Stop Following Me: Language, Public Space and Sexual Harassment

Project Overview

A guerrilla approach to fostering a public dialogue about the sexual harassment of women in public spaces.

Identifying the Problem

“It infuriates me to no end that women—regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or dress—must endure the unsolicited and extremely violating forms of sexual harassment aimed at them most often by unknown men in the public sphere,” says Michelle. She had become appalled at how normalized sexual harassment of women in the public sphere had become.

Creating A Solution

Michelle wanted to carry out a project that allowed her to foster a public discourse about the issue while simultaneously fusing her interests in civic space and public art. She decided to make a series of posters, each one featuring one of two types of phrases: vulgar and often violent things said by strangers (always men) to women in public and the things these women said or would have liked to have said in response to their attackers. 

Michelle believes that these decontextualized phrases carry a lot of weight. On the one hand, they lack the urgency of their original context but they are still powerful. On the other hand, the absurdity of such words is brought to the fore when they are typed out plainly on a sheet of paper; some of them appear almost comical when displayed in this way. Michelle wanted to ask the public: What is it about these words that make us feel so shaken, threatened, scared? Who feels entitled to use these words, and why? What can women do to intervene when they witness other women being harassed in the streets? How can women adequately respond to sexual harassment without jeopardizing their safety?

Michelle began by interviewing a wide range of women from different backgrounds about their experiences with sexual harassment. She was curious to learn more about the different ways in which women react to sexual harassment when confronted with it in public space. Almost all of Michelle’s interviewees agreed that the unsolicited remarks, catcalls, gestures and gropes were so demeaning that most of the time there were no adequate words with which to respond (even the use of the middle finger or other profanities seemed to lack any potency in the face of such flagrant disrespect.) Violated, scared and often humiliated, most women said that they simply try to ignore their attackers. They walk away, avert their eyes and hope that they are not followed. 

After the interview process, Michelle started compiling a list of remarks made by strangers to the women she had interviewed.

The things I would do to you with a bag over your head!

How much for an hour, honey?

I could just kidnap you, take you to my place and have my way with you.

Michelle also compiled a list of responses her interviewees had said or wished they had said to their attackers, had they not felt so threatened and small.

Did you just grab my ass?

Get your hands off of me, pervert.

STOP following me.

Michelle then designed a series of eight posters, each one featuring one of the phrases collected during the interview process. Bold white letters on a stark black background, the phrases take new shape removed from their original contexts. The sentiment behind them is ever-present, but removed from the interactions out of which they came, they are but words on a page. Neither the sense of urgency nor the threat remains intact. What is left is a fragmented shadow of the incident, a powerful yet absurd memory. Each poster also features a QR code and the web address that will take curious parties to a website where they will be able to learn more about the project and find ways to get involved. 

During the final phase of her project, Michelle will invite all of the interviewees, along with any other women interested in her project, to take the posters to the streets and tape them up all over the Californian cities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. “The idea of a street-team of strong, brilliant women banding together to raise awareness about an issue that does not garner much attention or resistance is critical to this project,” she says.

Lessons Learned

To anyone interested in undertaking a similar project, Michelle cannot overemphasize the importance of collaboration. “Many of my initial questions and concerns about my project were ironed out when I brought up my project to friends,” she says. “Their insight and support was invaluable to this project.” Michelle thinks that collaborating with others on a project also makes it more fun, especially if the project is public in nature.

Michelle admits that developing the idea for her project was challenging. She is still struggling to understand how sexual harassment can adequately be combatted, and remains curious about the efficacy of her project. Until she carries out the most crucial aspects of it, she cannot be sure that it will yield the desired results.

Get Involved!

Michelle is still working on finalizing the website and bringing together the members of her street-team. Once the site goes public, she and the group of women in the street-team will finally take to the streets and put up the posters. Michelle will be uploading PDFs of the posters to the site as well, and inviting people to print and post them in their cities. If you are similarly outraged by the public, sexual harassment of women that is so commonplace, Michelle encourages you to print the posters from her website and build your own street-team to display them in your own city!

Funding

First and foremost, Michelle needed to find women who would be interested in talking with her about their experiences with sexual harassment. Michelle began by asking her friends, family and co-workers. She then posted about her project and put out a request for more interviewees using free, online platforms like Facebook and Tumblr.

Michelle used Adobe InDesign to create the posters; she did not have to purchase the program because she already owned it. The only costs associated with this project were the minimal printing fees at the business that Michelle used to print the posters.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Poland Poland 2011

Developed by:

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