For Female Bike Messengers, Street Harassment Is Literally Life-Threatening

From benign "nice legs" comments to men in moving vehicles who say they want to "rape your corpse," women who work as bike couriers deal with extreme sexual harassment every day. Kelsey Phillips, the founder of the Women's Bike Messenger Association...

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Feb 23 2016, 9:40pm

Photo by Vegterfoto via Stocksy

Kelsey Phillips has been a full-time bike messenger for two years. When she quit a microbiology PhD program, she knew the career she was choosing—making deliveries all over Chicago for less-than-stellar tips—meant dodging pissed-off drivers and cops itching to write tickets. That was fine. She loved riding her bike. But she learned quickly that she'd also signed up for non-stop harassment, from your standard catcalling to more aggressive, frightening threats. The streets are a messenger's office, which means women in this line of work never get a break.

Phillips found solidarity when she and a handful of other female-identifying couriers started the Women's Bike Messenger Association (WBMA) last year at a national messenger gathering in Denver. The overwhelming majority of messengers are men, and while WBMA members agreed most of their coworkers were supportive, they still felt that women messengers–and women who might want to become messengers—needed a separate space within the industry. At that first meeting in Denver, they bonded over experiences shared worldwide—including endless street harassment.

Over a year after the WBMA's founding, one particularly irritating episode spurred Phillips and her coworkers at Cut Cats, a courier company, to make a PSA-style video addressing the problem. In less than 24 hours, over 25,000 people had watched it (certified viral in the insular world of urban cycling), and a local Chicago news station covered the story. Broadly spoke with Phillips about what it's like to be a woman who rides the streets for a living, how her colleagues—of all genders—reacted to the video, and why her message resonates beyond the cycling world.

Phillips in the Cut Cats video

BROADLY: What's specific to the harassment you experience as a messenger, rather than the "normal"—and I hate using that word to describe it, but I think you know what I mean—harassment you deal with just as a woman?
Kelsey Phillips: It's something that I deal with literally every day, more than I ever did before I was a messenger. It's not surprising anymore, which is sad. Every time I lock my bike up, which is multiple times a day, it's a comment about my legs, or some man telling me in winter, "You shouldn't be out in the cold like that, little lady!"

What really gets me is the difference between my days and my male coworkers' days. To do a delivery at a building you almost always have to check in at a security desk or with a doorman. My male coworkers will drop their IDs and sign in with no problems and no comments. But when I get there, the security guard says, "I won't give you the ID card [you need to get in] until you give me your number." Or they'll play with my gloves when I take them off to sign in.

It's frustrating because I'm just trying to do my job. Even just getting called "baby" or "sweetie" by the people I encounter while I'm working, when I ask them not to do that, they get really angry. They're like, "Why can't I call you sweetie?" and it's like...because you're not my dad, I don't know?

Does this mostly come from strangers, or do you encounter harassment from male messengers, too?
I've never had a problem with male messengers. Every male messenger, at least in Chicago, has always been super respectful. They know we're just out trying to do our jobs the same as they are, and [they're there to help] if we're physically threatened. I had a car following me once with guys leaning out the window yelling, "I'm gonna fuck you right in the pussy!" I called for backup on my radio, and something like seven guys offered to help me out, although luckily the driver sped away immediately. My coworkers are great. [The harassment] is always the random dude who just has to say something as they're walking by or driving. The guy who just has to touch you or touch your bike.

You mentioned that security personnel harass you in particular ways. Is the type of harassment you experience often situation-specific?
My coworker Sarah pointed out that we're doing a job where we're always alone, so we're an easy target for dudes to say creepy shit. I do a lot of food delivery, [and] if you're in a restaurant and some guy says something creepy, which happens all the time, it's hard to tell them to fuck off: You're in a client's restaurant, and you don't want to make your [messenger] company look bad. You feel trapped [because] you can't respond. Women who work in offices go through this as well. How do you respond in a professional manner that also tells someone it's not OK? It's a power thing. One time a police officer told me my legs looked really strong. [I wanted to] say "Fuck you," but you don't tell a Chicago cop that.

The first WBMA meeting in Denver

Is the abuse from drivers different than the stuff that comes from security people and pedestrians?
Every cyclist gets harassed by drivers, but once [drivers] realize I'm a woman, they're taking that road rage against a cyclist and combining it with my gender. It turns into a sexual thing, because you're a woman on a bike by yourself, and that makes it extra scary. One time I yelled at a guy who was driving in the bike lane, and he pulled up next to me and called me a cunt. When I told him to fuck off, he said, "What, I can't call you a cunt, you little bitch?"

One of the worst ones I've heard was from a messenger friend in Minneapolis. A driver cut her off, and when she yelled at the guy [about almost hitting her] he said, "I'm going to rape your corpse." Which is just... If you're gonna honk at me and zoom by me, whatever, we all deal with that all the time. But if you're going to bring rape into it, that's just so beyond an understandable response. It's so disturbing.

