School is not just a place to gain knowledge but also a place where students can easily be affected by sexual harassment. What a disgrace. How can we progress in our schoolwork if we are impacted and distracted by sexual harassment? -Cindy, Youth Organizer (page 38)
Can we answer that question? Can we provide Cindy with an answer? Can we, as a society, say that we have the tools and strategies to answer this question? Girls for Gender Equality, a grass roots organization based in New York aims to do exactly that. And they wrote a book to tell us how.
Hey Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets not only deals with strategies but also points to some painful realities: how a deeply rooted culture of victim blaming and rape apologia hinders the progress of youth; how unsafe environments foster inequality and shatter dreams; how sexual harassment is not only about sex or harassment, but about crushing young people into further oppression. Girls for Gender Equality (GGE) provides programs that develop strengths, skills, and self-sufficiency in girls and women and help them make meaningful choices in their lives with minimum opposition and maximum community support. Hey Shorty! documents, and in that sense, it becomes an extremely important guide in grass roots organizing and activism, the process of creating the programs necessary to fulfill the vision of GGE.
The authors, Joanne N. Smith, Mandy Van Deven and Meghan Huppuch, provide a first hand account of community organizing, outreach and actions that center the needs of school girls, mostly of non-White backgrounds in their strategies.
It is hard to envision a school without sexual harassment. However, if one existed, I imagine it would be a place where kids can excel as students instead of having to worry about what is going to be said or done to them the next time they go in the hallway. -Kai, youth organizer (Page 103)
It is hard to envision such school, indeed:
Out of the students surveyed, 71 percent reported hearing sexual teasing, jokes, or remarks at their schools. Touching, pinching, or brushing against someone sexually and on purpose was reported by 63 percent of students and 60 percent had seen sexually suggestive looks, gestures, or body language. This is followed by whistles, calls, hoots, or yells of a sexual nature (46 percent); leaning over or cornering a person (39 percent); letters, phone calls, or Internet communication (34 percent); pressure for sex or sexual activity (31 percent); sexually explicit pictures or music on an electronic device (23 percent); pressure for dates (18 percent); and forced sexual activity (10 percent). Further analysis by gender showed that girls were slightly more likely than boys to report that “sexual teasing, jokes, or remarks” and “sexually suggestive looks, gestures, or body language” occurred in their schools. (Page 121)
When asked about who these young people believed to be the targets of sexual harassment, the responses showed that it happened to students regardless of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. As youth organizer Nefertiti explains:
I can barely breathe. I stop to catch my breath. Just take a pause, a beat, a rest. I cannot believe I am going through it because of a word I heard. As I walk through the halls, someone calls me by “name.” Someone calls me by my shame. Curls their mouth to call me out. Twists up their lips in a distinct and distant shout of the word (I can barely say the word) “FAGGOT!” Before I even knew what gay was, somebody managed to find something to say about my limp wrists and effeminate lisp. So long as I am in this skin and my feelings toward men are still a sin, they will forever have it in for me as long as that word still exists to oppress me at my best and suppress my self-expression. Denied the support of teachers and faculty who tell me, sell me, some lines about how sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Words have always hurt me. (Page 122)
At times, the book reads like a painful journey into the reality of street and school sexual harassment (and how these organizers actually work to remedy the situation). However, as difficult as it can be to read stats, first hand accounts and experiences, the book is focused on sharing solutions. From a “Sexual Harassment Quiz”, designed to help identify the problem, to the step by step account of the organization of workshops and curricula, the book becomes more than an example of a specific city or group and is a useful tool for parents, teachers and community leaders who wish to address the problem and work towards implementing solutions.
Tiger Beatdown is part of Hey Shorty! the “Virtual Book Tour”. On May 17th we will be hosting an interview with the authors who will share their experiences working with youth and bringing the book together. Check the link to see other Tour stops and spaces that are supporting this project.