No Way to Say “No”: On Public Sexual Abuse and An American Woman’s Murder
On Saturday, October 4, during a family celebration in the major American city of Detroit, the word “No” not only lost all its power. It became fatal for Mary Spears. Mary was a 27-year-old mother of three young children. After a funeral, she joined family at a local legion post for a celebration to assuage their grief. Outside the venue, she met a 38-year-old stranger who wanted her telephone number. According to her family, she told him “No I can’t talk to you” and joined her fiancé inside. The man spoke to many women, but continually badgered Mary due to her hazel-colored eyes. When security removed him from the premises and Mary passed him on her way out, the man started an altercation with her fiancé before he pulled out a gun. He shot Mary once and then twice more as she ran away. He hit five other guests, who survived the gunshots. If not for bad luck to pass a stranger who saw her as attractive, Mary would be alive today.
In the same way Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death at the hands of a paranoid bigot opened up worldwide conversation about the threat of racial profiling for Black people, Mary’s death has placed a glaring spotlight on the largely culturally-permitted practice of street harassment. Outside the most gender-segregated and spiritually-restrictive environments on the globe, women experience greetings and approaches from strange men on a daily basis. These experiences range from misnaming as “Hey, baby,” to actual followings on foot down sidewalks, to mild car chases from honking men. At most extreme, women can report men having exposed their private parts or forced erections on them in tight spaces.
For women of color, this unfortunate fact of life holds more insidious insult. Unlike white women, women of color remain burdened by vestiges of slavery and colonialism pasts. In these histories, society placed a lower premium on black women’s bodies. Their claims of sexual abuse and emotional responses to danger were far more likely to be ignored, if not punished. Today, they are far more likely to have to participate in the workforce and rely on public transportation in order to do so. These factors all led to the unfortunate mixture of circumstances surrounding Mary’s stalking and murder. Chances are, similar treatment to a white woman would have resulted in stronger guarding against an offender.
But for all females, movements have begun to both categorize and criminalize the variety of public sexual abuses men inflict on young girls and adult women. Stop Street Harassment (www.StopStreetHarassment.org) is an international non-profit created to recognize public sexual harassment as a form of sexual abuse punishable by law, therefore more likely to end. The organization defines this issue as “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.” The organization encourages individuals around the world to begin local chapters dedicated to protests, victims’ advocacy and community workshops on self-defense for women and sensitivity training for men. The United Nations’ Safe Cities project (www.endvawnow.org) outlines conflict prevention guidelines for city dwellers.
Many women simply accept unwanted greetings and conversations with men, much of it sexual and explicit in nature, to be normal parts of public life. The stress, distraction and emotional toll of negotiating public space makes these women think strategically about such mandatory chores as grocery shopping or pleasures as stopping for coffee. Certainly, avoiding crowded areas and staying inside during peak times will limit women’s exposures to men. But such measures restrict and penalize women for being the victims.
The key to making women’s public lives less complicated depends most upon proper punishments for male harassers, including criminal consequences. In the meantime, however sad but true, a woman’s life—or at least her relative enjoyment of it—largely depends on how creatively she can spurn men so they are not upset by her rejections.