Most of the women in the video are white, as are many of the women currently in the WBMA. As feminists, we know women of color experience harassment differently than white women. What are the couriers in your community, and the WBMA, doing to support their colleagues of color?
Street harassment is absolutely different for WOC, but it's not something that I can speak to personally. One of the goals of the WBMA, which is definitely still in its infancy, is to open the messenger community, and the cycling community in general, to those who identify as women but are nervous to approach it. The messenger community is welcoming when it comes to the big events that WBMA meets at—people open their homes to let in strangers from all over the world, who speak other languages and come from very different communities.

I was like, What the fuck! You're walking your dog and decide you're gonna pretend to steal this girl's bike and then ask her to touch your dick?

While the WBMA has only had one formal meeting so far, it was in a safe public space that was publicized to the group, and all were invited to have input on the agenda. The issue of diversity in cycling is one that extends well beyond the messenger community.

What have you heard from other women in the WBMA, especially those who aren't working in the US, about the harassment they encounter?
The stories are all so similar. It's not different anywhere else. Even in cities where cycling is more accepted and normal, like Copenhagen, which is an amazing bike city, street harassment is everywhere. We all go through the exact same things.

Why did you make this video now? Was there a specific incident that made you decide to confront the issue even though it's been happening for a long time?
One Sunday about a month ago I was unlocking after a delivery, and some bro out walking his dog, wearing PJ pants, walked up to me and tried to grab my bike from me. When I took it back and got irritated, he was like, "Whatever baby," and started talking about his dick. [In my head] I was like, What the fuck! You're walking your dog and decide you're gonna pretend to steal this girl's bike and then ask her to touch your dick? I started screaming and swearing at him. But they like it when you yell at them. They laugh at you and make it more sexual. It doesn't make you feel good.

When I rode away I wasn't sad, just so angry. I was talking to a coworker about it and said I wished I had an air horn to blow in his face, because there's just no good way to handle it. I'd been sitting with this idea to make a fake PSA. I talked about it with my friend Chase, who's a really talented videographer and editor. [He] helped me work through what would work, and we got all the Cut Cats ladies onboard.

Cut the Catcalling: Women's Bike Messenger Association from Chase Bauer on Vimeo.

Why did the other women at Cut Cats want to participate?
There are six or seven women at the company, and it's something we talk about every day. We have radios, so when it happens we'll chirp on there to say, "Oh my God, this dude just grabbed my ass" and [commiserate] about it together. It's not just getting yelled at every day—it's people leaning out of a car to grab your butt or your bike while you're riding, which is so dangerous. And it happens so often that when I got this idea [for the PSA], everyone was super excited.

The specific idea was, "What would you say if you could actually go back and talk to the guy who yelled at you?" Not just to say, "Fuck you," but really tell him what you feel in that moment and explain the problem with what he said or did. What's the thing you think of five minutes later, that you wish you could have gotten across [when it happened]? It's not easy, but [we] worked through it and [found] the perfect things to say.

What's the response been to the video? Are there any specific reactions that really surprised you?
It's been so positive. So many people were just like, "I've been trying to say this for so long." It's something women messengers feel every day, and putting it into words really spoke to them. People are asking us to translate it into other languages so they can show it to their friends. So many people shared the video, and people who aren't in the cycling community responded to it, which was a big thing for me. That shocked me: I knew my cycling friends would think it was rad, but people well beyond the community were posting about it and talking about it. Because it's not just about bikes, it's about women everywhere. When WGN [the local Chicago news station that reported on the video] called me four hours after I posted the video, the female reporter said, "I saw it on Twitter, and it really resonated with me, because I have to deal with that all the time as a reporter out on the street." That was really cool, to talk to someone about this video out of the context of being a bike messenger.

They like it when you yell at them. They laugh at you and make it more sexual. It doesn't make you feel good.

Even with the jerks that were saying ignorant stuff, the entire community, men and women, just descended upon them. Obviously they're trying to get attention, but seeing everyone come together and shut that down was amazing. Trolls will always say shit: "I don't understand why women are so dramatic about it—why can't I say your legs look nice?" But it's like—if three billion people are asking you not to do that, I don't understand why you can't just not do it. I just don't get it.

What results do you hope to see from making and sharing this video?
[At first] it was just an outlet to talk about this thing that keeps happening to us. Now that people are talking about it, I want it to become a topic people can really discuss. The fact that we've opened a dialogue about things that men don't even realize are bothering people, opening the conversation and saying it's really something that makes me feel bad, might actually make dudes stop and think. A lot of men think they're being nice—I mean, if someone says they're going to rape your corpse, that's not being nice, but when you tell me my legs look great that's not a compliment either.

I'm not defending dudes who say these things, but I feel like half the time they really do think they're being complimentary. It just makes me feel gross and sad because I'm just trying to move throughout my day. I hope that opening a conversation like this will lead some people to think again before they say these things to a woman on the street. It won't stop every dude from saying these annoying, garbage things, but at least the dialogue is open.