknowledged and untouched upon in discussions about crimes that perpetuate the cycle of gender-based violence.

While it is understandable how stranger-street harassment might get lost among crimes like domestic violence, rape, trafficking and femicide, the nature of this harassment is fundamental to our fight against all violence against women.  Stranger-street harassment reveals the underlying discriminatory and abusive attitudes still held by many men that a woman is an object and is to be treated like one wherever she goes, whoever she is, at any time of the day.

When I was growing up, the general message I got from adults was that although stranger-street harassment was unpleasant, it was also somewhat accepted as an unfortunate reality. If I was upset about someone looking at me inappropriately, hooting at me from a car while I was jogging, or just outright saying what they’d like “to do with me”, the general message was that it was just “boys being boys” and I should let it go. This reality had a negative impact on me – it meant that I didn’t feel safe in public, especially when I was alone. And sadly, what was not regularly reinforced from women or men was that this reality was unacceptable, that I have every right to be disturbed and upset, and that I should feel empowered to report this person who harassed me, grabbed me, made me feel unsafe.

As I grew up, I began to understand that claims of “boys being boys” was only minimizing harmful, harassing behavior that has deeper implications for sexual assault, exploitation, and abuse. Unfortunately, the attitude that stranger-street harassment is just an unpleasant part of life continues in our conversations with young girls and boys, as well as among adult men and women. For example, a friend called me recently upset and angry about being grabbed on the street by a stranger and she asked me if I thought she was overreacting to what had happened. Although she and I both knew she was not overreacting at all, I realized many people might not agree. If she had talked to any number of people about this male stranger touching her on the shoulder and saying something inappropriate, they very well may have told her that it was a yucky situation, but may not have understood why she was so upset.

Every female on the planet has stories of harassment, with a survey study on the topic showing 99% of women who have endured some form of stranger-street harassment from honking and whistling to being followed and assaulted.  By failing to acknowledge the harm of this harassment and responding apathetically with a “just shake it off” mentality, we send a dangerous message to women and girls that if you’re walking down a street or in any public space – you just may get stared at, hooted and hollered at, and even touched without any recourse. We also send a clear message to perpetrators that they can do any number of these things to make women feel threatened, unsafe and violated without any repercussion.

So, it is time to ask ourselves – how many times do we have to experience/witness/hear about stranger-street harassment to do something about it? When do we commit to educate our society about respect and equality in public places, so that women and girls can feel safe walking down the street?

For the stop violence against women movement, it is time to ask ourselves – why has it taken us so long to acknowledge the critical role of stranger-street harassment in ending gender discrimination and what can we do to combat it?

Fighting stranger-street harassment as a prevalent form of gender-based discrimination and violence is absolutely essential to the stop violence against women movement. With the momentum from the newly initiated International Anti-Street Harassment Week, now is the time to incorporate this issue into our  programs to end gender-based violence and discrimination and make a commitment to stop public harassment and make public spaces safe for women and girls.

For more information about the movement to end stranger-street harassment, go to:

Stop Street Harassment: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/

Meet us On the Street: http://www.meetusonthestreet.org/

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Filed under Gender Equality, Sexual Violence, Stranger-Street Harassment, Violence Against Women, Words Hurt Series

My Funny Valentine? Why Stalking is No Joke

Words Hurt | Post 2

By Becky Owens Bullard

Photo from Forbes.com

Words can hurt in so many different ways, but sometimes the unexpected, offensive joke can feel the most awful. While I love to laugh just as much as the next person, when jokes take that nasty turn from poking fun to causing true harm, I commonly feel my stomach turn and my blood pressure rise. While the point of this transformation from funny to upsetting may be a matter of opinion, for individuals who have survived abuse or dedicate their lives to advocate for survivors of abuse, the line is typically pretty clear: abuse is no joke.

Unfortunately, humor about abuse brought some recent attention to the Target store chain when it created a card that poked fun at the crime of stalking. The card read “Stalker is a harsh word” on the front cover, and inside the card stated “I prefer valentine.” Although Target responded positively to pressure to remove the card, the question still remains – why make a card like this in the first place?

Photo from Forbes.com

While some may contend that this type of joke is innocuous, the fundamental concept of humor makes this a difficult reality to accept. Jokes like this one, published by one of the largest chain stores in the United States, are intended to be palatable to a wide audience, implying that society generally finds something comedic in a joke that is offensive to someone who has survived or is currently a victim of stalking. Consequently, the joke is not only offensive, it is also incredibly harmful. Humor that makes light of a very real, very terrifying crime like stalking often further isolates the victim/survivor by suggesting that people don’t understand that stalking is a violent and predatory crime and in fact, think it is something to laugh about.


