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Buses and Metros Carry Messages Against Harassment

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As women and men mobilize for International Anti-Street Harassment Week, the author, founder of Stop Street Harassment, describes growing multi-city campaigns focusing on public transit.

“If your boss says, ‘Hey Sexy, lookin’ good today,’ to you at work, that’s a problem. What if a stranger says it to you on the street? Catcalls, staring, whistling and following are street harassment. It’s time to start calling it what it is,” reads a new anti-harassment subway ad in Philadelphia.

This month, transit riders in both Boston and Philadelphia will see new anti-sexual harassment ads on their system, while in Washington, D.C., the transit authority is planning the next phase of its anti-harassment campaign. The Boston campaign—one thousand copies of five new ads posted across the system—for a first time show men as potential targets of sexual harassment.

“We really wanted to establish two things [with these ads]: that everyone, regardless of gender, is entitled to a safe ride, and that fellow riders of all genders could potentially be an active bystander if they witness something inappropriate or illegal happening,” said Meg Bossong, manager of community engagement at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), one of the local groups working in partnership with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

Five years ago, MBTA launched the first PSA campaign in the nation focused on sexual harassment on public transportation. It released a second wave of ads in 2009. Overall, they reported a decrease in crimes. MBTA does more than just put up posters. Transit police take reports of sexual harassment seriously, Bossong said, and they work well with community groups to tackle the problem. Both BARCC and Fenway Health provided input on the campaign posters and they are resources for survivors who need emotional support and guidance.

In Philadelphia, the local Hollaback! chapter raised money themselves for ads on their transit system and then designed them. They officially launched on April 7, the first day of International Anti-Street Harassment Week.

After co-hosting a workshop with FAAN Mail for high school girls last year and making a video about the things men say to them on the street, Hollaback! Philly used some of those phrases in a few of the ads:

“Hey, you a man or a woman? You a dyke? THIS IS STREET HARASSMENT”
“Can I have a smile? What's your name? You got a boyfriend? Where are you going? Come Here! Let me get at you! Oh you're ugly anyway. THIS IS STREET HARASSMENT”

“We hope people will use the ads to start conversations about their experiences with street harassment,” said Hollaback! Philly director Rochelle Keyhan. 

Another goal for the ads is to “get people to start associating the term ‘street harassment’ with ‘problem’ and ‘solvable,’ instead of ‘inevitable’ and ‘acceptable,’” said Anna Kegler, also of Hollaback! Philly.

As part of International Anti-Street Harassment Week, activists and community members will talk to transit riders about the ads and street harassment on April 13.

In Washington, D.C., after initially dismissing sexual harassment on their system as a problem when local activists brought it up as a concern a year ago, the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA), launched its anti-harassment campaign. Because WMATA has a close relationship with MBTA, they adapted their original PSA campaign.

One ad reads, “I’m not the one who should be ashamed. No one should make you feel uncomfortable with unwanted sexual comments or touching. Report sexual misconduct to Metro transit police.”

Last year, WMATA also launched an online reporting tool for sexual harassment, began tracking trends of both verbal and physical forms of harassment, and they are in the process of training their employees how to handle harassment reports. Caroline Lukas, media relations manager at WMATA, said, “The greatest outcome from this [campaign] has been the increased awareness we have seen from riders on the system.  That sexual harassment, assault and intimidation is not ok has become part of the dialogue in Washington, and that really is the best way to create lasting and sustainable change.”

Like MBTA, WMATA has worked with community groups like Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) and the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) to shape the messaging of the campaign. They are currently planning a new Washington, D.C.-specific ad for the fall.

CASS co-founder Chai Shenoy said that to prevent sexual harassment on the transit system, “I'd like to see more campaigns, more dialogue, more bystander intervention, and more accountability to riders who do report these crimes. Washington, D.C., is moving in the right direction of making that come true.”

On April 10, WMATA partnered with CASS and my organization, Stop Street Harassment, to distribute fliers about how to report harassers at the Anacostia Metro station and bus stand during the evening rush hour, as part of International Anti-Street Harassment Week.

For transit agencies who want to make their systems safer, Lukas suggests they first listen to the concerns of the public and “give your riders a voice.”

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