Tag: Sexual harassment

The Western Gazette Gaffe: On Holding Student Journalism Accountable

It’s that time of year again: as the dog days of summer wind down, Canadian universities are preparing to welcome a whole new cohort of incoming students. The now-empty quads and concourses will soon be abuzz with throngs of students kicking off the start of their university careers with the wide array of activities and services designed to ease their transition into the post-secondary experience. From BBQs to clubs days, from pub nights to residence and faculty-specific orientations, students are being introduced to both the academic and extra-curricular cultures specific to each university campus.

Yet, the start of the 2014-2015 school year isn’t necessarily footloose and fancy-free. Numerous post-secondary institutions in Canada are still dealing with the fallout of many notorious incidents on their campuses in the previous school year.

Image from the Ubyssey's  coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.
Image from the Ubyssey’s coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.
  • In September 2013, both Saint Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia came under fire when student orientation leaders were discovered to have led students in rape chants and anti-Indigenous chants as part of “team-building” exercises, chants which ultimately were found to have been a part of some orientation traditions for many years. In the wake of condemnation by both the public as well as university administrators, many student leaders resigned, and others were compelled to take part in anti-violence training.
  • From April 2013-October 2013, a total of six sexual assaults on female students occurred at the University of British Columbia. The perpetrator responsible for these attacks remains at large.
  • In January 2014, the McMaster Redsuits (students from the McMaster Engineering Society) were suspended over a FROSH songbook that included “around 25 cheers and includes multiple references to violent rape, murder, incest, bestiality and sex with underage females. It is also rife with misogynistic and homophobic slurs” (Campbell & Ruf). The suspensions have barred the MES from participating in 2014 Welcome Week events.
  • In Feburary 2014, a female candidate in student elections at the University of Ottawa, Anne-Marie Roy, was the target of sexually explicit commentary by fellow students. As Diane Mehta of The Canadian Press reported, these messages “included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.”
  • In March 2014, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended over allegations of a sexual assault perpetrated by two of their players. As the Ottawa Sun’s Danielle Bell reports, the head coach was aware of the sexual assault, but failed to report it to university officials: as such, the team has been suspended for the 2014-2015 season, and the coach has been dismissed. Recently, the two players – David Foucher and Guillaume Donovan – have both been charged with one count each of sexual assault.

Clearly, it’s been a tough year, for students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrators. Addressing issues of sexual violence and the normalization and trivialization of sexism and racism has been a complex undertaking. In addition to sanctioning student leaders who promote sexism (even under the guise of “jokes”), and rightly punishing students who commit acts of sexual violence, several universities have put together task forces in order to try and create best practices for addressing these issues, including an increase in the availability of safety measures and support services for students, staff, or faculty who have been harassed or assaulted.

Given the widespread coverage that the past year’s incidents have received, I had been hopeful that FROSH 2014 would take on a different tone, and that undergraduate students would be encouraged to create community and solidarity – to break the proverbial ice – around anything but sexism, objectification, harassment, or violence. 

Yet, as this school year begins, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and administrators at a Canadian university are finding themselves dealing yet again with a student-led initiative that uses sexual harassment as a basis for creating a welcoming environment for incoming students.

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 7.33.51 PM

As part of their special FROSH-week edition, the undergraduate student newspaper at Western University, The Western Gazette, included a “satirical” article written by Robert Nanni, entitled “So you want to date your TA?” Among the “tips” that Nanni provides, he suggests that students a) Facebook “stalk” their TAs and get to know their personal interests; b) dress provocatively in order to gain attention; c) use office hours in order to score alone time with their TA. Finally, Nanni writes, students should know when to stop their pursuit of their TAs: they may have to resign themselves to not getting laid. After all, “they may not be giving you head, but at least they’re giving you brain. Don’t be too disappointed though – after all, there’s always next term.” 

Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they're still professionals with a job to do - a job they take very seriously.
Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they’re still professionals with a job to do – a job they take very seriously.

Shortly after the article’s publication on August 20th, teaching assistants, alumni, students, and professors alike expressed their staunch criticisms of the piece. A commenter named Kelly writes: “This is disgusting. Teaching Assistants are employed, as experts in training, by universities to facilitate student learning. It is a job, and this kind of behaviour from students is not tolerated and should not be encouraged. I would report a student immediately for inappropriate behaviour like this. As a teaching assistant and PhD Candidate, I find it insulting and inappropriate to publish this, because it implies a lack of professionalism from TAs and undermines their authority and knowledge.”

