For years, there existed this myth that women enjoyed the cat calling and being approached by men on the street. For years, men would actually shame women for not being polite enough to acknowledge their overtures. You know, ‘You could at least say hi, b*tch.” (It’s a practice that still exists today.)
There were instructions to smile. Strangers offered women sexual “favors” and may have even tried to grab their arm to get their attention.
All of this behavior still exists today. But now we call these behaviors out for what they really are: street harassment.
Now, more than ever there’s more conversation about the danger a woman might feel being approached by a man on the street, not knowing if rejecting his overtures might end in her being physically harmed or even killed.
One of the women leading those conversations about street harassment is Feminista Jones.
Jones, an author, activist and advocate, created the hashtag #YouOkSis in 2014. The words would go on to become a marker and moniker raising global awareness against street harassment.
Months after she created the hashtag, Jones told theGrio, the idea for the hashtag came from a real life incident of street harassment involving a young mother pushing her stroller. Jones intervened.
“She was probably 20 or 21, pushing a stroller with a newborn. I just went and asked her ‘Are you ok, sis?’ and she said she was fine and so I kept walking,”
It wasn’t the first time Jones had stepped up to help another woman dealing with harassment. Still, she recognized that in her own life, where she had experienced unwanted comments and advances at least five times a day, on average, no one had stepped in or stepped up for her.
The hashtag was created to encourage people of all genders to say something when they see Black women being victimized by street harassment.
It prioritizes the victim and would perhaps minimize any further interaction from the harasser.
“If you just talk to the person who is the focus of the harassment, you’re placing yourself in that moment and giving that person an out. It’s something that breaks up the situation and diverts attention from the victim.”
While street harassment is something that occurs around the world, Jones wanted to make sure her movement focused on Black women.
She told theGrio, “A lot of the conversations about street harassment in the mainstream media only show white women as the faces of victims. Rarely do you see Black women as the face of the victim.”
You may remember the very same year, #YouOkSis was launched, there was a street harassment documentary, 10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman that garnered national attention. It featured a white woman walking through various neighborhoods in New York City, documenting the interactions she had with men. There was a lot of discussion about the type of men shown harassing her. And knowing what we know about the prioritization of white women’s feelings and fears in this country, we know it became such a talking point—not only because the conversation was a relatively new one. But also because America is more sensitive to a white woman’s oppression.
Four years later, #YouOkSis was co-opted by a group of white women seeking to promote a domestic violence awareness fundraiser. Not only was the event targeted toward white women, Jones was not credited and the original group the hashtag was meant to support had been completely ignored—despite Black women experiencing higher rates of domestic violence and death from an intimate partner than white women in this country.
Since 2014, the hashtage #YouOkSis has been tweeted thousands of times. Jones work continues. In 2019, she wrote Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminism is Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, exploring how movements created and fueled by Black women began on social media and through hashtags and eventually grew to offline spaces.