Quick Update On My Street Harassment Story

Friday, I was out for a walk when a man exposed himself to me. Immediately after that happened I had a disappointing interaction with the police who didn’t want to take a report when I tried to offer one. With the other options exhausted, I sent an email to their general query address and then immediately posted it on my blog to keep the pressure up. Here is an update:

Due to a great woman I didn’t even know (!) on Twitter reposting the story on a neighborhood police listserv, I was contacted Sunday by the police and was able to file a report. Huge success. I want to take this moment to thank the Twitter feminist community for prodding me into action almost right away. Without your encouragement, I’m not sure I would have moved forward so quickly (and felt the duty to keep going when the police started giving me bad answers).

I also want to acknowledge what posting this story did, because I’m more disturbed than when this whole disgusting subculture first flashed in my face. I heard over, and over, and over from people I know that don’t necessarily get into the feminist work I do. The number of women I know, many of them who were girls at the time, who have experienced a man exposing himself somewhere in a public space is overwhelming. It is far greater than I would have suspected. 

This leads me to put in a plug for a great local group, and a great national group, working to fight street harassment. At the local level here in Washington, D.C., Collective Action for Safe Spaces is just amazing. They have recently succeeded in working with Metro to put policies in place for harassment awareness and reporting on public transit. If you know how long it takes to get an escalator replaced around here, it’s nothing short of amazing they drove this culture change. At the national level, Hollaback! is a non-profit working to end street harassment. It has sprung up groups around the world, one of which is the local group just mentioned. Bonus: Both are largely led by younger feminists (love that stuff). If you are interested in engaging further with this issue I urge you check out these links.

So here are my top three takeaways from the incident:

  • Gratitude for the online feminist community, both as a support system as well as a means to making a needed action occur. Thank you.
  • A preach! If something happens to you that’s not right, speak up. It works.
  • Anger and awareness: The experience of street harassment and exposure is worse than I imagined. I’m ready to keep pushing.

Final Public Service Announcement: If persons expose themselves to you, make sure you’re safe and then call 911 right away.

Street Harassment Email Just Sent To DC Police: Feedback About Exposure Complaints

Dear Metro Police,

One hour ago, just after 5 p.m. while it was still daylight, a man exposed himself to me as I was crossing the P Street bridge on foot, heading east from Georgetown into Dupont Circle. He was wearing a blue jacket and masturbating and looking straight at me.
I tried to start crossing the bridge as quickly as I could, in hopes of seeing a police car, and about halfway down saw two women walking in the opposite direction. I stopped them and told them not to walk on that side of the bridge (north side) by the man at the end. I explained he had just exposed himself to me. At that point the man looked back and while I was talking to the women and a man who had been walking close behind them, hopped on a bicycle, and went in the direction of Rose Park. I tried not to look at him, but I do remember he was caucasian, likely in his 40s or early 50s and of medium height.
I did not see a police car, so went to your website to file an online complaint from a nearby coffee shop. The online complaint form does not accommodate situations like this, seeming to focus instead on property violations. Then, I followed the instruction to call the non-emergency line to file a report. When I did they told me I would have to call 911, even though I explained there was no emergency and I was alright. When I called 911 and explained the incident I was told the police couldn’t do anything about it and wouldn’t file a report, I had to call while I was still there (and so was he).
Based on what I have just experienced, I am requesting you consider the following and revisit your processes:
What woman walking alone would stay near a man who has exposed himself to her and is masturbating? Among other issues, it seems like common sense safety to immediately leave.
Why does an exposer need to be onsite for the police to do anything, include file a report? This sends a message that it’s an open season for street harassment. I’m truly surprised the person I spoke with on the phone didn’t want to take the information I listed above.
Why does your online complaint form not accomodate non-emergency harassment complaints? This is a barrier to reporting. Harassment is often shrouded in embarrassment, disgust, shame – I would think the Internet could help you fight this crime.
Why does your non-emergency line tell callers to dial 911 for non-emergency police reports? This is another barrier to reporting. While I’m angry this incident occurred at all, I’m okay and I felt uncertain whether to go through with dialing 911 for a non-emergency situation.
What are you going to do to better address street harassment in the District of Columbia? How are you going to revise your policies and then make sure word gets out so people know them? It is hard to see how the current policy could be considered intuitive to those of us who are just trying to walk from point A to point B.
I am several months pregnant and most upsetting to me is knowing that this same thing could happen to my future daughter while out for a walk or riding her bike, and the person on the other end of the line might tell her the same thing – the police won’t take a report and “we can’t do anything about it.”
If there is any way that I can be of assistance to you in making the streets safer for women in the District of Columbia, I will be happy to assist.
Erin Matson