I was having a good night.
I had traveled to New York City to visit with an old bandmate. Having just moved to the East Coast, my southern self did not think four hours seemed like a long time to drive anywhere, especially for a place that not only had bodegas, but bodegas that stayed open past 9:00 p.m. My friend and I were walking to a subway stop, deep in conversation. It was late, but I felt safe. I could walk down the street at night here and not be scared. There were lights on everywhere, cars were speeding by, people were walking all around. It felt like the city was alive. Aware. I was with a tall guy anyway, so I could relax, right? In my “at ease” state, I felt a hand haphazardly grab and squeeze my butt. The two guys we just passed on the sidewalk were now laughing behind me, quickly walking away. I turned around, stood in place, and yelled at them. “Hey assholes, don’t fucking touch me!” More laughs. They were halfway down the block when I said to the two people walking behind them, “You better check your friend, he just fucking grabbed my ass. Tell him that’s not cool!” I turned around and started moving, expecting my friend to keep up. I was fuming, complaining loudly about how the entire scene made me feel. After a few moments of silence, this close friend said, “You know, I don’t think those people were with those guys. I don’t think they knew what you were talking about.”
Not “That sucks, I’m sorry” or “What a couple of assholes” or “Drunk fucks; are you alright?” Nothing like that. Frankly, the woman stranger I told to check her “friend” seemed much more concerned about what had just happened than my actual friend. Looking back it feels like his only concern was whether or not I had responded “appropriately” to something wholly inappropriate. While I didn’t let being groped that night ruin the rest of my trip, I still think of that moment sometimes. I think it sticks with me because I felt violated, belittled, and alone in the span of fve minutes. I wonder if I’d think about it as much if my friend had backed me up. Of course, it’s not his fault those guys touched me, but what if he had yelled at them with me, told me I was totally right to call them assholes, or even just given me a hug? Would men who think it’s funny to touch a stranger without their permission change their minds if they knew that stranger would have the support of all the people around them?
I have a few car stories, too. The one I often tell when I lead safer space workshops is about the time a guy got out of his car in the middle of an intersection to call me a “cunt” and an “ugly bitch anyway” (among other things) because I had the nerve to absentmindedly flip a middle finger in the air when he honked his car horn at me. That one shook me so hard that I froze until he drove off, and, when I started to walk again, I asked the first friendly person I saw for a hug. The wash of understanding and empathy on the person’s face allowed me to let out the tears I had been holding in. I got to share being upset with someone after feeling alone with an angry, reckless man. That is not meant to be poetic. For the full minute he was stopped and yelling at me, that block was deserted. I had no idea if he would run over to me and try to hurt me. I mean, if he was willing to stop and get out of his car in the middle of the street, then what else might he be capable of when a woman makes him angry?
I suppose it’s comforting that I get a lot of support from the people taking my workshops, a lot of “that’s nuts!” and “I can’t believe that guy did that!” or “All that because of a middle finger?” It’s obvious to them that his behavior in that moment was wrong. It’s also obvious, to me, that their disbelief at this bad behavior, which innocently comes from not experiencing it themselves, could set things up for making someone feel worse about the harassment they just faced. Any statement like “He really did that? Just because you did X?,” however well meaning, subtly shifts the focus from his behavior, where it should be, to mine.
Also, disbelief can be read as mistrust. It’s hard to hear “I can’t imagine why someone would do that” or “I’ve never seen anything like that,” because, well, I have. And so have lots of folks, for various reasons. I might suddenly be wondering if the person I’m telling my story to believes me and will support me, when I should be concentrating on calming down. I’ve had to lose a giant pickup truck that was following me on my bicycle, making me late for work. I’ve had to hear someone shout from a car full of men “Can I come over for some pussy later?” and then speed off, as I entered my dad’s house while on vacation, not knowing if they lived around there and would, in fact, come back later.
For people who experience harassment often—sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, or ableist—that feeling of “What else is this person capable of?” is common and stressful. It means you’re always on guard, waiting for harassment to happen, and knowing, when it does, that it might turn aggressive. All those “minor” instances of harassment can feel pretty major until they are over, because you can’t predict the future behavior of someone who is already cool with disrespecting a total stranger.
And each instance matters, because they add up. Those sense memories of feeling isolated and scared compound, making it hard to believe you’ll ever go anywhere without being harassed. You’ve learned to expect it. So much so that even when it doesn’t happen, your body has already prepared for it—narrowing your focus, tensing muscles, quickening your breath, and sharpening your mind in case you need to make an emergency decision to maintain your safety. Dealing with harassment is a stressor. According to Harvard Medical School, studies show that “repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body,” contributing to high blood pressure as well as mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and addiction. So while a wolf whistle or a quick shout of “Nice ass!” is not as bad as being groped by a stranger in the middle of the night or being followed by an intimidatingly large vehicle, it’s still bad because I don’t know if it will get worse. At its least physically draining (but most predictable), it’s a mere reminder of all the other times I have been harassed and felt “less than”—like my body doesn’t belong to me once I enter a public space; like I’m just a body, not a human being with my own thoughts, dreams, passions, and struggles.