Another commenter, “TA/Adjunct,” commented: “As has been mentioned, many TAs at Western are women who must battle against a sexist university culture that insists they are not as smart as men, or that they are only here because they have something to prove. I’ve seen this with my female colleagues many, many times. Too many to count. I was also on the receiving end of very unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances by a student. It put me in an unbelievably precarious position, even more than I already was a low paid TA.” 

Despite the backlash against the article (including a letter penned by Dr. Janice Deakin, Western U’s Provost & VP-Academic), the paper’s editor-in-chief, Iain Boekhoff, maintains that the article is, quite simply, a piece of satire, despite compelling evidence (especially by TAs themselves!) that the satire fails miserably in hitting any sort of humourous mark. 

The problems with the article have already been well-commented on, and I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms. TAs are professional members of the university community, ones who are bound by a series of professional codes and boundaries, and who deserve much more than being objectified and sexualized by the students they are meant to teach and mentor. 

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that Boekhoff refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms, the seriousness of sexism and harassment, and to acknowledge that perhaps, the paper might have erred in publishing the piece. Even though he maintains that this is an opportunity for the paper to learn and do better in future, he stands by the piece being published, and refuses to take it down from the website. However, there are two main reasons why I’m really disappointed in Boekhoff’s reaction, and why I think his statements do a disservice to university communities: one, they resort to the tired old stereotypes of those who dare to call out sexual harassment and sexual objectification; two, because they make excuses for a lack of accountability within the campus community, and within student journalism more broadly.

As reported by Mike Donachie in the Metro News, Boekhoff dismisses the outrage as the product of a small group of clearly over-reactive individuals: “I had one complaint late Sunday night which is after three days of people losing their minds on Twitter,” he said. “This thing is entirely Twitter.” I can’t say I’m surprised that Boekhoff would choose to say that the measured criticisms, including those by prominent professors and community members, are tantamount to people “losing their minds.” After all, the discourses of “craziness” are so often-applied to those who protest against harassment and sexism that it is almost to be expected. When news of the rape chants broke last year, there was an incredible amount of condemnation of the complainants on the basis of their apparent “lack of reason,” namely that they were oversensitive, unable to take a joke, or simply so unstable that they would take offense even at the most mild forms of humour. Not to mention, of course, that Twitter activism has often been maligned in the same manner, that those who react to incidences of sexism are merely keyboard warriors, whipped into a hashtag-fueled, emotional frenzy, who have nothing better to do than point out the fault in seemingly-innocuous media. By creating a divide between “official” complaints and those offered on the website’s comment section and via Twitter, Boekhoff is essentially suggesting that there are less legitimate (and therefore, less reasonable) forms of complaint and criticism – forms which ultimately, are not to be taken as seriously.

In an interview with Zoe McKnight at the Toronto Star, Boekhoff turned his attention yet again to the ways in which his critics simply lacked a sense of humour or an adequate interpretive lens: “The role of the student press is different from the role and standards of the mainstream press … Students view things from a different vantage point than adults or university administration.”

In suggesting that the role of the student press is different than that of mainstream media outlets, Boekhoff is seemingly suggesting that student writers and editors are not professionals who are capable of being both respected as well as being held to account in the same ways as “real professionals” are. However, student newspapers are not underground or anonymous zines, nor are they views expressed on personal blogs or webpages. They are organizations that are funded by students’ tuition fees, and ones that thus bear strong affiliations with the universities themselves. And so, when the employees and students of the institution on your masthead have a serious issue with the content you’re presenting, especially when it so clearly contravenes the policies of safe workplaces, it is deeply unprofessional to pull the “we can’t be held accountable like the grownups/professionals are” line. This is not to say that university papers, including their individual writers and editors cannot ultimately choose to stand by their work, no matter how profoundly others disagree. Yet, in asserting that they ought not to be held to the same standards, they thus also give up the right to be given the same respect as professional media outlets, which is an insult to the hundreds of committed student journalists and editorial team who work to produce these papers. 

Student newspapers, just like student-led orientations, organizations, and athletics teams, are a vital part of a thriving campus community. A university newspaper provides not only a way for students to keep on top of the current events on their campus, and an opportunity for budding journalists to cut their teeth in the business, but also gives students a way to expose the problems and issues within the community, and in doing so, keep the community accountable. Indeed, news of the rape chants at UBC were first broken by Arno Rosenfeld, a reporter with The Ubyssey, who conducted a thorough series of interviews and investigations into the issue, even after the story had been picked up by major news outlets. Because the staff of these papers are students’ peers and representatives, there is an powerful bond of trust that goes along with working in student journalism: student reporters often have connections within the campus community that outside media do not, and the peer-bond can often make these reporters and editors feel more trustworthy. 

In pointing out the issues with FROSH orientation events, or athletic teams, or student organizations, or student newspapers, critics, especially those from within the campus community, are rarely out on a mission to collapse, defame, or destroy these parts of campus culture. We are not rallying to eliminate Greek life, protesting to shut down all Orientation events, or stopping the presses at university papers. Rather, we are recognizing that these parts of campus culture are important enough, and provide enough positive sources of community-building and leadership that we want to work together to ensure they aren’t made unsafe by misguided and deeply offensive articles, racist or sexist chants, or actual instances of sexual violence, harassment, or sexism.

Works Cited

Bell, Danielle. “2 Ottawa U hockey players charged with sexual assault.” Ottawa Sun. 22 Aug. 2014.

Chapman, Julia, and Cory Ruf. “McMaster student group suspended over ‘sexist, violent, degrading’ songbook.” CBC. 23 Jan. 2014. Web.

Donachie, Mike. Western University student newspaper runs article on how to ‘stalk’ teaching assistants.” Metro News. 25 Aug. 2014. Web.

McKnight, Zoe. “Western University paper stands by controversial article.” Toronto Star. 26 Aug. 2014. Web.

Mehta, Diane. “Ottawa student leader denounces ‘rape culture’ on Canadian campuses.” CTV News. 2 Mar. 2014.

Nanni, Robert. “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” Western Gazette. 20 Aug. 2014. Web.

PSAC Local 610 Executive. “So you want to treat your TA like a human being?” PSAC610.ca 26. Aug. 2014. Web.

Lost in Translation: What the Vancouver Transit Police Advertisement Teaches Us About Language Use

grammar_policeWhen I recently told an acquaintance that I study and teach in a Department of English Language & Literature, they commented that I must be a real stickler for grammar and vocabulary. In some ways, that’s true. Part of my job is to teach my students to write well and to communicate their ideas effectively. The truth is, however, that I’m much less interested in perfect grammar and spelling than I am in whether or not an idea or argument is conveyed as unambiguously and clearly as possible (especially in academic writing!). After all, even in my own academic and personal writing, I often flout the usual rules or expected usages of grammar. I often start sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” I don’t always use semi-colons or dashes properly (although I do try). Ultimately, however, the goal of my writing – and the ways in which I teach my students to write – is to make sure that as much as you can, you try to make sure that your audience knows exactly what you mean to say.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication does indeed have to do with grammar, as this wonderful and popular example illustrates.

A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication has to do with sentence structure and phrasing. It’s this type of issue, I believe, that lies behind the issues with a recent campaign by Vancouver’s Transit Police, as part of their ongoing series of campaigns and services designed to address harassment on public transportation. As you can see in this photograph, the poster suggests that “not reporting sexual assault is the real shame” – a phrase which seems to suggest that a failure to report assault is a primary source of shame.

Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.
Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.

Vancouver-based artist Anoushka Ratnarajah brought attention to the problems with the poster’s message via an Instagram post, and the story was soon picked up by Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and various other news outlets. The Vancouver chapter of Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, issued a powerful statement to the Vancouver Transit Police. Playing on the phrasing of the poster itself, Hollaback! Vancouver’s response was that “we see something, and we’re saying something.” In the end, the Vancouver Transit Police issued an apology: as the CBC reports, they will be taking these posters down, and replacing them.

