WASHINGTON: Cyclists face numerous dangers as they struggle to share already congested roads with drivers. In the United States, a cyclist is killed every 12.6 hours.
But for gay men, women and transgender bikers, the dangers can be compounded by harassment and the threat of assault.
For Kate, a 28-year-old cycling enthusiast, summer is always the worst. Pedestrians feel free to yell what they perceive as compliments: “Yeah, you look good!” or “Can I ride with you?”
“As a woman, I’m constantly operating with the low-level fear that any man might attack me,” said Kate, a resident of the Brookland neighbourhood in Northeast Washington, who asked that her last name not be used because of safety concerns.
Stop Street Harassment, an international non-profit organisation, works to combat gender-based street harassment, which it defines as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation.”
Recently, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association partnered with Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) in the District of Columbia to give cyclists a safe place to vent and discuss harassment prevention and empowerment strategies, said Nelle Pierson, WABA’s coordinator of outreach programmes.
“A lot of women start biking because it is empowering, but also because they can just get away from a situation,” said Zosia Sztykowski, 28, the lead outreach coordinator for CASS, a grassroots organisation dedicated to building awareness and ending sexual assault and harassment on the streets. The organisation produces a blog that curates women’s experiences with street harassment. “A lot of people think street harassment happens just to them and that they’re alone,” she said.
Workshop participants were asked in an online survey about their experiences with street harassment and public transportation. “The most frequent type of street harassment seems to be having someone from a car or sidewalk shout rude and disrespectful things at you,” whether the victim’s on a bike or a pedestrian, one person said. A CASS study in May found that 90 per cent of women and members of the community with different sexual orientation had experienced some form of harassment while biking.
Bikers shared anecdotes about harassment, their stories ranging from being shouted at to being followed by motorists.
Workshop participants also learned about ways to respond to harassers. “There is no wrong way to respond to harassment, and no magic bullet, but if you respond in a way that is authentic to you, that is a good thing,” said Julie Strange of CASS.
The techniques taught by CASS are adapted from the 1993 book Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers by Martha Langelan, an activist, self-defence expert and former president of the D.C. Rape Crisis Centre. In the 1980s, the rape crisis centre was an integral part of a campaign to turn the District of Columbia into a “hassle-free zone” by educating residents about the dangers of public sexual harassment.
Strange also pointed out that women have been taught to “protect themselves from being victimised.” She said that point of view is problematic because it places the onus of prevention on the victim. The goal now is to focus on the perpetrator to change the behaviour.
By arrangement with the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service