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Jamaican Women Are Speaking Out Online Against the ‘Widespread Sickness’ of Public Sexual Harassment

Statue at Emancipation Park, New Kingston, Jamaica; photo by Dubdem e FabDub, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Statue at Emancipation Park, New Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by Dubdem e FabDub, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

A guest newspaper columnist in Jamaica decided to tackle the pervasive social problem of public sexual harassment (known elsewhere in the world as Eve teasing) by writing an article about her experience. Karen Lloyd's column met with interesting public fallout, particularly from men.

In one response, a male reader challenged Lloyd's assertion that her private parts were not for public consumption by making the point that vaginas are public property on ‘Back Road’ (a reference to an area in Jamaica that is known for solicitation).

Literary scholar Dr. Carolyn Cooper took notice of the column and the public's reaction to “the persistent problem of verbal and physical abuse of girls and women in Jamaica”. She fiercely deconstructed the “Back Road” argument by saying:

Unlike Ms Lloyd, the women on ‘Back Road’ are selling sex. Even so, the vagina of a female sex worker is not public property. Cleverly marketed or not, the vagina of a female sex worker is a private body part. And its owner has the right to determine its use and value. She is entitled to pick and choose her clients even in desperate economic circumstances. Sex workers have rights. They have the fundamental right to be protected from sexual abuse. And selling sex does not mean you give up all claims to be treated with dignity.

Lloyd's column, which began with a personal account of how she slapped a man for squeezing her breast, only to be met with his ridiculous explanation (he only did it because she looked so good), put in focus the largely male-held assumption that women ask for what they get by dressing or looking a certain way.

“Presumably, an attractive woman must take full responsibility for provoking unwanted attention,” Cooper wrote in her blog post. Sadly, many members of the opposite sex seem to hold that view. Take one man, whose letter to the editor in response to Lloyd's column asked: “Vagina [is] not public property, but are women asking for it?” Cooper responded:

The old fogey ends his letter with an irritating question: ‘Do the ladies have a responsibility to be more modest in their attire?’ It’s not about how women dress. Even in societies where women are covered from head to toe, sexual abuse is a constant threat. Men have a responsibility to exercise self-control and keep their hands and penises under manners.

Instead of falling into the trap of thinking that unwanted sexual attention is a compliment, women must fight back. We cannot passively see ourselves as victims. We have to let men know that they are not entitled to romp with us against our will. And an unexpected response to sexual harassment – whether verbal or physical – can be a most effective deterrent. [...]

Across the board: uptown and downtown; black, white and brown; every single ethnic group. All our talk of independence, both national and personal, means absolutely nothing if we can’t cure this widespread sickness.

The discussion is getting quite a bit of traction on social media as Jamaican Facebook users have been sharing links like this one, which explain how street harassment is harmful to women and what men can do to help eradicate it.

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