Women use blogs to fight street harassment

By Krystle Chow

Coco was walking around the intersection of Somerset and Preston streets when two men said “hello” to her in what she considered to be a creepy manner.

She ignored them, but they stopped her again later that day and tried to convince her to have a drink with them.

A few days after the first incident, they approached her again. She yelled back and called the police, but she was still left feeling powerless.

Coco’s story, as told on her blog, is not a unique one.

In an interview, she asked not to have her real name published — Coco is the name she uses in her blog – for fear of “attracting the wrath of psychos.”

Coco has become part of a new movement of people who use online journals or blogs to discuss and fight what is called “street harassment.”

“I wanted to empower myself,” she says. “I think the blog is a great tool to fight back against harassment.”

Street harassment happens in public places when a person makes someone feel threatened, either verbally or through their body language, as the harassed person is in transit within that public area, says Elsy David, program director of Women’s Initiatives for Safer Environments.

Groups like the Women’s Initiative for Safer Environments say an action can be considered harassment as soon as a person is given unwanted attention and is made to feel unsafe.

But the definition of criminal harassment is highly subjective, making it hard for victims to bring the matter forward.

Street harassment does not exist in the criminal code, and is lumped together with the various other kinds of harassment, such as workplace harassment or phone harassment, says Staff Sgt. Monique Ackland of the Ottawa Police.

Coco says she contacted the police after the second incident, but was told there was nothing they could do because the men did not follow her home or behave in an overtly threatening manner.

However, she maintains it was harassment, adding that she feels offended that men can freely accost women in the streets.

“It’s not just ‘hello’ in their minds,” she says. “It could be ‘nice ass,’ but they’re hiding it in ‘hello.’”

Coco’s research led her to two other blogs in New York City and India, where women deal with harassment by taking photographs of the offending individuals and posting them in the blog.

She says the blogs prompted her to start her own as a way of fighting street harassment and venting her feelings.

Jessica Carfagnini, public education co-ordinator at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa, says blogs are valuable because people can now bear witness to a crime which often goes unreported.

“Picture a woman at the water cooler talking about her experiences, with people going ‘how terrible, it’s happened to me too,’” says Carfagnini, who also blogs about her own experiences with harassment. “It’s about sharing experiences… and validating other women so they know they’re not alone.”

She says the challenge with street harassment is it’s often done by a stranger, and a single person could be harassed by many different people, which makes it difficult to report.

“The vast majority of women will say yes if you ask them if they’ve been hooted or hollered at,” she says. “We just get used to it, and may downplay the fear.”

Ackland says Coco’s case was definitely not a case of criminal harassment, and emphasizes how difficult it is to define harassment in many cases.

“If I come by your house every day and say hello and you don’t like it, I’m not a criminal, I’m just stupid,” she says.

Ackland says harassment can be defined as repeated actions and words which are not necessarily threatening, but are unwelcome nonetheless.

However, criminal harassment is evaluated case by case and is too open for interpretation to be explained in a hypothetical situation.

As there are limited avenues for dealing with street harassment, women’s groups agree blogs could be a good way for victims to voice their anger and embarrassment.

“Keeping a journal is a good idea as victims can use it to start keeping a paper trail of the harasser’s description and so on,” says David.

Since she started the blog, Coco says she isn’t angry any more and doesn’t have the time to run the blog on her own.

But she says she hopes community groups will step forward to help her run it in the continuing fight against street harassment, and victims will submit photos and stories about their experiences.

“If this idea is broadcast, it could attract the attention of people who have been harassed,” she says. “We can then self-police, and start a community blog, a village, to tell stories and reach people.”

Coco’s blog can be found at http://safestreet.blogspot.com. om/ and http://blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com/2005/06/note-car-no.html.