Breaking the Silence on Sexual Harassment and Assault (2002)

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by Uju Asika

March 12, 2002

Male passersby ogle a woman in a body suit painted like the Puerto Rican flag, at the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, Sunday, June 10, 2001, in New York. More than 50 women were sexually accosted in Central Park at a post-parade melee in 2000.

"We need to think of it the way we think about lynching," says Maura Bairley of Barnard Collegeís Office of Sexual Misconduct, Prevention and Education. "Sexual assault is a crime against a community, as well as an individual."

Hey baby, whatís your name, can I get your number? Can I walk with you? You got a man? Where your man at?

Spring is in the air, and catcallers are on the prowl. Women get hit on 24/7 but there is a definite increase when seasons change, layers come off, and testosterone rises with the sun. In one afternoon, I receive more "God bless you, maíams" from strange men than I do in church. Guys in flashy cars pull up beside me, offering me the ride of my life. Homeboys on street corners grunt suggestively, calling out "Damn!" and "Shake it, shortie!" Waiting to catch a subway, a gray-haired Lothario leers at my backside and blurts out, "Wooh, Iíd like to spread some cheese on that!"

Racial profiling gets brothers and sisters up in arms. But there are few protests, or even public discussions, about how women are sexually profiled every day. If itís not the way we look, it must be the look in our eyes. If itís not how weíre dressed, it must be the way we move. Smile, and itís an invitation. Donít smile, and itís a provocation. The simple act of being female in a public place can attract anything from a verbal drive-by to a snatch and grab.

And how do women react? Most of us just take this daily onslaught on the chin, and keep on striding. After all, nobody wants the vocal assault to escalate: Damn girl, canít a brother get a hello? All I wanna do is talk to you. Donít you hear me, bitch? Dyke. Ho.

Artist and curator Jenga Mwendo has decided to take a stand with "Catcalls," a multimedia interactive exhibition, which previewed at Brooklynís BRIC Studio in February. A member of the Red Clay Arts collective, Mwendo hopes her show ó officially launching in Spring 2003 ó will stimulate discussion and, perhaps, social change. The impetus for "Catcalls" came to Mwendo one night when she was walking home in Crown Heights.

"I wasnít wearing anything revealing, but I was accosted on every block," she recalls. By the time she got home, Mwendo was enraged. "At 2 a.m., walking by yourself, comments from men are basically threats," she says. Mwendo happened to be carrying a microphone, and she imagined recording her experience and playing it back to some of her male friends. "Maybe then they would realize that itís not just a word here and there, women get it all the time," she says. "Guys just donít understand the volume of it, or how oppressive it can be."

Featuring work by musician Jeremy Sole, writer Kiini Ibura Salaam and Def Jam poet Liza Jesse Peterson, "Catcalls" is an entertaining and provocative series of comic sketches, dance, poetry, essays, video and audio installations. You enter through a white, tunnel-shaped tent, known as the "Walk of Shame." Inside, projected images of glaring men accompany a soundtrack of moans, wolf whistles and obscenities. At the end of the tunnel, you have to turn your body to squeeze through the exit. "This shows how we have to change our path, change how we go about living our lives just to accommodate this," says Mwendo.

In another piece, women of different races, shapes and sizes appear on a large screen, mimicking the worst lines theyíve heard, ranging from inane Ė "Can I kiss your belly button?" Ė to aggressive: "Why donít you lose some weight, so I can f--- you?"

One of the exhibitionís highlights is the talking heads video panel, featuring girls and women, men and boys, straight and gay. Although the interviews were separate, these videos are prerecorded and edited to simulate a debate.

"If I was a guy, I would do the same," says one girl. "Itís just their nature." For some men, catcalling is an assertion of their masculinity. The catcaller on the panel claims itís a way of flirting. But do men really think theyíll get a date this way? Havenít they realized that harassment is the antithesis of seduction? As the gay man comments dryly, "Guys that are catcallers never get laid, so theyíve got nothing to lose."

"Catcalls" makes a significant point about the impact of this phenomenon on girls, especially young black women, who are already prematurely sexualized, whether by early puberty, the surrounding culture, or both. For girls who are still adjusting to changes in their own bodies, having these changes pointed out by older men can be damaging. They may learn to see themselves as sex objects, or to hate their bodies for attracting so much unwanted attention.

Granted, some girls and women feel validated by some comments from some men. But in the vast majority of cases, street harassment is intrusive at best, threatening at worst. Itís part of a continuum in which some men try to control womenís space, images, bodies and minds. "No matter the intention behind it, catcalling is a step in the wrong direction," says filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who believes itís a slippery slope from sexual harassment to sexual assault.

In 1994, Simmons began filming the documentary No!, focusing on rape and sexual abuse within the black community. No! tackles sexual assault from a perspective both political and personal, featuring interviews with rape survivors, activists and community workers. Playing with camera angles, shadows and light, Simmons splices these narratives with evocative music, dance and spoken word acts, creating a vivid exposť of this hidden epidemic.

Addressing the history of sexual assault on black women beginning with the rape of slaves by their white owners, No! reminds us of white womenís complicity in their husbandís actions, and describes how male slaves followed their mastersí examples, abusing black women as an outlet for their pent-up rage against the system. But the film decries the use of racism as an excuse for black men violating black women, and criticizes the silence that often surrounds incidents of rape that are hushed up to "protect the race." Activists like Maura Bairley of Barnard Collegeís Office of Sexual Misconduct, Prevention and Education believe itís time to revolutionize our attitudes to intraracial rape.

"We need to think of it the way we think about lynching," says Bairley. "Sexual assault is a crime against a community, as well as an individual."

Fighting gender violence should go hand in hand with fighting racial oppression, says Simmons, whose film is one attempt to bring the issue more attention. "Like I always say, if racism ended today, we would not be safe as women."

A survivor of rape and incest, Simmons acknowledges that her own experiences motivated her to make the film. But the real catalyst was the Mike Tyson case, and the anger and betrayal she felt at black peopleís treatment of Desiree Washington, the woman Tyson was convicted of raping (he has since faced accusations of rape from other women).

"That could have been me," Simmons says. "Nobody knows what went on in that room, but I was in a similar situation with a man. I said yes, but changed my mind. Do we ever lose the right to say no?"

Conversations about the Tyson case usually lead straight to a question about Washingtonís behavior, not Tysonís Ė what was she doing in his hotel room at that time? Most of the subjects in No! agree that Washington made a bad decision. But, the film asks, does anybody deserve to get victimized for dumb choices?

"Rape has never been a punishment for stupidity, because if it was a whole lot of men need to be bending over," says No! interviewee Loretta Ross, former director of DC Rape Crisis Center.

One of the most insidious effects of rape is the silence it engenders, as victims and their loved ones try to bury the shame, guilt and recriminations associated with an attack. No! makes an impassioned, and effective, plea to break that silence.

"Iím impressed by the way these women took what happened to them and created something powerful, and something loud," says Alexis Gumb, vice president of Black Organization of Soul Sisters (BOSS) in NYC, who attended a screening of No! at Columbia University in February.

More women must make their voices heard, and this dialogue must happen not just among women, but among men. Although No! does not deal with sexual assault of men, the documentary features male perspectives, including those of the filmmaker's father, activist Michael Simmons. One of the more potent suggestions in the film comes from Ulester Douglas of Men Stopping Violence in DC, who says, "If a woman says no, she means no. If a woman says maybe, take that as a no. Only a yes means yes. For anything else, get clarification."


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