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Sticks and stones

It seems many young women in Halifax have a story of sexual harassment on city streets—what does that say about our community?

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story contains strong language that will offend some readers. 

It seems many young women in Halifax have a story of sexual harrassment on city streets—what does that say about our community?

Amy Elliot left Jazz Fest on the waterfront with a feeling of elation. It was just after midnight and she was going to meet a friend. She put on her don’t-mess-with-me face as she walked alone along Lower Water Street, toward the ferry terminal.

A car approached and an older male voice boomed out: “Cover your pussy, you little whore!”

“I was wearing a short skirt at the time,” Elliot recalls. She showed no reaction and continued walking toward Citadel Hill. She stepped into the crosswalk on Brunswick Street near the Clock Tower. A cab stopped for her. A male passenger, who sounded young, yelled out the window: “We’re going to rape you!”

Again, Elliot didn’t react. “I didn’t want them to see I was visibly shaken in any way,” she says. But she remembers thinking “Oh my God. What was that?”

Walking alone at night, Elliot tries to present herself as a strong, confident woman. “I feel like that will stop people from doing things like that to me, which is foolish,” she says. “But I mean, it’s my own little talisman, right? So I was walking around like a strong, confident woman and these guys just yelled stuff at me anyway.”

Elliot didn’t report her experience to police. She thought they wouldn’t have taken it seriously. Whether or not that’s true, there’s another option for Halifax residents who have experienced street harassment. Hollaback Halifax is a website that gives people the ability to share and map their stories online, without the threat of victim-blaming comments. The Halifax site is part of a network of volunteer-run Hollaback sites in 50 cities around the world. Their goal is to encourage victims to report their stories, and end street harassment by encouraging bystanders to step in. Rebecca Faria runs the Halifax site.

Faria experienced street harassment while living in Calgary, Whitehorse and now Halifax. She doesn’t want to live in a society in which women and people who are visibly different feel unsafe on the street. That’s why she started the local site.

The Halifax site has mapped 22 stories so far. Most of them are about verbal harassment. One poster tells a story of a man yelling out a truck window at a woman, “Nice ass, bitch.” Another woman describes a man barking as she biked by.

“I’m sick of not being able to walk my dogs in peace,” wrote a poster, who said she experiences street harassment weekly. “In the warmer months, it happens so regularly that I sometimes hate going for a long run [or] walk with my dogs because I always feel disgusted and angered by the time I get home after one of these encounters.”

Hollaback Halifax defines street harassment as “a form of sexual harassment that occurs in public spaces” that can include catcalling, groping, stalking, flashing, public masturbation and even assault.

Elliot draws the line between unsolicited comments and catcalls and sexually aggressive and violent comments, which can make women fear for their safety. “Ultimately, street harassment is defined by those who experience it,” Faria says. “Any behaviour that makes people feel vulnerable and unsafe in our community is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

The Canadian Criminal Code defines “criminal harassment” as repeatedly following a person, repeatedly communicating with them, watching them in their home or workplace, or “engaging in threatening conduct directed at the other person.” This refers mainly to stalking, though Hollaback’s version of street harassment may fall under “threatening conduct.” The penalty for criminal harassment is up to 10 years in jail.

This section of the Code has only existed since 1993, when the courts recognized harassment as a form of violence. It’s been subjected to Charter challenges twice. Both times, the courts found the goal of the legislation—to stop sexually violent behaviour from escalating—far outweighed its negative impact on free speech. According to a 2009 Statistics Canada study, Halifax has the lowest rate of reported criminal harassment of any capital city in the Maritime provinces, and is below the national average. Nova Scotia’s rate is also below the national average.

But it’s unclear how often victims report harassment. Only three in 10 Canadians who were violently victimized in the previous year contacted police, a 2009 survey showed. And the Code’s definition of criminal harassment doesn’t differentiate between behaviour in public and private spaces. For that reason, Halifax Regional Police (HRP) could not provide local data specific to street harassment.

Elliot has lived in Halifax for six years. That night last summer wasn’t the first time strange men made violent comments to her. Months before Jazz Fest, a group of young men confronted her downtown, yelling, “You wanna get fucked in the ass?” She feared they might sexually assault her.

Now Elliot feels she has to be “on guard” with her “defences up” when walking alone at night in Halifax. Statistics Canada data from 1994 shows almost half of all women surveyed felt unsafe walking alone in their neighbourhoods after dark. And a study published in 2000 by the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency found that, for a national sample of Canadian women, “stranger harassment is more prevalent and more extensive than non-stranger harassment and that stranger harassment more strongly influences fear of victimization.” The researchers found women’s perceptions of safety were related to fear of sexual victimization.

To some extent, sexual harassment and sexual assault exist on a continuum, says Saint Mary’s University criminology professor Stephen Schneider. “They’re very much tied,” he says. “Criminal harassment may very well lead to sexual assault.”

Faria says women, people of colour and people under the LGBTQ umbrella are more likely to be harassed. Surveys have shown 80 to 90 per cent of women have experienced some form of harassment, she adds.

Schneider agrees most harassment is directed toward women. But he adds they are more likely to be harassed by people known to them—not by strangers on the street. Up to 70 per cent of harassment is experienced in the home, he says.

These numbers are remarkably similar to sexual assault statistics. Women are most often the victims. Most sexual assaults occur in the home. Most perpetrators are known to the victim.

Nova Scotia has the highest rate of reported sexual assaults in the country, according to a 2009 general social survey conducted every five years. That year in Halifax, there was one sexual assault per day on average. According to a former HRP investigator, these assaults most often occurred in the South End neighbourhood, where in the last few years women have been sexually harassed by flashers, sleep-watchers and men taking photos and videos of them without permission.

Faria and Elliot agree sexual assault and harassment exist on a continuum. Elliot says they’re linked by the attitudes of some men toward women. But the numbers for street harassment are unknown. Faria hopes that will change as Hollaback Halifax collects and maps more stories.

Faria says the Hollaback network has Elliot’s back. “Without support, people who are harassed feel vulnerable and isolated,” she says. “They are pressured to limit their participation in public space, which is a huge loss for everyone in the community.”

Hollaback has an ambitious goal: end street harassment. Faria says they’ll reach that goal by encouraging bystander intervention, starting conversations about how women and visibly different people experience public space and, of course, by sharing stories. Already, their worldwide network is growing. “Our stories have the power to change the world,” Faria says.

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