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Hollaback and the War Against Street Harassment

Despite the insistence that cat calling is a form of flattery, it’s actually sexual harassment and most women wish it would stop. Emily May is the Executive Director of Hollaback!, an organization working to fight street harassment. Hollaback! educates...
January 24, 2013, 7:24pm

Photos courtesy of SPIN magazine and Elizabeth Rapport/Ms. Foundation for Women

Despite the insistence that cat calling is a form of flattery, it’s actually sexual harassment and most women wish it would stop. Emily May is the Executive Director of Hollaback!, an organization working to fight street harassment. Hollaback! educates the public about street harassment and collects data to present to legislators, encouraging them to take action against the constant bombardment of lewd comments many women endure every day. They work with local activists all over the world — 62 cities in 25 countries and counting — and want to create a world where everyone can walk down the street without the fear of being leered at, harassed, or assaulted. In addition to on-the-ground activism, Hollaback! uses digital storytelling on their website to help victims of harassment share their stories and find a supportive community.


VICE: How did Hollaback! come into being?
We heard this story of a young woman who was riding the New York City subway [in 2005] and she saw a guy publicly masturbating across from her, and she took his picture with her cell phone camera. She took it to the police, the police didn’t care, she put it on Flickr, it went viral, made it to the front cover of the Daily News and ignited this city-wide conversation about public masturbation. And here was this girl, she was in her early 20s, and she was just able to take out her cell phone camera, turn the lens off of her, put it onto him, and in doing that ignite this huge conversation. It resonated with so many people because so many people had had that same thing happen to them. And we were like: that is so awesome. Why don’t we start a little blog where everyone can submit their stories and we’ll see how it goes, and it just exploded.

I think part of it was that we were using technology in a way that was interesting to people, but most of it was just the fact that this was an issue that everyone was sick and tired of, everyone was at a loss for a solution, and all of a sudden we had cell phone cameras and blogs and people were like ‘awesome, game on. There is a glimmer of a hope of a solution in here somewhere, let’s do it.’

What do you mean when you say ‘street harassment?’ How is it different from a man respectfully approaching a woman on the street, and is there a way to do that?
I think street harassment kind of ruins it for the good guys in the world. I would love to live in a world where dudes said, “Good morning, you look awesome,” and it was totally nice and pleasant and that was that. But the reality is that with street harassment, as soon as you respond to a comment like, “Good morning, you look awesome,” or even just “Good morning,” you run the risk of it escalating into something worse.


We just heard this story that happened in San Francisco last week where the woman just ignored this guy. The guy turned around and slashed her in the face and stabbed her in the arm. I mean that’s an extreme example, but in my own life I’ve seen “Good morning” escalate into “I wanna fuck the shit out of you” really quickly, which is not only unpleasant, but actually really scary because I don’t know where it goes from there.

Where and when is street harassment most common?
We’re mapping street harassment around the world and we’re really seeing that it’s high-density areas. If one out of every 100 people you pass on the street is gonna harass you, it’s gonna take you a lot longer for that to happen in a Wal-Mart parking lot than it will in Times Square. And it’s disproportionately impacting young people and women. Within those two subgroups it’s also disproportionately affecting low-income people because they spend more time traveling in public space and using public transportation. A lot of times because there’s just more ways for people of color to be harassed — they can be harassed for being a person of color and for being a woman at the same time, and also LGBTQ folks, because again, they can be harassed for being those things and a woman, and a person of color all at the same time.

It sounds like you see street harassment as more of a foundation or starting point for a lot of the bigger problems. Is that true?
It’s definitely on a spectrum of sexual violence, and the extreme end of the spectrum is rape, and this is at the other end of the spectrum. It has a lot of the same consequences, especially because for a lot of people it’s not something that just happens once, it happens repeatedly over long periods of time, and so it’s depression, it’s post traumatic stress disorder, it’s anxiety, it’s those exact things that you’ll see happen to people who have experienced more severe forms of sexual violence.


How do you think the constant threat of being harassed affects the way we live our daily lives?
There’s a woman who’s doing a study about the psychological impact of having consistent but unpredictable fear in your life, how it affects your ability to complete a task. So, her model was to put rats in mazes and have them try to find food. Rats are scared of cats—cats would sort of be like rape in this situation. She would put tufts of cat hair in random corners that were different every time, and what she was interested in was if the rats would just give up on the food, if they would just be paralyzed by it, if they would have anxiety, what would happen.

