Street harassment is not something that’s only a big problem in pedestrian-heavy places like New York City. It’s not something that’s only a problem in the United States. It’s a global issue—and Hollaback! has the stories and stats to prove it.
The nonprofit started as an “activist side project” in New York City in 2005, and is now a movement to end street harassment that has spread to 79 cities in 26 countries. Hollaback! allows people to share experiences, and also provides resources on how to respond to harassment and research on the “State of the Streets.”
Executive director Emily May says that while Hollaback! started in the city, she and the other leaders knew they could only be experts in their own experiences and communities. Each Hollaback! site works to define the problem and the solution in their own area, but information is also shared within the network. “If somebody has a killer idea for how to address street harassment in Mumbai, we want to make sure that folks in Boston know what that idea is, and vice versa,” May says.
The work of each site goes beyond the Internet—so don’t call ‘em blogs. “Anybody can launch a blog. We can launch a blog in every city around the world by the end of today if we wanted to,” May says. “What makes it distinct is… that there’s on-the-ground action happening that’s really helping to build out that movement.”
AIF spoke to May more about building a successful international campaign, how storytelling is helping to tackle a global issue, and why Hollaback! stops short of trying to make street harassment illegal:
Ashley: On your Hollaback! site, there are a lot of stories of people’s experiences with street harassment. What do feel at Hollaback! is the power of those stories, and how do they help other people who are reading about those experiences?
Emily: I think there’s different layers to it. So one layer is that the act of telling your story through the Hollaback! website puts you through a reframing process. So you’ll go in saying, ‘My street harassment is a personal problem that I have,’ then you’ll come out of that process of telling your story and think, ‘Actually, it was directed at me, but this is a societal problem. This is about a bigger world that we live in, not necessarily about a personal problem that I have.’
The next piece of it is around empathy building. People read those stories and realize that, No. 1, they’re not alone, they’re not the only one this happens to; and No. 2, this is a huge problem with serious impacts. We’re not just talking about something that is annoying; we’re talking about something that’s really scary. And I think that’s a big deal. And beyond that, we take these stories and we map them for legislators. We put them along district lines, and we say, ‘Look what’s happening in your district. You need to support interventions to prevent this, through education and public service announcements and research.’
We take those stories and we also do research on them. We worked with Cornell University to do a content analysis of those stories and really build out a model for what street harassment looks like [and] what the experience of street harassment is.
So it’s storytelling for you, but it’s also storytelling for the world.
A: What other types of things could public figures or elected officials possibly do to address street harassment?
E: We’re really focused on them doing efforts that really prevent street harassment from happening in the first place. So we want to see street harassment curriculum in schools, and we want to see teachers and administrators taking meaningful efforts to respond to street harassment when their students experience it. And I think that’s something that the council [and] legislators can work on. We want to see more research on street harassment, and that doesn’t mean that we need a street harassment study necessarily—although that would be lovely. What it means is, on the national level, we want the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to integrate questions about street harassment into the surveys they’re already doing.
On the local level, we want the Department of Health to integrate questions about street harassment into what they’re already doing. And also, funding specific research would be great, too. And then we also really want to see public service announcement campaigns happening, which is something that legislators can fund, and funding groups that are working on the issue.
The legislators also have a huge role in affecting public opinion. So we want to see them speaking up and speaking out about it regularly. But what we’re not pushing legislators to do is [increase] criminalization for these things.
I think that’s notable because most people are like, ‘We’re going to make this illegal, right? That’s what you’re trying to do?’ And I get that kind of knee-jerk reaction, just make it illegal, and legislators have that same reaction, too. But if you look at histories of making things illegal, like drugs, it doesn’t really work, right? Everybody’s still doing drugs, no matter how illegal we’ve made it.
You look deeper at it and… we have stories on our site of police officers being the ones doing the harassing. There’s tremendous concern amongst low-income communities and communities of color that if we were to make street harassment illegal and enforce that, that those laws would be disproportionately applied to those communities. And then also just the experience of the person being harassed: You start reporting every single harasser to the police, and you’re going to be in a police station all day long. I think the police certainly have a role, but for us the answer isn’t about increasing criminalization.
A: I noticed also that the CDC categorizes street harassment as sexual violence, and I’ve never thought about it like that. Have you had any pushback as far as people saying, ‘Oh no, this isn’t a big deal, this is just annoying but not really a problem’? Have you had anybody try to downplay the cause?
E: All the time. We do see street harassment on the spectrum of gender-based violence. Obviously, it is a lot less intense than sexual assault. But what we see is that it happens a lot more often. Somebody who’s getting street harassed every day may exhibit the same psychological impacts as somebody who’s been sexually assaulted. So that includes anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Just the other day there was a tweet-up about street harassment, and somebody said, ‘I have anxiety attacks when I leave my house because of fear of harassment.’ So that’s very, very real, and we really want to continue to push the government, like the CDC. Also, sexual violence providers, people that are already doing counseling for sexual violence survivors, people that are already running hotlines and providing legal services—we want to see them really think about street harassment on that spectrum, and start to provide services to those people when needed.
I think in terms of people saying, ‘Oh, street harassment doesn’t matter.’ Saying, ‘Oh, you should just grow a thicker skin,’ we hear that all the time. ‘Just ignore it, they’re just looking for attention from you.’ You know, it’s a lot of the same stuff that people said about bullying. You know, ‘Boys will be boys,’ that kind of thing. And it’s just bullshit. People making a bunch of excuses. And those people are going to look back into history and think, ‘God, I can’t believe I said that. Street harassment is obviously not OK,’ in the same way that those people were saying the exact same thing about harassment in the workplace.
A: When did you guys start expanding to other cities within the United States and then to other countries?
E: So almost as soon as Hollaback! started in 2005, people were like, ‘We want this in our city.’ And we were like, ‘That’s great!’ So what we did first is this 25-page start-up packet, and it was, ‘Here’s everything that we know about running a Hollaback! site.’ And we gave it to them, and we said, ‘Feel free to use the name, do your own thing, this is going to be great.’ And what we saw, from 2005 to 2009, is that 20 different Hollaback! sites launched, all with different leadership, different branding, different communication, but that there was no mechanism, really, for all of those different sites to both look like they were a movement and part of the same movement externally. They weren’t connected to each other, they had a totally different look and feel and language around them, but I think more importantly, internally, there wasn’t the connectivity of it being a real movement.
We weren’t talking and sharing best practices and we didn’t necessarily come from a shared set of values or understanding about the work. Twenty sites launched, but only one of them was ultimately successful. But we continued to have people request sites. So we interviewed all 20 of the sites and said, ‘Where did we go wrong? What could have been helpful?’ And one the things they consistently said was, ‘We want more training [and] more resources.’
So we gave them one one-hour training on how to run a site, and asked for feedback, and they were like, ‘We want more.’ So we did two, and now we’re up to five. And we’ve seen that that really helps people, it helps to make sure everybody is on the same page, that we do have a shared set of values coming into the work, and we’re starting to see really awesome, creative interventions to street harassment.
A: What do you have planned for the future of Hollaback!?
E: We want to make Hollaback! sites as prolific as Starbucks. We want at least one in every city, and I’d be fine if there were three in some cities. There’s already two in New York City, because we have one at NYU, and then one is [this office]. I think we really especially want to expand our presence in Africa and Asia, and do more work there.
I think there’s a lot of room for us to continue to work in the space of addressing street harassment in schools; we hear so many concerns in that space. … They’re these environments where the problem of street harassment is like the Wild Wild West, but with schools it is a confined environment and there are people who can do something about it.