Schyla Pondexter-Moore remembers being publicly harassed by men growing up, though she didn’t see their actions as harassment at the time. “It was something I felt that you just had to deal with,” the Southeast resident said at a D.C. Council hearing exclusively focused on street harassment this morning. “But now that I have a daughter, when she came home to me and was like, ‘Mommy, this man pulled over in his car and tried to talk to me, or when I’m on the train, men are constantly saying things like ‘you cute,’ ‘you fat,’ ‘I love your hair,’ she was telling me, ‘What do I do about it?’ because it started to make her afraid. And it wasn’t just grown men, but teenage boys her age too. That’s not OK. It wasn’t OK when it happened to me. I don’t want my daughter to be subjected to this.”
The mother’s testimony was one of dozens shared by women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color at the hearing, requested by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and co-chaired by At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. At times, some witnesses teared up as they told their stories of being cat-called, followed, and even assaulted on the streets of D.C., often when simply going about their business: on their commute to or from work, at night while out, and on the way to the gym.
“Street harassment impairs the ability of District residents to move freely and safely and contributes to a broader culture of violence,” Nadeau said. “I don’t necessarily believe there is a one-size-fits-all legislative fix to street harassment, but there are District agencies and partners that can bring their resources to the table in raising awareness and sending a strong message that harassing one another on the street is not something that Washingtonians will stand for.”
Several of the witnesses acknowledged that street harassment is hard to track and measure because victims often don’t report incidents, or they shrug them off. Jessica Raven, interim executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, and Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, called for more study of harassment incidents across the District, including on public transit. Their groups are partnering with Metro and Metro Transit Police to conduct a survey next year that will gauge riders’ experiences and reports.
Still, multiple panelists noted that harassment is pervasive throughout the city. Nelle Pierson, deputy director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, didn’t mince words when she shared some of the comments she’s received while riding her bike: “Hey babe, come over here,” “Damn, I wish I was that bicycle,” “Get off the road, you stupid bitch, cunt, whore, slut,” as well as unwanted pick-up lines. “I get yelled at, honked at, and sometimes experience near misses and real harm,” Pierson said. “When on a bike, these roadway interactions take on different forms, especially for women of color… and LGBTQ people.” She added that WABA has held classes for women in partnership with CASS on how to deal with gender-based harassment across a range of experiences and situations.
“Believe it or not, at my mature age, I get cat-calls, and it’s not flattering,” Bonds said from the Council dais. “It is not flattering.”
Ruby Corado, founder of trans-advocacy group Casa Ruby, recommended more prevention strategies and training for D.C. personnel, including members of the Metropolitan Police Department, to combat street harassment. A 20-year-old transgender woman who sat beside Corado on the panel recalled many incidents from her teenage years in which she was bullied, called derogatory names, intentionally misgendered, and gang-raped in her group home; she has had to seek therapy and medication to cope.
“Harassment scars people,” she said. “Harassment leaves you really vulnerable; someone has control at that point over your life.”
“Often I put in headphones with no music in an attempt to think it will lessen [the harassment],” she continued. “As a young trans woman I’m called a faggot [and] other names that don’t need to be spoken of.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery