This post originally appeared on August 11, 2014 co-authored by Aisha Springer and Kelly Ehrenreich. It’s one of the first published posts documenting the impact of the #YouOkSis hashtag that sparked a movement bringing awareness to street harassment faced by women of color. Some links have been archived.
Last week, two major media outlets – Huffington Post and Buzzfeed – tweeted projects centered around street harassment. HuffPo Photo released a series of pictures of their female editors holding pieces of paper with things men had said to them on the street. HuffPo encouraged other women to tweet using the hashtag #ThatsWhatHeSaid to share their own street harassment stories. Buzzfeed video released a Youtube clip on Thursday called “What Men Are Really Saying When They Catcall Women”.
At the same time, the #YouOKSis conversation is still going strong. Blogger and social worker, @FeministaJones, started a Twitter conversation in June to bring attention to street harassment, particularly highlighting how street harassment uniquely affects black women, whose voices are often ignored within the feminist community and within the black community on issues of gender.
Feminista Jones explains in an interview that the #YouOKSis hashtag is based on an experience she had in her neighborhood. She witnessed a man harass a young woman pushing a stroller; she decided to intervene and asked the woman, “You OK Sis?” It was a simple question rarely asked in these situations. But something this simple from a stranger can help to restore a sense of security to the victim and let the harasser know that what he did will not go unnoticed.
#YouOKSis has created constructive dialogue as well as controversy on Twitter and beyond, and it is still active two months later. Like the conversation around the UC Santa Barbara Shooting – #YesAllWomen and the subsequent #AllMenCan we wrote about months ago – #YouOKSis seeks to shine light women’s experiences and encourages bystanders to step in to #StopStreetHarassment.
In 2014, 65% of women reported experiencing street harassment, often multiple times a day. It happens regardless of how much or little clothing a woman is wearing and it affects her ability to exist in public space with a reasonable sense of safety and comfort. Women may avoid certain streets, blocks, or public transportation routes to spare themselves from the indignity of street harassment, though it’s impossible to avoid all the time. Even underage girls report being repeatedly harassed by strangers in public.
Street harassment is a regular part of women’s lives, but that can change with the help of campaigns like #YouOKSis. Street harassment isn’t anything new or unusual, yet this wave of online discussion has picked up steam in recent months, instigated by #YesAllWomen, diversified and strengthened by #YouOKSis, and then copied for a more mainstream and commercial audience with #ThatsWhatHeSaid.
Not surprisingly, #YouOKSis received pushback from some men on Twitter. Common responses were that women are trying to further criminalize black men, that street harassment is actually a compliment, and denial that street harassment even exists. Ironically, many women who participated in #YouOkSis were harassed by male Twitter users who were simultaneously trying to argue that women lie about being harassed. The heated opposition to #YouOKSis also overlooked the fact that women are harassed by men of all races. The hashtag was intended to let black women’s voices be heard, but it does not focus specifically on black men as the perpetrators.
For black women, street harassment and the response on social media brings up a unique set of tensions. Historically and to the present day, black women have been integral to the fight for racial justice, but their partnership often goes unrecognized. The effects of that come to the surface when talking about issues like street harassment. A common criticism shared by black feminists is that black men and women will rally for causes related to race and black men, but black men will not show the same level of support when the cause is one that affects black women specifically. As a result, fighting racism towards black men is considered more important than fighting racism and sexism that affects black women.
Part of the negative response can be attributed to the desire to keep these issues inside the black community. The problem is that if there is no discussion, there will be no solution. #YouOKSis has brought the discussion to the mainstream. Women are using the hashtag to support each other and demand a change. Such vehement opposition to addressing the problems that influence black women’s lives only perpetuates negative stereotypes of black men.
Huffington Post’s #ThatsWhatHeSaid efforts have been criticized for the title – which downplays the seriousness of women’s encounters with harassers – as well as for the lack of diversity and intersectionality that #YouOKSis uniquely provides. Though well-intended, it detracts from the more constructive and action-oriented #YouOKSis movement which seeks to end street harassment, not just share instances of harassment.
Feminista Jones wants to use the momentum created by #YouOKSis to push the movement against street harassment forward. She speaks and writes on the issue and plans to hold workshops, a perfect example of how Twitter activism can contribute to real-life action. Organizations like Stop Street Harassment and iHollaback! are already on this mission and helping to create awareness and take action in cities around the country. Through the #YouOkSis campaign and others like it, both men and women can choose to make the streets a safer and more respectful place for all women.
Hashtag Feminism Editor, Kelly Ehrenreich co-authored this post.