It’s May and our focus this month is on combatting harassment. In an international survey, 85 percent of American women reported experiencing street harassment by age 17. Hollaback! is an organization providing tools and resources to ignite public conversations and develop strategies to end harassment. We sat down with Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, to talk about the cellphone pic that sparked a movement, new legislation, and what you can do online and in the streets.
Shrill Society: I first learned of Hollaback! in 2014. By then, the organization had already been around for almost a decade. Can you talk about the founding of Hollaback! and your personal pathway to advocacy?
Emily May: Hollaback! started back in 2005. I was 24 years old. My friends and I―there were seven of us total―we were sitting around talking about our experiences with harassment. We felt like, when we walked on and didn’t say anything, we felt weak. When we would respond back with a witty response, it would just escalate. There was no real solution to harassment. We started to think, “This isn’t something we put up with in the workplace. Why are we putting up with it on the street and in other forms of public spaces?” We were inspired by a young woman named Thao Nguyen, who was riding the New York City subway when a man sat down across from her and started to publicly masturbate. Thao pulled out her cellphone camera and took his picture with the idea of taking it to the police. But when she took it to the police, the police were like, “We’re sorry, but there is nothing we can do. He’s probably seven or eight stops away already.” So she put that picture on Flickr. It went viral and made it to the front cover of the New York Daily News. We were inspired by her ability to turn the lens away from her and onto the person who was harassing her using this tool that we had in our pockets―this newfangled cellphone camera that nobody had really figured out what it would mean for the world, for society, for any of us...
Shrill Society: I think we’re still trying to figure that out.
Right. So, we took our experiences of harassment and turned them into a blog and that has scaled out into a global movement that’s now in 21 cities and 16 countries around the world.
Many people can recognize catcalling as a form of harassment in public space. What are some other forms that may go underrecognized?
Verbal harassment is definitely a form of harassment, but also non-verbal harassment might be things like gestures, grunts, animal noises, lip smacking, lip licking. All of that kind of stuff is under the rubric of harassment, as well as physical forms of harassment. Things that start to even blur into assault, which is groping, public masturbation, all of these things are broadly under the umbrella we use to talk about sexual harassment. I would also point out that sexual harassment is on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum may be comments and things of that nature and the other end is sexual assault.
Hollaback! Suggests bystander intervention can be a best practice for stopping these forms of harassment. Can you talk about what that means and what resources Hollaback! offers to educate people on effective bystander intervention?
When we started to tell our own stories about harassment, we started to map them globally. We looked at the map and we thought, “This is pretty depressing. Is there anything remotely positive that happens when it comes to being harassed?” We started to think that the only positive stories we ever received were when somebody stood up and helped somebody else out. Back in 2012, we partnered with Green Dot [bystander program] and started to adapt their training to respond to harassment in public spaces. That continues to be a big part of our work. When it comes to things like harassment in public spaces, there’s not a lot of systems in place to address the problem and the systems that are in place like the police, for example, have their own histories of harassment and communities don’t necessarily feel safer with them around. I think, when it comes to solving a problem as big as harassment, it really takes a community approach. People looking out for people is something as old as time, but, when it comes to sexual harassment, they often forget how. Bystander intervention is very simply equipping them with tools so they can directly or indirectly intervene and support folks who are getting harassed.