'Holla Back DC!' Calls Out Street Harassment

Maureen Evans Arthurs, left, and Stephen Miller join Marty Langelan, second from left, and Brooke Applegate, right, in Columbia Heights for a community safety audit. The volunteer auditors note graffiti, dark streetlights and any incidents of harassment. i i

Maureen Evans Arthurs, left, and Stephen Miller join Marty Langelan, second from left, and Brooke Applegate, right, in Columbia Heights for a community safety audit. The volunteer auditors note graffiti, dark streetlights and any incidents of harassment. Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post hide caption

itoggle caption Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post
Maureen Evans Arthurs, left, and Stephen Miller join Marty Langelan, second from left, and Brooke Applegate, right, in Columbia Heights for a community safety audit. The volunteer auditors note graffiti, dark streetlights and any incidents of harassment.

Maureen Evans Arthurs, left, and Stephen Miller join Marty Langelan, second from left, and Brooke Applegate, right, in Columbia Heights for a community safety audit. The volunteer auditors note graffiti, dark streetlights and any incidents of harassment.

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post

Some think catcalls are harmless fun or a compliment, but others take offense. A global movement is focused on ending it. Theresa Vargas and activist Marty Langelan speak with guest host Tony Cox.

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TONY COX, host: And now we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine - something TELL ME MORE does just about every week - for stories about the way we live now.

Today, we have a piece about unwanted attention. Some people believe cat-calling are harmless fun, but usually the women who are on the receiving end call it street harassment.

In a piece titled, "Battling Hey Baby," Washington Post staff writer Theresa Vargas writes about a movement to confront the disrespect some women feel on the street.

Activist Marty Langelan has joined forces with other anti-street harassment advocates to end cat-calling and the confrontations that may result.

Both Theresa Vargas and Marty Langelan join me today. Welcome to both of you.

MARTY LANGELAN: Hey, Tony.

THERESA VARGAS: Hi.

COX: Marty, let me start with you. How are you going to stop this?

LANGELAN: There are a lot of techniques that we've done research on that actually do work. One of the simplest ones is simply to hand the harasser the flier that Ms. Vargas talks about in the Post article.

If some guy's yelling, you know, and it's not just, hey, baby. It's a lot cruder and uglier than that much of the time. Sometimes, it involves physically getting groped and grabbed.

But just handing the guy a flier that talks about human rights is an interesting stopper in itself. It stops them in their tracks. And if you think about it, what could be more basic as a human right than the simple right to walk down your own street without abuse?

COX: Doesn't just ignoring work?

LANGELAN: Actually, it doesn't work at all. There are two typical victim responses. One is the doormat response, pretending to ignore it. That often will provoke additional harassment, because the guy gets charged up. You didn't pay attention to him, he's going to actually make it uglier and nastier.

And the other one, of course, is to turn into a screaming crazy lady. That response doesn't work, either. Harassers are ready with both of those. We call those classic victim responses, and neither one of them works.

The pretend-to-ignore-it response is actually a little bit dangerous in many situations, because some harassers are doing what's called rape testing. Most harassers are just being jerks, but some of them are actually looking for targets to attack, and a woman or a girl who's silent can look too helpless. Now, that's not to blame her. The attacker's responsible for the attack. But it's to say it's not a particularly safe response to be silent.

It's better to say the all-purpose statement, which is just three lines: Stop harassing women. I don't like it. No one likes it. Show some respect. That sets a boundary.

COX: So, Theresa, let's talk about the story that you did and what you found out because we have all seen or observed or been - I don't want to say been a part of this, but if you're in the culture and you're out on the street, it's hard not to know about it.

So how does it, in terms of what you have written about, rise to the level that Marty has described, and something that's organized to try to fight back?

VARGAS: Well, I think that's what's interesting. I will tell you, before starting this article, I really give much thought at all to street harassment. You know, I was one of these people walking down the street. Someone says something, I ignore it, or, you know, if I'm having a bad hair day, I might even smile. I mean, I really didn't look at it as something that offended women to that extent, you know.

And I will say what I found was that, looking at these sites like Holla Back that's in New York and now in DC and in three dozen places across the world right now, you hear how these incidents affect women or LGBT community or anybody who's sort of walking down the street and they hear a comment that sort of sticks with them all day. And that's just a comment.

I think one thing you'll see on there, too, is sort of that it crosses a spectrum. It can be anything from a wolf whistle to a physical assault. And so I think what I'm seeing here - and the reason we did this article - is that it wasn't just one or two people that were sort of saying something back or that were writing on these websites. This is many women, you know, many people that are coming together and saying, this is wrong. This bothers me. I should be able to walk down the street without feeling uncomfortable or without feeling on guard.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin.

We're talking with Marty Langelan, who is an advocate in the DC area for ending street harassment.

Also joining us, Theresa Vargas, who wrote about the movement in this week's Washington Post magazine.

Theresa, another question for you.

VARGAS: Sure.

COX: What does law enforcement say about the responses that Marty is suggesting women try?

VARGAS: As law enforcement sees it, you know, each situation is very different. You know, sometimes law enforcement says there's really not much we can do as far as, you know, whether this elevates to a crime or not and, you know, that each situation has to be assessed differently. So what they say is, you know, sometimes you need to walk away and call police as soon as you can.

Sometimes, you know, you can do something in that moment and call police if you feel safe in that moment. But I think, you know, if someone's taking a picture up your skirt, maybe you'll get to the top of the escalator, call police right at that moment. Maybe you point out that guy so that everybody sees him and you have more witnesses. You know, I think it's really difficult to say, depending on, you know, what the situation is.

COX: So Marty, where do you draw the line between verbal harassment and something that goes beyond that?

LANGELAN: I think every woman or man or whoever on the street is being harassed needs to trust their gut. If it feels creepy to you, it is creepy. The context makes a difference. My husband says to me, hey, baby, you look sexy, I'm going to smile. Some guy on the street says it in that tone of voice that makes the hair stand up on the back of your head, you know you've got a situation.

And I think people are good at that, at assessing, you know, what's really creepy, and I trust people to use their judgment. But I do want to say that, you know, we've tested more than 100 tactics, ways to respond. And there's about 30 that really work reliably, and they all involve being very calm, being very clear and naming the behavior.

And it's not an accident that they do work. They tend to deescalate the situation, and none of them involve screaming obscenities. None of them involve doing anything unethical. They're actually very principled techniques.

COX: I suppose that a woman or a person who is being harassed has a split-second in which to determine whether this is harmful or playful.

LANGELAN: Exactly. And I would love to live in a society where we could all be playful on the street. You know, somebody could say, hey, beautiful. I could say, hey, handsome. That would be true if there were no underlying risk of assault. But the reason women can't be playful is because we have to assess. Is this guy following me? Does he have his buddies around the corner?

I want to say one thing about men as allies. Guys, when you see this thing done to us, please just tell your buddies to cool it. Say, show some respect. Leave her alone. One of the most effective ways to stop street harassers is for their own buddies to tell them to chill out.

COX: Marty Langelan is the past president of the DC Rape Crisis Center, author of "Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers."

And Theresa Vargas is a staff writer for the Washington Post. If you would like to read her story "Battling Hey Baby," and we hope you will, we have a link on our website. Go to npr.org, click on Programs and then on TELL ME MORE.

Thank you both for your time today.

VARGAS: Thank you, Tony.

COX: Interesting story.

LANGELAN: It's a pleasure, Tony.

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