‘Project Unspoken’ Makes Space For A Conversation About Street Harassment And Sexual Assault

I’m so scared to walk by myself at night.

I don’t feel good about this but I also don’t feel crazy, which is the word I think some people want to use when I tell them about my fear of men, my fear of the dark, my fear of someone hurting me. I think it makes everyone feel safer to tell women they’re crazy in general, but especially when it comes to sexual assault because what if we actually confronted how awful it is that we’ve normalized this thing, come to expect it and tacitly condone it? That would be terrifying, so instead people say we’re crazy for being frightened. But we’re not. I’m not. We live in a world where rape culture is a real thing but people like to argue that it isn’t; a world where we’re told street harassment is supposed to be flattering and sexual assaults are our fault if we’re out too late or if we’re too drunk or if we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And I am lucky. I’m lucky that sometimes I can pay to take a taxi rather than walk. I’m lucky that I can often take the subway home with a friend. I’m lucky that I have never been assaulted, because honestly with statistics like one out of every six women in the United States has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime or that every two minutes someone in the country is sexually assaulted, all I can think is that the humans I know who have never experienced abuse are lucky. How else can we explain it? My favorite thing I’ve ever read about sexual assault and the way people make excuses for it is a post Amanda Hess wrote for The Sexist in 2010. Addressing the “don’t walk in a bad neighborhood” theory, she laid out the truth bluntly: “When it comes to sexual assault, every neighborhood is a bad neighborhood for a woman.”

via thefeministwire.com

This conversation isn’t new. When I was 10 I told my mom that it might be good if I was fat, because then no one would ever want to rape me. I didn’t understand how rape works, of course, or how bodies work, actually — my baby brain somehow conflated all the messages I’d received that to be fat was to be undesirable with the idea that if I could just be undesirable then I would be safe. I want to cry when I think about that. When I was 10 I was worrying about one day being raped. I wish I could go back and tell my 10-year-old self not to worry but that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? I do worry and I don’t think it’s strange to worry.

These are things we need to talk about, and we do, amongst ourselves. As women, as queers, as humans who are concerned about Making Things Better. But sometimes it feels to me that the people who need to hear the words most aren’t listening. It is so difficult to articulate to humans who are not constantly vigilant about their own safety why I always feel as though I must be on guard. Why it doesn’t seem crazy that my instinct when a stranger approaches me is to figure out if I could run if I needed to, even when it turns out he just wanted to know the time. Why I felt bad wearing a low-cut dress that night I walked home alone from the bar, a little bit more than a little bit tipsy, and why I felt so angry that I felt bad about it, but at the same time know I would never do it again. It is not only the assholes who make rape jokes who don’t understand what it means to live in fear; some of my dear friends, my closest family members, people I respect and admire and who do truly care about me just cannot understand it. And I never know how to make them understand.

Which is why I am (cautiously) excited about “Project Unspoken: I Am Tired Of The Silence,” a project that may actually make space for a real dialogue about street harassment, sexual assault, and rape, and how it affects our lives on a daily basis, zero exaggeration.

This short video was made by Emory senior Caleb Peng as part of the university’s Respect Program, which aims to “engage the Emory community in preventing and responding to sexual assault and relationship violence.” Peng, an intern in the Office of Health and Promotion in Emory University Student Health and Counseling Services in the Division of Campus Life, spent the summer working on the film after learning that many of his friends had been affected by sexual assault.

Though the project is made by a man, Peng does not step in and try to explain assault to the audience. He stands behind the camera as a silent narrator, making his efforts markedly different from men in the past who have said they want to “save” a group of people when in reality they want to speak for them. In his video, Peng asks a group of men and women the same question: “What do you do on a daily basis to avoid rape, sexual assault, or harassment?” He doesn’t need to add his own commentary. The answers speak for themselves.

Feministing called the video “powerful” but also registered their lack of surprise at any of the content, which I’m sure many readers may feel, too. “None of this is surprising,” their post states, “but it’s a great video that effectively shows how differently men and women move throughout the world.” It’s true – I’m not surprised by the content. Men don’t think much about their safety while women plan around it extensively? Duh. But I’m hopeful that this video will do more than just show how differently cis men and cis women can exist in the world. Apparently Peng has been approached by universities, educators, rape crisis centers, and the White House, all interested in using his film for educational purposes. This video is not intended to be a standalone project, and Peng told The Emory Wheel that while he feels like “an ordinary guy . . . every ordinary person can help put an end to sexual violence.”

I feel cautiously excited about this because I am not naïve; I don’t believe one video made by one well-meaning human will eradicate fear, change behaviors, or start the revolution today. Though no one in the film offers up their sexuality for discussion (which is fine, obviously), there is a notable absence of genderqueer folks, and while I present as a feminine small girl and thus experience the world that way and know that my gender and my stature contribute to my feelings of fear, many members of the queer community are targets, not only cis feminine women. So this video does not address everything or everyone, and it is certainly not the final word on sexual assault.