As was to be expected, perhaps, many of the commenters on social media have painted this pushback against the poster as just another example of “oversensitive feminazi crusading,” arguing that we live in a oversensitive and critical culture where even good-hearted gestures by authorities are being overly-harshly criticized. Just like the recent debates about whether or not so-called “trigger warnings” are useful or necessary, especially in a world where triggers and violence abounds anyway, it seems to be the case that those who have complained or criticized (many of whom are survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including incidents which have taken place on transit) are being characterized as merely reactionary, ungrateful, or sensitive.

To be clear, many of these commenters are missing the point, or choosing to ignore the ways in which activists have suggested that it is not the entirety of the poster, nor all of the Vancouver Transit Police’s initiatives that they take issue with. As Hollaback! Vancouver clearly states: “This is the text from a See Something Say Something Campaign, the real-time, easy-to-use, confidential, texting initiative launched in April by the Vancouver transit police. Transit users can report harassment by texting 87-77-77 and police are notified and can investigate as early as the next stop. This initiative is an important piece in supporting victims, but we hope transit police will reconsider the victim-blaming message sandwiched in their ad.”

More importantly, I think that many people are missing the fundamental problem: despite the VTP’s intentions, the ad is clearly not…well, clear. A very brief close reading – the kind I’d have my students do in my classroom – shows just how these ambiguities work, and how/why the critiques of this poster were justified.

1) Who is the audience?

The advertisement seems to be targeting both victims and bystanders, and does not necessarily make it easy to understand who is being addressed. While “if it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong” can apply equally to victims and bystanders, the third line seems to focus primarily on the victim: “nobody should touch, gesture, or say anything to YOU.” The last line, the “see something / say something” slogan, seems to suggest that the bystander (the person who may be witnessing an assault or instance of harassment) is being addressed.

2) What is the source of shame? Who is it placed on?

Because there are two different audiences being addressed, it becomes confusing as to who, exactly, the shame is meant to be placed on.

  • Is it meant to be the bystander, who sits/stands by and does nothing?
  • Does this assume that the bystander CAN or should intervene physically? Or is the shame, as phrased, in not reporting after the assault?
  • Are bystanders meant to feel shame for not reporting an assault on a passenger?
  • Is shame actually a productive way of forming a community of care?
  • Or, as many others, including myself, have pointed out, is it intended to reach the victim? Should victims feel shame for not reporting their assaults, and, presumably, not “helping to prevent” future assaults?
  • Again: is shame a productive or useful way to get victims to report or seek help?

I hope it’s evident, at this point, that you can unpack a lot of issues with audience and intended meaning just from one short phrase. That, after all, is the power of language: a lot can be said with very few words. The next step, however, is to figure out how this poster can avoid some of these communicative problems.

3) A simple question: how can we modify or re-write this phrase in order to have a less ambiguous and potentially harmful meaning?

A simple suggestion: “There is no shame in reporting sexual assault.”

As you can see, we haven’t taken shame out of the linguistic equation. We’ve simply rearranged it. After all, the problem isn’t using the word “shame”. Rather, it’s how, when, why, and where we use it. Articulating the fact that victims of sexual assault or harassment often feel shame is incredibly important to acknowledge. When it comes to street harassment, or incidents that are often perceived as “minor,” it’s easy for victims to feel ashamed, to worry that they won’t be taken seriously, to wonder if they provoked it. Shame and sexual violence too-often go hand in hand. As you can see, if you read through many of the stories collected by the Vancouver initiative “Harassment on Translink,” feelings of shame and guilt still abound.

It’s our job (all of us, including the authorities) to make an effort to make sure that we are recognizing the possible experience of shame, rather than suggesting (even inadvertently), that sexual assault survivors should feel a sense of shame for their inaction. We all want sexual assault and harassment to end, and we acknowledge that reporting can be, and clearly is, a part of that effort.

But I cannot say it enough: reporting sexual assault is NOT a victim’s DUTY. It is one option, and it is the absolute right of the survivor to choose whichever option is safest and best for them. It is all too easy for those who have never had to report, or for whom reporting may have been relatively easy and/or offered justice/healing, that it is a simple and necessary task.

Ultimately, what I take away from this incident is a difficult truth: despite the fact that we use it every single day—no matter which language we speak, read, or sign— language is a very tricky business. Whether it be from one language to another, whether it be from one context to another, whether it be from the way we understand something to the ways that others read, hear, or interpret it, we have all been in situations where our words have missed their mark. We all know what it’s like for something to get lost in translation. Sometimes, of course, we don’t realize it until someone’s pointed it out to us.

