Stories about groping, catcalls, indecent exposure, and molesting in public are not new for people living in urban areas everywhere. From irritating and annoying comments by confused miscreants to serious offences and physical harm inflicted by dangerous criminals, they come in all shapes, sizes and forms, unfortunately becoming an integral part of a street credo and culture that refuses to go away. Although public chastising of a groper or the arrest of a harasser occasionally makes headlines, the behavior largely continues unabated.
“Only a cultural shift can stop it,” says 33-year-old Emily May, who is leading a massive effort to stop street harassment from perpetuating further. Emily’s organization “Hollaback” started as a part-time blog and has quickly become an influential non-profit organization inspiring a major global movement intent on ending the cycle of sexual harassment.
Born in 1981 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Emily dreamt of becoming the CEO of a major international corporation. “I loved drinking Pepsi and I did nurture dreams of becoming the company’s CEO,” she says. When she was 15, volunteering for her church, Emily was sent to Washington D.C. to work in a homeless shelter. “It was my first experience of the inequality around us,” she recalls. “It’s so unfair that there are people with so much in this world, and yet there are many with so little.” Moved by the extreme poverty and helplessness clearly evident among genuinely nice people in the shelter, she abandoned her ambition of becoming a CEO, and decided to become an anti-poverty activist.
Looking over the streets from her modest office in Brooklyn, NY, Emily smiles the entire time, and peppers every second sentence with an outburst of full-throated laughter. “To work in the anti-poverty world,” she says, “I had to move to a place with a large concentration of poor people.” The opportunity presented itself in 1999, when she joined New York University (NYU) for her undergraduate degree.
It was there that Emily experienced street harassment for the first time. Though infuriated by the lewd comments about her body and appearance made by strangers in public she, like many others, learned to accept it as a part of city life. “I couldn’t believe the extent to which sexism had infiltrated into every day life, and there was no one doing anything about it,” she said.
In addition to learning about the brutal realities of life in the big city, Emily was also learning about the struggles of the less privileged. “I was disturbed by the gross demonstration of wealth, consumerism, discrimination and racism, especially in NYU.”
Then in 2005, Emily had a memorable conversation with friends about abuse they’d faced. “There were three men in the group who were shocked and surprised to hear our stories. Their reaction convinced us that what was happening to us women was wrong, and we all decided to take action.” The idea for Hollaback—the blog— was born at the end of the conversation. It was conceived as a platform for people to post their stories about their experience with street harassment.
Around this same time, a young woman by the name of Thao Nygen had triggered a huge debate about public masturbation in New York City, after she snapped a picture on her cell phone of a man masturbating on the subway. When the police ignored her complaint, she posted the picture to Flickr, sending it viral and drawing attention from millions of people. The picture eventually found its way to the front page of New York Daily News. The man was identified as an upper middle-class businessman, who was arrested and charged with lewd behavior. For Emily, the incident demonstrated how modern technology could capture experiences and spread the word fast. Camera phones were quickly becoming ubiquitous and individuals could post pictures of their harassers on the web.
Initially, Hollaback was only a part-time project and Emily was still working a full-time job. But the word about Hollaback spread and stories started pouring in from hundreds of harassed victims, sending a clear message that a blog maintained part-time was not enough to address the enormity of the issue. “My come-to-Jesus moment was when a traumatized 16-year-old girl sent me an email,” she explains. “This girl had seen a man expose himself and touch his genitals in public and was seriously disturbed. She couldn’t tell her parents because she feared that they would not let her get out of the house.” A lot of thought by then had gone into how Hollaback could make a difference and Emily took the next big step.
In May 2010, Emily left her well-paying job to dedicate all her time to Hollaback. “The issue was bubbling and ready,” she reminisces. “I applied for three scholarships and two fellowships, and got rejected by them all. I said chuck it. I am doing it anyways,” she laughs.
She had realized early that a change in the cultural perspectives was the only long-term solution. “We have tried everything, haven’t we?” asks Emily. “Taking an alternative route, wearing headphones, avoiding eye-contact, ignoring the abusers or worse confronting them.” Accepting street harassment as a legitimate and pressing problem, according to Emily, is the first step towards making streets safe for everyone. “People said I was crazy,” she laughs. “They said that nothing could be done about street harassment because ‘boys will be boys.’”
Since 2010, the Hollaback team has collected more than 5,000 stories in over 14 languages, including Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Hebrew, Hindi, and Turkish. However, Hollaback has evolved beyond simply providing a platform for narrating harassment online. Working with local legislators and districts, it aims to use the stories to gather data specific to local areas and convince local leaders to develop and implement policies that address issues in their jurisdiction.
To better understand the deep-seated issue, Emily has also spoken to many abusers. She’s found that most of those who resorted to verbal harassment were unaware of the impact their words had on their victims. “It’s a culture of sexism, and a misguided belief that it’s okay to pass comments,” she says. “We are not a therapy program nor a policing body, we are working to create a cultural and social change by raising awareness to stop the behavior from getting passed down as a legacy.”
While her fight is against the culture of street harassment, Emily says punitive measures are not the solution. “Criminalizing the issue can only lead to stereotyping and targeting people of color and low-income groups.” She also mentions that having a law passed would be the easiest and least-expensive thing to do, but it’s also the least effective. “It costs money to get people riled up, and take a strong stand against harassment and eliminate it from its roots. By-standers have an important role to play by becoming aware and openly standing up against any abuse they witness.”
Hollaback has continued to evolve and expand as it works to change our perception and tolerance of street harassment. To date, more than 350 site leaders have launched active Hollaback chapters in 71 cities across 24 countries. “Taking a concern, and watching it grow into this explosive global movement seems like an incredible blessing,” Emily said. “I know one thing for sure; I am not crazy. Street harassment is.”
Want to learn more?
Hollaback is a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world. We work together to better understand street harassment, to ignite public conversations, and to develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces.LEARN MORE
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