Was that study concluded?
It’s still going on. It’s just interesting to think about randomized fear when trying to complete tasks; never knowing when that scary thing is gonna happen, and the anticipation of that scary thing happening, and never knowing when that tuft of hair is gonna be an actual cat.

Right, never knowing when the harasser is actually a rapist.
Exactly. A huge part of it is that fear, I think. And it also just serves to keep people in their place and remind them, “these aren’t your streets, these are my streets, you’re not allowed to be who you are.” And it’s not just women, it’s also lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people, it’s also men. We see it a lot with gay men, but we also see it with straight men, particularly those who aren’t conforming to normative gender stuff, maybe their jeans are a little too tight, maybe they’re a little short. Whatever it is, we’ll see them being harassed just for being who they are, too.


I saw some things on your site about how young street harassment tends to start, pretty much as soon as you hit puberty, or even before. I feel like that has to affect women’s view of themselves if as soon as you start to develop you’re suddenly a target. What do you think about that, specifically?
In Tina Fey’s Bossypants they talked about this large-scale workshop she did in preparation for writing Mean Girls, where women across different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds talked about the first time they knew they were a woman. And across the board, almost everyone said when they knew they were a woman was the first time some guy yelled something nasty at them on the street. In my own experience, street harassment was the first time that I really experienced what sexism looks like.

I had a lot of positive reinforcement from my parents. Their goal was to raise me to be confident and strong, and I just wonder about those girls that don’t get complements, that aren’t told they’re smart or hard working, and then the first time they get a compliment is some dude telling them they have nice tits or a great ass—how does that shape the way that you think about yourself, the way that you think about the value that you bring to the world, when your first compliments are harassment?

There’s a position that women actually enjoy being cat-called, that it’s a form of validation. Do you buy that at all?
No, because if you like it, it’s not harassment. I think people have an internal radar, and things that aren’t scary, things that are said with a nice, genuine tone of voice, you know, you can say to somebody “nice jeans” in way that’s really sweet. Or you can look them up and down in a creepy way and stare at their butt as you say “nice jeans,” and all of a sudden it’s not so flattering anymore, it kind of just makes you feel like crap. I think people have a good read on intention, and, look, we’re not saying we’re gonna lock you up for saying “nice jeans” in the wrong way, we are saying that a little respect and kindness in the world goes a long way. It’s good for everyone. It’s something worth practicing—thinking about what we say and how it affects other people.


What do you recommend that people do when they experience street harassment?
The first thing is just to make sure that you feel safe. There’s no action worth taking if you feel like it compromises your safety. The second thing is that studies show that if you have some response it will lead you to be less traumatized in the long run. And you may not think to yourself, “oh that’s gonna cause long-term trauma,” but you start to add it up with every other time that’s happened, and you will see that people do experience forms of trauma related to street harassment.

Now, what you do can be a wide variety of things. If you choose to interact with your harasser, you want to be clear and say, “That is unacceptable, you can’t say that to me.” Name the behavior, tell them it’s not good, and keep moving. Don’t escalate it, you want to say it in a strong and firm voice, but you don’t want to have a conversation with them. You are not a one-woman street harassment education machine. A lot of them are looking to engage with you, and will use it as a way to come back and say “Oh, baby come talk to me more about that,” or, “Well, you’re ugly anyway, bitch.” So just keep it moving.

If you don’t want to engage with them in the moment, it’s really important to share your story with anybody; your roommate, your best friend. is a really great place to go. The thing that Hollaback! can do that your best friend can’t do, is we actually take that data and map it, we aggregate it, we get it in front of legislators, and say “look at what is happening.”

Other things you can do are start a rally, do some street art, design a comic—I mean really, any response that you have is better than no response. Instead of just kind of shoving it under, or doing what I used to, thinking that the reason it upset me was because I wasn’t a strong enough person, you start asking around and realize that actually everybody’s pretty unhappy with it.

The idea of rape culture has been in the news a lot lately, between Ohio and India, do you feel like that’s connected to street harassment?
We’re living in a culture where sexual violence is acceptable, where it’s just the price you pay for being a woman and leaving your house. That’s what we talk about when we talk about culture—the idea that this is just normal, this is just something that happens. Nobody wants to live in a world like that, we all want to live in world where we all feel happy and safe and comfortable and we can say good morning to each other as we walk down the street and nobody has to worry about that escalating into something else. And yet, for some reason, that’s not where we are, and that’s what we’re trying to build.