Francesca talks with Belinda Perez, a non-profit worker living in the Bay Area in California. For the project, Belinda read a letter discussing street harassment and public sexual harassment (excerpt below).
Francesca Enzler: Can we start off with a short introduction about yourself?
Belinda Perez: Sure. I’m from Los Angeles originally, but I’ve lived in Oakland for about 12 years now. I moved to Oakland to attend Mills College and have pretty much stuck around since then, with stopovers in the Czech Republic and Los Angeles again.
What do you do for work?
I’ve worked for various Bay Area nonprofits since college, mostly with young people in Oakland.
How did you hear about Yours in Sisterhood? And what interested you about being involved?
My good friend Amy told me about the project, and she read a letter for YIS as well. I’ve always been interested in film and I’ve been interested in feminism for most of my life.
What sparked your interest in feminism?
I don’t remember there being one specific event or moment that lead me to feminism, I just remember always feeling a certainty that girls and women deserved the same equality as men. I was always a big reader and gravitated to books by women and with strong female protagonists. Around middle school I got really into Riot Grrrl, though it was a bit before my time. When I was 14 I read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, and that sort of got me started on reading more overt and radical feminist texts.
How was your experience of reading the letter that was written 40 years ago? To embody another person’s perspective/language?
It wasn’t at all difficult to embody the perspective of someone who wrote their letter 40 years ago, because unfortunately the letter I read, about sexual harassment and assault, is still pertinent today. It didn’t differ very much from my own experiences.
That letter resonated strongly with me as well!
Yeah, I honestly think most women would be able to identify with it.
We recorded this reading before the #metoo movement and explosion in national conversation about sexual harrassment and assault. In light of recent conversations, has your response to the letter changed?
I don’t think my own personal response has changed. I still believe the onus is on men to stop sexual harassment and assault against women. That said, I think it’s kind of surprising to everyone that there is finally a national and even international conversation being had about these issues. It’s about goddamn time. I don’t think #metoo would have come about if we’d had a different president. It seems to be the one positive thing that has come out of this terrible presidency.
The letter you read also highlights the lack of dialogue about street/sexual harrassment between older women and younger women. Did anyone have that conversation with you when you were young? What effect did the conversation (or lack of conversation) have on you?
When I was a kid no one ever really prepared me for the fact that grown men I didn’t know would comment on my body and what they’d like to do with it. It was a huge shock to me that even when I was clearly still a child, men would harass me. I didn’t realize until I was much older that the men who harass often pick young, vulnerable women because they know you are less likely to fight back. That’s what they want. I didn’t realize how tremendously ashamed I would feel when I was harassed, as though it was my fault and something I’d brought upon myself, even though all I’d done was dare to exist in public as a girl. It’s terrifying, especially when you’re young and vulnerable. As far as the conversation between older and younger women…as an adult woman now I absolutely feel it is my duty to step in when a woman is being harassed, especially if the person in question is young. It’s what I wish someone had done for me. I do think there can be a generational divide among women when it comes to street harassment and also the #metoo movement.
How do you hope the conversation about/climate around sexual assault and harrassment will in change in the next 40 years? What about our society? Are you hopeful?
I am cautiously hopeful, because as I said before, the fact that we are even having a conversation about sexual harassment and assault is huge. I mean, the fact that women and girls are harassed and assaulted daily is not any news to women and girls, to female-bodied and female-presenting people. What is surprising is that the men who harass and assault are beginning to face real consequences for their actions. I do feel the need to caution though that this change really must be systemic if it is to have any lasting value. It’s not an issue of a few bad men. It cuts across all racial and class and political lines. It’s a man problem. And it’s the systems that have been in place forever that have allowed it to go on for as long as it has.