Today, the Harpies are participating in a virtual book tour for Hey Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Public Schools and On The Streets (New York: Feminist Press, 2010), authored by staff and youth interns from the organization Girls for Gender Equality, based in Brooklyn, New York. Part One of the tour was a review of the book. Part Two (this post) is an interview with two of the book’s authors Mandy Van Deven and Meghan Huppuch.
The Q & A format of this interview was pieced together from a series of emails that Mandy, Meghan, and I exchanged over the course of a week. I arranged the text so the flow of question and response makes sense, but did not otherwise alter the authors’ responses.
A huge big “thank you!” to Mandy and Meghan for approaching us with the invitation to be a part of this book tour, and for taking the time to respond to all my wordy questions. Hope y’all enjoy reading our conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
Anna: So much of your work at GGE (and therefore Hey Shorty!) deals with helping young people, especially girls, push back against the culture of normalized sexual harassment. You are clear to distinguish in the book between harassment (unwanted sexual attention) and flirtation (wanted sexual attention), however the major focus of the text was on unwanted sexual attention. From my reading of other books on adolescent girls and sexuality, such as Dilemmas of Desire by Deborah Tolman and Risky Lessons by Jessica Fields, it seems like a great deal of confusion over unwanted sexual attention is the lack of models for positive sexuality. Fields, particularly, discusses the importance of sexuality education that helps students name and honor desire and pleasure, rather than just focusing on sexual risk and violence. Can you talk a little bit about the roll you see for these kind of discussions in the anti-harassment work that you do with youth? Do you see the young women involved in GGE and other young people you interact with finding more positive avenues for sexuality … or is it primarily a site of risk in their lives?
Mandy: There are nearly no discussions of positive sexuality and pleasure in young people’s lives, particularly in the public school system. The topic is primarily framed in terms of risk and safety, which presents many challenges. Additional challenges come in trying to have discussions about safety in a way that is both developmentally age-appropriate, recognizes the reality that gender-based violence is a frequent occurrence, and respects parents’ wishes regarding the sexual education of their children. It’s a tricky balance to strike since we live in a heterogeneous society. I think it’s important to value that diversity instead of trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Because the reality is that one size will never fit everyone, so it is important to meet people — youth and adults — where they’re at and support them in moving to a better place.
Anna: You write, “I think it’s important to value that diversity instead of trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Because the reality is that one size will never fit everyone, so it is important to meet people — youth and adults — where they’re at and support them in moving to a better place.” I absolutely agree with you that meeting people where they are at, and building flexibility into any pedagogical framework, are important. Can you maybe elaborate a little bit on what this looks like when it comes to your work combating sexual harassment and supporting healthier sexual interactions for teenagers who are exploring their emerging adult sexuality? I really liked some of the examples you gave in the appendices that describe the difference between flirtation and harassment as hinging on mutual desire. How have various audiences responded to this definition of harassment? Has it been a successful model to get people talking?
Mandy: GGE has definitely been a successful in getting people talking, though, in all honesty, it’s difficult to tell if it’s because of the model or simply because the organization provides a forum where is there none. I can’t tell you how much need there is for students to have the space to talk to each other about this issue, and how easily the conversation flows once it starts. For the most part, boys and men aren’t looking to be predators; they’re just acting out the narrowly defined options that are presented to them. And girls simply don’t know how to ask for what they need or say ‘no’ to what they don’t want. I’m clearly oversimplifying here, but that’s because there just aren’t a lot of models for or research about this work. It’s a newly emerging field on an issue that’s been around for ages. That makes it both an enormously frustrating and wildly exciting time to be working on this issue. And at the end of the day, any good program leader would do well to listen, really listen to what young people are saying and trust that in doing so they’ll guide you to what they need.
We believe that the training that Title IX coordinators receive is vital to their effectiveness. In order for them to be change agents in schools, they must understand the complex and deeply ingrained roots of sexual harassment and gender-based violence within schools. In an ideal world, they are able to educate fellow employees and students as well as address gender dynamics within the school. With this information they are empowered to address sexual harassment in its complexity, instead of turning immediately to suspension.
Sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are not products of a few bad or creepy people. These behaviors are a part of how folks are socialized to interact and for that reason, the first response in educational settings must be education. It is schools’ responsibility to not only teach students math, English and science but to create safe environments for academic and social learning. When individuals are educated as allies, instead of potential perpetrators (“Don’t”, “Stop”, etc.), there is enormous potential to gain partners in this struggle.
Anna: As someone who came to feminism (in part) through my experience working with mothers and children, I am often taken aback by the amount of animosity expressed in some feminist circles toward mothers, children, and young people being present in public spaces. While to some extent understandable in that a number of women have come to feminist beliefs through resisting marriage and family roles, I also find the lack of understanding (at best) and intolerance or hatred (at worst) expressed very disheartening. Therefore, I was super-excited to see discussions of age-based discrimination integrated into your work on sexual harassment, and an understanding that young peoples’ voices and experiences are just as valid as those of adults, and deserve to be treated with respect. Could you talk a little bit more about the intersection of age-based discrimination and gender-based discrimination as you experience it in your work with young people?
Anna: I was disheartened (I’m sure that seems like an understatement to you!) by the unresponsiveness of the NYC Department of Education to your data and proposals regarding sexual harassment in the New York City public schools. While you talk a bit about this in the book, I wondered if you have any further thoughts about why the DOE has been so reluctant to look at the systemic problem of normalized sexual harassment, and the lack of enforcement of existing policies. It seems to me that there is a strong case to make that lack of enforcement (at the very least) opens up the school system to lawsuits. Stuart Biegel’s recent The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools makes a pretty compelling case to this effect.
Meghan: (this part is in the book) Several years ago Joanne Smith and Mandy Van Deven met with allies of GGE at the NYC Department of Education. Joanne and Mandy were going to share their experiences working with elementary school youth in GGE’s Gender Respect Workshop. The facilitators of those workshops were teaching about gender stereotypes and sexual harassment – and were subsequently receiving disclosures from students about their experiences of sexual harassment at school. Once the
students had language to identify what they had experienced, they were ready to talk about it and the schools hadn’t been provided with tools to effectively address those issues. Going into the meeting, Joanne and Mandy’s understanding was that those individuals may take action to create safer schools after hearing GGE’s concerns about sexual harassment. However, although the folks at the DOE cared, they were clear – the NYC Department of Education had certain concrete priorities. Those priorities were, and still are, testing and gang violence. That led GGE to reexamine our tactics – Sisters in Strength youth organizers led a participatory action research the following year to gather solid data about what really goes on in NYC public middle and high schools. Their findings have propelled our community organizing work ever since.
(this part isn’t in the book) I think that there are widespread false perceptions about sexual harassment and gender-based violence in general. People think that it requires policing and punishment, which supposedly take away time and resources from other “more important” things. Or they think that students are too young to have real conversations about gender in elementary or middle school. Or they believe that “boys will be boys”, and teenagers are just exploring their sexuality. Many folks even see these behaviors as part of the way that individuals interact in the world. All of these beliefs serve the Department of Education and principals and teachers – these ideas let them off the proverbial hook. Instead of discussing these complicated issues, trusting young people and knowing that these behaviors are truly harmful, they simply ignore it or punish them when it becomes violent or kick everyone involved out of their classroom or tell those experiencing it to “get over it” because that’s just how things are.
Anna: Also, I would like to hear how, in the wake of the hearing and lack of institutional response, GGE has been able to move forward without feeling defeated. I suspect that writing this book was part of that process! But I know that the slow (and not always forward) movement of social justice work can often be demoralizing and lead to burn-out. I imagine that it must have been particularly hard for the youth who were involved in doing the research and bringing their stories to the NYCDOE in hopes for structural change. To have that work rejected must have felt like a disempowering moment, and I wonder how you yourselves responded to that — and how you helped the young people who were a part of your team pick up and move forward?