When we call others out for their use of language (whether their words are explicitly or implicitly harmful), many of us do it because we believe that change can happen. We believe that we can help to educate, to re-frame, or to re-think through a particular problem in how ideas are expressed. As the CBC’s interview with Constable Anne Drennan notes, this is precisely the outcome of the critiques and feedback that individuals and organizations offered:

“When the complaints began to arrive, they started looking at the ads from a different perspective, Drennan says.

“We [could] see where they are coming from,” she says.

The ads will be taken down over the coming days as cars return to service yards, Drennan says, and will be replaced by new posters with wording approved by an advisory council that includes representatives from women’s support groups. (CBC)

The old adage that “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us” is, as most of us know, patently untrue. We know the degree of injury can vary, depending on the language used, and depending on the individual who reads or sees the language in question. We know that our “intended” meanings may not necessarily be the received meanings, and it’s important to recognize that good intentions do not devalue or cancel out the harm that can be done. However, I firmly believe that with a greater understanding of the immense power of language (as well as the ability to speak and write about, well, how we speak and write!) we can use our words for great acts of compassion, education, and justice. sticksandstones

 

RESOURCES:

If you have a story to share about harassment/need resources:

Vancouver: Hollaback! Vancouver & Harassment on Translink

Vancouver Transit Police – check out their OnDuty App & find out about reporting via text message

Hollaback! International

Everyday Sexism

Stop Street Harassment

Spelling Lessons: A Spoken Word Response to the UBC & SMU Rape Chants (Trigger Warning)

This spoken word piece is a way of responding creatively to the various voices that I’ve heard in the past week since the news about the rape chants on two Canadian campuses broke. I have been fortunate to be able to speak with many news outlets about this issue, but I felt that I also wanted to craft a longer and more nuanced response. I speak back not just to the justifications by those who participated, but to the other voices that still condone, excuse, or rationalize this type of behaviour. I speak as way of contextualizing why these chants are not merely innocuous, and as a way of situating them in a broader culture of violence. 

You say that Y is for your sister but it’s always somebody else’s sister, isn’t it? It’s always the sister of the friend or the family down the street or the sisters of colour who face disproportionate violence, or the fact that so many of them have been slaughtered for the colour of their skin, or the fact that so many are missing, are absences in the family tree. Or perhaps they are sisters that you don’t recognize as yours because they say that a sister is determined by her biological sex and not by the knowledge that she was born into the wrong body. Because heaven forbid that you have to say “yes, this is my sister,” mine, a person for whom I am responsible, a person with whom I share relation, if not through blood or name or shared appearance but through the social fabric that binds each of us together. No man or woman is an island.

You say that O is for oh so tight but it’s always about how tight a woman’s pussy is, isn’t it? It’s always about the value that we place on the vagina and virginity, about how much you hate a loose woman. Because you want it tight like that first time. Tight like a woman who hasn’t opened her legs wide because you believe the myth, of course, that every man that a woman allows to penetrate her is taking up space, stretching her out, reducing her value like the time that you called that woman a “slut” for having too many sexual partners, that time you said that girl was a “whore” for sleeping with half the football team, like that time you said a friend was devaluing herself and that she shouldn’t just “give it away.” But her body does not belong to you, or to anyone else. It is hers to share, to enjoy, to take pleasure in and from.

You say that U is for underage but then again aren’t kids just having sex younger and younger these days anyway? Can’t we blame this on Miley Cyrus somehow? Because Cherice Moralez, a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by her fifty-year-old teacher was “as much in control of the situation” as her perpetrator, was “older than her chronological age.” At least that’s what the judge in Montana said anyway. At least that’s what was said by the people who make excuses for a culture in which many adults have consistently abused their power and tried to paint their victims as mutually consenting parties. At least that’s what said by the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Tell me again how a child asked for it. Tell me that statutory rape isn’t as “real” as “rape-rape.” Tell me again how funny that is.