The best way to lessen the feeling of isolation one gets from frequent, commonplace harassment, is to make the response to harassment a group effort. A 2012 study performed by the Worker Institute at Cornell University, reports that:
- When bystanders fail to act, their presence tended to compound targets’ negative emotional responses.
- Bystander interventions that had a positive influence on targets could be as simple as a knowing look or a supportive statement.
- When a bystander took action by confronting the harasser, harassment was more likely to stop.
Those last two points are clear, but I want to emphasize the first. When you see harassment happening but do nothing to intervene, it makes the victim feel worse than if dealing with it alone.
Victim Versus Survivor
Not everyone who experiences violence considers themselves a victim. The word “victim” can feel loaded. For some, it seems too serious a designation to describe what they went through, while others don’t want to risk being pitied or be seen as helpless. Self-identifying as a “survivor” is a valid way to assert you’ve come out the other side of a traumatic event, but please know: there is no shame in being a victim. It just means something happened to you that is not your fault. I will mostly be using the word “victim” in this book to describe someone who has experienced harassment or violence based on belonging to a marginalized or oppressed group, but you might also see the terms “survivor” or, to borrow from self-defense language, “target,” depending on the context.
The Worker Institute’s findings on the effects of bystander intervention were based on descriptions of harassment experiences submitted to the website of Hollaback!, a national organization to end harassment. I founded a Hollaback! chapter in Baltimore in 2011 to address just this problem. After both sitting with these findings for a while and adding basic bystander skills to the Street Harassment 101 workshops I was teaching, two events occurred that made it apparent that a local safer space campaign was not only needed in Baltimore but also that it could make a real difference.
Back in March 2013, our sister group in London shared some inspiring news with the Holla! community. They had just formed a partnership with Fabric, a local nightclub that was tired of hearing secondhand that women were being harassed in their venue. There are many reasons why women and LGBTQIA folks might not report harassment to an establishment’s security: fear of victim-blaming, not being taken seriously, possibly experiencing more harassment from typically male staff, and frustration at interrupting their good time to report it are just a few. By going the extra mile and partnering with Hollaback! London, and by pledging to remove harassers from their venue, Fabric showed their community that they prioritize the safety and comfort of their female patrons. Upon hearing this, the Hollaback! team in Baltimore said, “Why not us?”
A few months passed as we considered working on something similar. We then received an inspiring submission on Hollaback! Baltimore’s website: The owner of a restaurant called a cab for the victim of transphobic harassment and waited for it with them instead of leaving them alone outside during closing time. After reading a story that so perfectly demonstrated the ideal venue response to harassment, I, my fellow chapter leader Melanie Keller, and our friend and fellow activist Corey Reidy all teamed up to create the Safer Spaces Program in Baltimore. We wanted every restaurant, bar, club, and coffee shop in our town to respond to complaints of harassment in a supportive and consistent way, so that patrons knew what response they’d get when walking into that establishment. I’ve been training venues on how to best respond to reports of harassment and support people who get harassed in their space ever since. It’s essentially highly tailored bystander intervention.
A few years ago, I needed to step back from my leadership role at Hollaback! in order to devote more attention to my band, War On Women. I’ve played guitar and been in bands since I was twelve and music is an incredibly important part of my life.
Having stepped back, though, I realized that training venues to become safer spaces was not something I could give up. Nor, as it turned out, did I have to. As I knew from personal experience, music venues can be serious hotbeds of harassment. I could take the Safer Spaces Program on the road, offering trainings to the places where I performed. Through the Entertainment Institute, I was even able to teach safer space tactics to small groups of audience members on the Vans Warped Tour during the summer of 2017. By the end of that summer, I realized I was having nearly identical conversations with attendees, addressing the same questions. My band was performing almost daily on that tour and I was so concerned about saving my voice in order to last the two-month duration that I thought, “What if I just put all this stuff in a book?” that way, next time around, I could save my voice, reach more people, and anyone who read it would be equipped to have those same conversations, too.
As much as I’d love to, it’s not logistically or financially feasible for me to personally teach a workshop in every venue around the country, but this information should be in the hands of as many people as possible. I figured it would be much easier and cheaper for venues to read a book and im plement what they can. So I wrote one.
My hope for this guidebook is that it can act as a minimum, agreed-upon standard for how every space should operate in order to protect the rights of the people within it to feel physically and mentally safe, supported, and respected. I hope the suggestions are clear and actionable. Where you take it from there is up to you and your community.
Again, what if my friend in New York had had my back? What would I remember from that night then? What if I had never seen a friendly face after being screamed at in broad daylight, and I’d held those tears in? What effect would that have on my body after years and years of harassment? My mind? My confidence in myself? My confidence in others?
On that night ten years ago, I was having a good time. I don’t want any more good nights ruined by harassment—for anyone. There will always be assholes, but if you have my back and I have yours, we can face them together. They’ll shut up eventually—trust me; we just need to make it clear that they are outnumbered.
Shawna Potter is a musician, activist, educator, and writer. She fronts the hardcore punk band War On Women and currently lives in Baltimore. Potter is at Red Emma’s this evening to discuss “Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot, Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather.”