NOTE: Our cover last week (see: image) satirizing both St. Patrick’s Day in Boston and the“upskirting” legality (and ensuing illegality immediately after the nation rightfully expressed outrage) caused some controversy, so we asked Hollaback! Boston co-founder Kate Ziegler to offer an opposing viewpoint and perspective on behalf of readers who were offended. – The Editors
Last week, when the Dig released its latest cover art, the backlash on Twitter was swift. In some ways, the cover was more accurate than the artist may have realized. So much coverage of the recent ruling in Massachusetts made the assumption that only women are impacted by street harassment in general. The cover was certainly not intentionally hurtful, but it hurt nevertheless.
Many Bostonians liked the art, and at first glance, I have to confess that I was one of them. Cheeky, well-executed and timely, it’s easy to see why the concept would be appealing, but ultimately it’s not that simple. This isn’t about me and my feelings, and neither is street harassment, sexual assault, or gender-based violence more broadly; just because I haven’t experienced upskirting doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, and that its impacts are not very real for victims.
In the span of two weeks, upskirting (read: taking photos without consent of the subject, up skirts or down shirts in public space) has been explicitly outlawed in Massachusetts. Lawmakers responded with updates to our peeping tom laws in record time, but that doesn’t prevent the behavior from happening in the first place. When caught, offenders will be able to be found guilty under the new law. That’s an excellent step. The culture, though, has not changed; the society that makes a joke of real violations experienced by real people in public is still the same, and we can’t afford to make that joke. By writing them off, we risk moving on; what we need is to pause and to channel last week’s outrage for a real shift.
Even in cases like upskirting, where we have – for the moment – legislation that is up to speed with technological threats, reporting of sexual assault and harassment on the T and on the street is not a common occurrence. Victims often feel frightened, ashamed and like it’s their own fault; if they do report, they often find that nothing can be done. It is in this world that Hollaback! Boston plays a role, in providing support and resources for victims, as well as a platform to share their experience publicly, to speak out, tell their side of the story, and go on record.
We work hard to honor stories of harassment and violation on our streets, our campuses, our trains and buses; we do our best to listen and offer support, and we appreciate the courage it takes to share an experience that may have been frightening, degrading, humiliating, infuriating, or just plain awkward with the world. As an organization, we need to respect that. When men and transgender folks tell us they, too, have felt the horror of upskirting violations, we need to listen; when a popular local newspaper runs cover art that makes light of that experience, we need to speak up.
There are so many ways that women and queer folks are violated in public every day beyond upskirts, and men, too, can experience the very same humiliating, degrading violation depicted cartoonishly on last week’s DigBoston cover. There is so much more work to be done, and we can all do better.
Upskirt photos are only one example of technology turned threat, but camera phones and mobile technology have made progress fighting against street harassment, too. Hollaback!’s mobile apps allow victims to report violations they might never mention to law enforcement, and allow the nearest site to map that incident and offer support directly. We’re aiming to put the power to fight street harassment in the hands of our community members, and advances in technology allow us to do just that.
If anything, recent events should highlight that tech itself is not the problem: our unwillingness to adapt to new threats is. We need to imagine them, recognize them, listen when their stories are told and be willing to commit to protecting against them. Technology advances rapidly and just as 2004’s peeping tom laws couldn’t picture a world full of camera phones on public transit, 2014’s updates can’t foresee the next threat.
As a society, if we’re unwilling to hear the stories of victims and marginalized people, we can’t possibly support them; as a city, if we’re unwilling to commit to imagining new threats and addressing them head-on, we can’t possibly expect all of our citizens to feel safe on our streets. As individuals, if we’re unwilling to reconsider our insistence that “it’s just a joke,” we can’t possibly expect empathy when the joke’s on us.
If there was a silver lining to this, it would be that the cover and controversy also started a conversation about how people, other than women, can experience violations of privacy in public. We should all be listening to that conversation, respecting it, continuing it, and trying to learn from it.
Kate Ziegler is an operations professional by day, a designer by night, and co-founder and site director for Hollaback! Boston on the side. Learn more HERE about Hollaback!’s work to ensure safe public spaces for all.