You say that that N is for no consent. It’s almost as if you know that it’s wrong. It’s almost as if you realize that you should have stopped chanting by now. But you weren’t really listening to the lyrics, were you? I mean, it’s hard to keep the rhyme and the meaning in your head at the same time, isn’t it? You know what’s hard to keep in your head? The constant memories kept by those who have known intimate violence, the ways that you try to keep the nightmares from disrupting your sleep, the way that you try not to flinch when someone walks to close to you, the way the word “rape” or “sexual assault” always catches your ear on the news because it is happening again, it is always happening again, it is happening right now. Someone is not giving consent. Someone is being held down. Someone is unconscious. Someone is screaming “no, please stop, don’t, please stop.” Someone is being silenced.

You say that G is for “grab that ass,” but it’s always that street harassment isn’t such a big deal, right? As if women should just ignore the constant deluge of comments about their bodies when they are getting groceries, crossing the street, or going to work. As if a woman should simply not pay attention to the man who decides to sidle up to her, real easy, on public transit, and grope her repeatedly. As if her body does not belong to her, but is a public commodity, placed on the meat market with a high turnover and a low rate of exchange. Or maybe you say that G is for “go to jail,” but what you need to know is that the legal system is not perfect, and that even with forensic evidence, few perpetrators ever serve time. Do not buy into the fantasy that the perpetrators of sexual violence do not walk among us.

Maybe you say I’m too sensitive.

Maybe you say that I’m a feminist bitch.

Maybe you say that I should just learn to take a joke.

But I say to you that the language you speak and the words that you spell have meanings far beyond the spaces in which you say them, that the breath of your words is not a declaration of neutrality. Words and phrases are not benign, not drummed into everyday existence simply because they have been repeated over and over by generations of students. You have been given the gift of freedom of speech: use it wisely, and know  that the seemingly innocent syllables you speak may just be the word-weapons that wound others.

What’s In a Name?: The Legacy of Street Harassment and Everyday Sexism

When I was growing up, I fervently disliked my first name. I can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it had to do with the numerous times that people mispronounced it, or the fact that I honestly thought that “Sophia Lorenzi” would be a much more poetic and dramatic moniker. As I got older, however, I learned to embrace my name as a wonderful gift that my mother had given me. Lucia is from the Latin word for “light,” and I can’t think of a more apt description for myself, as someone who is curious, creative, and stubbornly optimistic.

During the process of learning to accept my name and to enjoy hearing it spoken by others, especially by those who I loved the most, I also learned that there was another process of naming that I had started to face: the ways in which I was spoken to and addressed by people who saw me not as a person, not as Lucia, but as a sexual object.

 “Hey, sexy.”

“Hey, baby.”

“Hey, gorgeous.”

These names—adjectives or nouns turned into imposed identities—have been hurled at me from across the street, whispered into my ear by abusive individuals, or spoken to me by men who were little more than acquaintances and wanted only to sleep with me or objectify me. I was no longer myself, but was being claimed, written on, territorialized by the naming practices of street harassment and male entitlement. And it didn’t just stop there. The re-naming of women is often followed by attempts to solicit sexual favours, to imply sexual availability, to taunt, terrify, and to try and tell women that they are nameless, faceless, and powerless.

 “Hey, sexy….wanna fuck?”

“Hey, baby….why don’t you smile for me?”

“Hey, gorgeous….nice ass.”

I became very confused. It had always seemed to me that pet names (honey, sweetie, darling, dear, baby, sexy, beautiful, lover, depending on one’s relationship to a person) ought to be an indication of familiarity and affection, trust and mutual respect. It seemed that to call someone something other than their given name ought to be an indication of an pre-existing relationship, and of intimacy. It seemed to me that it ought to denote shared vulnerability. And yet, it wasn’t. I felt dehumanized. I felt ashamed.

This troubling re-naming practice doesn’t just manifest itself in the ways in which street harassment and catcalling dehumanizes women by suggesting that their identities and personal lives don’t matter, because they are objects to be targeted, identified, and (potentially) consumed or used. It also extends to the ways in which individuals in relationships only use these names when they want or are engaging in sexual acts with a person, when you’re only “baby” in the bedroom, “sexy” in the sack. I’ve been there once before. I’ve been the girl who is kept a secret, the girl who is good enough to sleep with but not good enough to acknowledge or hold hands with in public. It’s humiliating.