Incidentally, this unfunny valentine surfaced on the heels of Stalking Awareness Month in January when advocates and survivors work to spread awareness about the crime and its serious nature. Stalking is a frightening crime, affecting 3.4 million people over the age of 18 in the U.S. each year according to the Stalking Resource Center. Moreover, stalking is often perpetrated by someone the individual knows, with 30% of stalking victims having been stalked by a current or previous intimate partner and 76% of intimate partner homicides committed by a perpetrator who stalked their partner beforehand. The pattern of pursuit and harassment carried out by stalkers is a severe form of psychological abuse that can increase in intensity over time and can become violent and extremely volatile. The effect this abuse has on stalking victims is extensive, from missed worked to forced relocation to severe mental health effects including anxiety and depression.

Too often, the above realities surrounding issues of abuse are disregarded and the golden rule of “think before you speak” is ignored in humor. Sadly, it takes serious consideration of the actuality of abuse for many people to understand that humor about a crime that affects millions of people each year just isn’t funny, and typically this awareness is an after-the-fact occurrence brought on by pressure from survivors and their advocates. While Target’s positive response is encouraging for those who speak out about words that hurt, the real victory would be living in a world where victims/survivors don’t have to fight to have their crime taken seriously and where a card like this one never comes into being.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Stalking, Words Hurt Series

99 Problems? This should be one: Jay-Z’s commitment to the “b word” sends the message that degrading women is just a part of rap

Image Source: Rolling Stone Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Words Hurt | Post 1

By Becky Owens Bullard

By now, you’ve likely heard the rumor that surrounded power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé and their baby, Blue Ivy, that the proud new papa would no longer employ the “b word” in his music. The rumor caused quite a stir of bloggers and journalists commending the rapper for dropping the degrading expletive frequently used in rap lyrics. For those of us who work on women’s rights yet also appreciate Jay-Z’s ingenious and catchy lyricism (degrading language excluded), it was like non-offensive music to our ears.

Not only did the rumor garner respect, it also provided a glimmer of hope. If one of the most well respected rappers in an industry that commonly encourages degradation, violence and even enslavement of women openly rejects offensive language towards women and girls – imagine the possibilities! Rap artists might decrease the use of all-too-common lyrics that equate females to dogs or property, subsequently encouraging young people (as well as older people) to stop using language meant to degrade women and to be more respectful to their mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, etc.

Amazing, right? But sadly, women’s rights advocates didn’t have too much time to get excited about the endless possibilities of Jay-Z becoming a leader to combat female degradation in rap music. Just days after reports that the rapper wrote a poem for his daughter stating “I didn’t think hard about using the word b**ch” and “[n]o man will degrade her, or call her names”, Jay-Z flatly denied the rumors of his changed ways and the legitimacy of the poem.

As a fan of Jay-Z’s music and a women’s rights advocate, the news is disappointing to say the least. Is it too much to expect that the birth of Jay-Z’s daughter would compel him to acknowledge the harm that the “b word” can cause?

There isn’t a woman on the planet who hasn’t been called the “b word” in one form or another and though it is used to convey varying degrees of insult, at its core it is meant to degrade women by equating them to a female dog or property. In every day life, the word is used by both men and women to cut women down, labeling them as rude/aggressive or signaling that they don’t conform to discriminatory gender roles and are more assertive or outspoken than others would like. Commonly in rap music, women are called the word as a form of humiliation and ownership, implying that women should be subservient to men. Even when the word is applied to men (because I know you are thinking, “hey, men are called the ‘b word’ too!”), it is used to equate the male with weakness or submissiveness associated by sexists with being female.

The word is degrading and can be very hurtful, but it is used all the time.  Not only is the word frequently used in rap music, it is commonplace to hear it in TV shows, movies, other musical genres and every day speech. Kids use it, men use it and even women use it, often in an effort to reclaim the word by giving it a positive meaning of being empowered (the Meredith Brooks’ song, “B**ch,” comes to mind). With this over-use of the “b word”, it may not seem so harmful to hear it in lyrics, on TV or even to call someone you know the word as a joke.

Then why argue that the “b word” truly is a word that hurts? Why ask that rappers like Jay-Z (who used the “b word” in an estimated 109 out of 217 of his songs) stop using it in their lyrics to say things like, “[i]f you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son. I’ve got 99 problems but a b**ch ain’t one.”?  Because like every word whose fundamental purpose is to insult or degrade, even when adopted in every day language, it ultimately teaches inequality and disrespect.

So, maybe it was too good to be true that a rapper as influential as Jay-Z would make a stand against degradation towards women in music. Still, with the artist’s recent self-reflection in his book “Decoded” and his daughter’s birth, I can’t help but hold out hope that if his wife Beyoncé asserts that girls “run the world” in her music, maybe Jay-Z will step up and stop calling them degrading names in his.

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WORDS HURT SERIES

Words hurt – right? This one of the fundamental golden rules our parents, teachers and other adults made sure we understood growing up.  So why is it that we tend to completely ignore this rule in a number of forums – socially, professionally and in our entertainment – by excusing words or phrases that are hurtful and degrading as “playful” or “not a big deal”?  This blog series explores words, phrases or jokes that, despite their negative effects, have a common place in our daily lives.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Violence Against Women, Words Hurt Series