The following article appeared first on Africana.com
Breaking the Silence on Sexual Harassment and Assault
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 College�s Office of Sexual Misconduct, Prevention
Education. "Sexual assault is a crime against a community, as well as
Hey baby, what�s 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, ma�ams" 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, I�d like to spread some
cheese on that!"
Racial profiling gets brothers and sisters up in arms. But there are
protests, or even public discussions, about how women are sexually
profiled every day. If it�s not the way we look, it must be the look in
our eyes. If it�s not how we�re dressed, it must be the way we move.
Smile, and it�s an invitation. Don�t smile, and it�s a provocation. The
simple act of being female in a public place can attract anything from
verbal drive-by to a snatch and grab.
And how do women react? Most of us just take this daily onslaught on
chin, and keep on striding. After all, nobody wants the vocal assault
escalate: Damn girl, can�t a brother get a hello? All I wanna do is
to you. Don�t 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
Brooklyn�s BRIC Studio in February. A member of the Red Clay Arts
collective, Mwendo hopes her show � officially launching in Spring 2003
� will stimulate discussion and, perhaps, social change. The impetus
"Catcalls" came to Mwendo one night when she was walking home in Crown
"I wasn�t wearing anything revealing, but I was accosted on every
block," she recalls. By the time she got home, Mwendo was enraged. "At
a.m., walking by yourself, comments from men are basically threats,"
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 it�s not just a word here
and there, women get it all the time," she says. "Guys just don�t
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
living our lives just to accommodate this," says Mwendo.
In another piece, women of different races, shapes and sizes appear on
large screen, mimicking the worst lines they�ve heard, ranging from
inane � "Can I kiss your belly button?" � to aggressive: "Why don�t you
lose some weight, so I can f--- you?"
One of the exhibition�s 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. "It�s just their
nature." For some men, catcalling is an assertion of their masculinity.
The catcaller on the panel claims it�s a way of flirting. But do men
really think they�ll get a date this way? Haven�t they realized that
harassment is the antithesis of seduction? As the gay man comments
dryly, "Guys that are catcallers never get laid, so they�ve got nothing
"Catcalls" makes a significant point about the impact of this
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,
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
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. It�s part of a continuum in which some
men try to control women�s 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 it�s a slippery
slope from sexual harassment to sexual assault.
In 1994, Simmons began filming the documentary No!, focusing on rape
sexual abuse within the black community. No! tackles sexual assault
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 expos� 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
women�s complicity in their husband�s actions, and describes how male
slaves followed their masters� 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
College�s Office of Sexual Misconduct, Prevention and Education believe
it�s 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
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
people�s 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 Washington�s behavior, not Tyson�s � 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
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.
"I�m 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.
of the more potent suggestions in the film comes from Ulester Douglas
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."