It’s this incongruity, the strange melding of affection and violence (or affection and cruelty, affection and coldness, affection and indifference, etc) that can be so difficult to reconcile. It’s unsettling. It feels unsafe. At times, it has made me question whether or not I will ever be seen for any more than my body. It makes me start to question myself, and wonder if because I dress a certain way, or look a certain way, that that’s all I’m seen for, in spite of the creativity and intellect that I nourish and cultivate. It makes me wonder if people see ME at all. While I may embody sexiness at times or a particular heteronormative aesthetic of femininity at times—especially considering my love of fashion, modeling, and photography—those things are not who I am, and nobody has the right to make those things my identity, or to reduce my value to my presumed sexual availability. I,  Lucia, may feel or be or look sexy, but “sexy” is not an outright replacement for my legal name.

Naming practices and acts of address are powerful, and they are deeply political. One need only look to histories of colonization, in which names are and were either “Westernized” or erased entirely. For instance, consider the recent incident involving Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, who stood up to an AP reporter who refused to learn to pronounce her name and call her “Annie” (Wallis’ upcoming role) instead. Think about the how the term “slut” is part of a deep history of the sexualization of racialized women, and the precarious politics of the attempted reclamation of that term. Think about how women who suffer sexual assaults are referred to only as “Jane Doe,” or, in the case of victim-blaming, as “that whore, that walking mattress, that skank.”

I want to be very clear: I am absolutely not suggesting that there ought to be a radical policing of language, nor do I want to assert that “sexy” or “beautiful” as adjectives should be completely erased from conversations with and about women.  Given how often women are shamed for confident, assertive displays or articulations of their sexuality, I think that it is important to recognize sexiness and beauty of all kinds. I think it’s important for women to be able to use those words in order to describe themselves without being shamed or seen as objects. I consider myself to be sexy. I consider myself to be someone who embraces her sexuality. I enjoy it when people recognize it in a positive and kind way, whether they are acquaintances on Facebook or friends or otherwise. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with exchanging a knowing glance or a smile with a stranger. Flirting isn’t off-limits.

But I also think that an awareness, especially in interpersonal relationships that take place in private (whether online or offline), in dating, and in flirting, of the histories of oppression that many women have faced with regards to certain naming practices, is equally important. I believe that it is important to recognize that women all have different experiences with street harassment and sexual assault, and that treading lightly at first, finding different phrases to express a thought, or being up front in asking if it’s okay to use certain language is thoughtful, valuable, welcomed, and necessary. I can’t be the only one who thinks that asking for consent and having discussions about things is a super-mega-turn-on. I’ve had male friends and acquaintances who have asked me. It’s wonderful.

Having read through the various stories featured on the @EverydaySexism Twitter account, having followed the #streetharassment hashtag, and doing the research that I do regarding sexual violence and sexuality, I know that while many women have different experiences of naming practices, there are a large number whose experiences have been similar to mine. Sometimes, you never know when that “hey sexy!” hollered at you from across the street is going to turn into someone grabbing you, following you, or assaulting you. I was stalked on my old university’s campus several years ago, and I can tell you first-hand that what seem like “compliments” that women should just “take lightly” from strangers can quickly escalate into terror.

While Shakespeare suggested that “rose by any other name” may still be a rose, a woman by any other name is often made to feel that she is not still a woman. She’s made to feel like an object. And that’s not okay, because as we know, such practices of harassment and dehumanization often lead to other forms of violence. It reinforces an environment where it’s seemingly okay for those things to happen. It’s really fucking not okay.

I still struggle all of this myself, and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for any woman other than myself. However, I wish so badly that those words I’ve called, those names I’ve been assigned, could become precious again, saved for the mouths of people I feel safe around, and loved by. But they’re not. And I can’t pretend that “words can never hurt me,” because sometimes they still do. I can’t pretend that it sometimes feels strange to hear those words from a partner or a lover. I can’t erase their history, and I won’t, because as so many of us know all too well, the line between terms of endearment and terms of endangerment is a very fine one.

For more information and stories about street harassment, visit:

Hollaback! A Non-Profit and Movement to End Street Harassment

Michael Laxer’s Rabble.ca article: “Sexual harassment on the street: taking misogynist hate speech seriously.”

The SFTUCatcallers Tumblr