But maybe, just maybe, it can be the beginning of the conversation, and maybe it can reach the humans who really need to be hearing about it.

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Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. Very hot, very fun, very weird. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 404 articles for us.


  1. The thing that bothers me about this is that most people who are raped at least sort of know their rapist.(http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-offenders) I’m not trying to say that street harassment and stranger rape don’t happen or aren’t real problems, just that I feel like I was taught to be afraid of the dark and the anonymous others that might spring out of it, and that that’s not even how the majority of rapes happen. I feel like I was raised to be afraid of the wrong thing.

  2. The newest video in the series just came out on Monday, “You’re not just a victim, you’re a survivor.” youtube.com/projectunspoken

    It is my privilege to supervise Caleb Peng in his work in the Respect Program. I agree that Project Unspoken’s videos are just a part of the solution, but we are truly creating a movement here at Emory.

    Lauren (LB) Bernstein, MSW
    Coordinator of the Respect Program
    Engaging the Emory community to prevent & respond to sexual assault & relationship violence
    Office of Health Promotion, Emory University Student Health & Counseling Services
    Division of Campus Life

    • thanks so much for sharing that, lauren. i look forward to watching it. i hope i didn’t sound to harsh/negative in my original post — i absolutely believe that both you and caleb are working toward a positive solution — i guess i am just really sad about the way things are in general, and feel too cynical to get full-on thrilled about any one attempt at a solution. every little bit does count though and if these videos can spark a movement at emory and beyond i will be behind you 100%.

  3. I realized while reading this article that I don’t think of sexual assault in hypothetical terms – it’s more of a “when” than an “if.”

    And statistically speaking, that’s pretty much justified.

    • yes, i do this too. honestly writing this was a lot harder than i thought it was going to be and it made me pretty depressed yesterday. that’s why i am genuinely hopeful about projects like “project unspoken” because i just feel so overwhelmed by the problem and to know other people — particularly men, tbh — are also concerned and also trying to change things is at least a little bit helpful and calming to me.

  4. I make sure to talk to my straight white cis gender male friends about things like this, although it makes both of us uncomfortable. Sometimes they’ll feel like they need to defend themselves, but I tell them just to listen, just to be aware; to think about my perspective.

  5. We’ve just set up Hollaback! Dublin and are about to launch the site. We’ve gotten a lot of media attention and it is scary how many people just don’t get it.
    The views vary in severity, from ‘a wolf whistle is just a compliment’, ‘when men stop pinching your bum is when you have to worry’, to more severe ‘these are hysterical women who lie through their teeth’, ‘no woman is afraid of street harassment, it doesn’t happen’. They also see no connection between street harassment, sexual assault and rape.
    So thank you for writing this, and restoring my faith in what we’re doing.

  6. Thank you for this. The past few weeks I’ve been struggling with trying to vocalize why I don’t have many male friends – I can’t trust men as easily, and it takes a lot more for me to deem them worthwhile as friends – because of this. Because I don’t know which guy in a room could rape me. Because I don’t know which friend of mine will bring a buddy who could end up being the wrong sort of person. Because I’m more afraid of running into the “friend-of-a-friend” who could rape me at a party than I am of that dirty looking guy at the bus stop. Unfortunately, I just come off as being misandronyst and making blanket statements about all men because for every 10 nice guys I meet, I have to be wary for which one could end up being a predator.

  7. Dear Vanessa–

    Thank you for writing this. I passed your article around my day job today to all the dudes I work with. They’re all wonderful feminists and intellectually understand the presence of rape culture, but their eyes widened at the differences between the answers. And the statistics at the end. I don’t think any amount of intellectual understanding prepares people to actually see, without any agenda or leading, the huge disparity in those answers. So thank you for a very deep, good discussion in our break room today.


  8. May I ask an unpopular (and maybe uncomfortable) question?

    What about incidences involving women who have done the harassing/assaulting? I’m especially thinking about cases of child molestation, although there may be cases of this occurring with adults.

    I apologize if I’m missing the point or going to far in the wrong direction. I’m just thinking about this from the viewpoint that humans can harm or love one another, regardless of gender. Not to whitewash or dismiss the issues raised in the article…

    • hey, i don’t think this is unpopular or uncomfortable. it’s true, women can also be responsible for sexual harassment and assault, though it is statistically more likely that a man will be. this article is written the way it is for a few reasons:

      1. it is written from my personal experience/feelings (even though i cognitively know women can also harm me, i am more scared of men when i’m alone at night)

      2. i think project unspoken’s video focuses on the different ways women and men have to lead their lives based on the assumption of assault, and the fact is, whether men or women are doing the assaulting, it is women, not men, who change the way they live their lives to actively keep themselves safe, or at least try to — does that make sense? the point is the world in which we live forces women to be vigilant and alert at all times, not men, because the assumption is that a women WILL get hurt, whereas that assumption does not exist for a man.

      speaking about women who do sexually harass or assault other humans is an important issue, particularly in the queer community, but it’s just not really what this specific article was about.

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