Hollaback! empowers silenced victims of street harassment

Emily May cofounded Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to sheding light on issues surrounding street harassment. She encourages students to respond to these incidents and take a stand against harassers. Photo By: Fast Company
Emily May cofounded Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to sheding light on issues surrounding street harassment. She encourages students to respond to these incidents and take a stand against harassers. Photo By: Fast Company
Emily May cofounded Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to sheding light on issues surrounding street
harassment. She encourages students to respond to these incidents and take a stand against harassers. Photo By: Fast Company

Street harassment brings oppression into the public sphere in a vocal way, functioning to degrade and silence women. Given society’s normalization of the practice, many feel as though they are unable to speak out against it. Hollaback! seeks to give women back their voices.

On April 17, CARES hosted a lecture by Emily May, cofounder and executive director of Hollaback!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending street harassment. May’s talk defined street harassment and laid out strategies for victims and bystanders. It also covered the background and nature of the organization.

Laura Green ‘13, a member of CARES and a key organizer of this event, wrote in an emailed statement, “CARES brought Emily to speak as a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Week, which is a week of events that we put together each year in April to mark national Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The theme of our programming this year was ‘I feel strong,’ focusing on the strength of survivors of sexual assault and those who support them.”

May began with the basics. She said, “What is street harassment? It’s really just sexual harassment that happens in public space.” She went on to acknowledge the difficulty of defining public space and explained that it is best to classify street harassment in terms of behaviors, like lewd comments, inappropriate gestures, touching, public masturbation and leering.

Started in 2005, Hollaback! is now a worldwide volunteer-based organization with chapters in 64 cities and 22 counties—and it’s growing fast. One of its main resources for victims of street harassment is a free smartphone application that allows people to plot an incident of harassment on a map, often including a photo and a story. May described Hollaback’s origins as particularly humble. It stemmed from a conversation between close friends, sparked by an incident in which a woman took a photo of a man publically masturbating.

“I didn’t realize the extent to which [street harassment]  was a problem until I started talking to my friends about it,” she said, highlighting the moment when it became obvious to herthat it was universally experienced—and universally accepted as normal. “[It’s] the most prevalent form of gender-based violence,” she said. May conducted an anonymous survey of the audience members, asking them about their experiences with harassment. When asked, “Have you ever been stared at or gestured towards in an offensive way in public?” students responded with: 62 percent replied with “more than once.”

Jacqueline Krass ’16 said, “Growing up in NYC, almost every woman I know has experienced street harassment at least once, or for many, nearly every day, and yet everyone seems to see it as an unavoidable female issue. Street harassment is usually seen as inconveniencing but minor, and May’s lecture showed how pervasive and damaging it can be.

“These responses are consistent with other colleges and universities,” said May.

At college as well as in the outside world, street harassment is normalized, May said. Many people, she explained, say it is embedded in our culture. “What they really mean is that it’s a Black and Latino male thing…but this is happening across race and gender lines.” The research her organization has produced suggests that high occurrences of street harassment are more based on population density than any other factors.

“You never know when it’s going to happen and it’s happening multiple times throughout your life,” said May. Given the prevalence of the practice, May believes it is crucial to give women the tools to combat the harassment.

May started off not by giving strategies, but by reassuring audience members. “The reality is it’s not your responsibility to do the right thing,” she said. However, she also maintained that having some kind of response, whether in the moment, such as confronting the harasser,or later, such as sharing a story on Hollaback!, can reduce long-term trauma. She said an effective response is to look someone in the eye and tell them it is not acceptable, recognizing that it may escalate from there and that one should not try to engage beyond the initial confrontation. In addition to defending oneself, one should always prepared to help others as well. Said May, “My favorite strategy is to just ask that person if they’re okay.” Giving this person agency, she stated, is crucial: “Give them that power of choosing how you intervene.”

Students can also get involved on a broader level. Hollaback! provides training to those who want to start a new chapter and lets volunteers focus on what is most important to them. Green said, “Personally, I was most excited to hear about the process by which Hollaback! chapters have been started around the world. I appreciated May’s conviction that site leaders know their respective cities best, and therefore should have the autonomy to do whatever they feel is most necessary and effective to combat street harassment in their own contexts, rather than proscribing an institutional strategy to be implemented indiscriminately. From a Scottish chapter who worked to get their Parliament to release a formal statement against street harassment, to the Philly chapter who started a recent subway ad campaign, Hollaback!ers have approached street harassment in a variety of effective and exciting ways.”

Krass agreed, stating, “Her explanation of the power dynamic within the Hollaback! organization was really interesting…and provided an alternative to the all-powerful leader model we see in other non-profits.”.
Jackson Miller ’16, a member of CARES, wrote: “I think that street harassment is something that most people accept as a fact of life, and that it’s incredibly important to call attention to its significant impact and the fact that there are ways to fight it.”

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