Gender Harassment: From Our Revolution to Yours

by Emily May

HollabackNYC started in 2005 the way a lot of good revolutions must begin – as conversations with friends over a couple of drinks. The seven of us commiserated over being whistled at, cat-called, and propositioned, with each story earning a chorus of “uggg” “ewww” and “gross!”

The trouble was that we felt there was nothing we could do. If we walked on, we felt victimized. If we yelled, we felt angry. Witty comebacks had their charm, but they always came late, and street harassment was more or less protected under laws of free speech. Then we realized – why not take pictures of these street harassers and post them on a blog? And so, with the clink of our cocktail glasses, we launched HollabackNYC, a blog dedicated to giving women an empowered response to street harassment.

Within six months of launching, HollabackNYC found itself in the center of a media storm. The confluence of street harassment, technology and cell phone cameras made great news, and we were featured on CW11,
 ABC, Fox, and in Bust. We were covered by local papers too, and began getting about 1,500 hits a day. HollabackNYC had hit a nerve.

This was a moment that we hadn’t imagined. The blog wasn’t a protest or a letter writing campaign, but it was making change. The Internet gave us access to a worldwide community, and cracked open a conversation about street harassment from India to Indiana.

We received letters from men who had no idea that their wives and daughters were the subjects of street harassment. After reading about HollabackNYC, they started concerned conversations with family members and learned how close the topic came. We received stories that were over 30 years old from women who wished they’d had HollabackNYC at that time. Most heart wrenching, we heard from young girls – some only 12 or 13 – who told us of their first experiences with street harassment. HollabackNYC gave a voice to their experiences.

Inspired by the success of HollabackNYC, women across the world launched over 15 affiliate Hollaback sites. In New York City, the Police Department went undercover in June of 2006 to find public masturbators in an initiative called “Operation Exposure.” The police caught 13 men on the subways the first weekend. In the midst of the uproar, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer released a report in July 2007 on the prevalence of harassment in the subways, finding that 63 percent of the male and female subway riders that responded had been harassed, and 10 percent had been assaulted. The Metropolitan Transit Authority posted anti-harassment ads on the subways.

Part of what made HollabackNYC work was magic, but there are also elements that I hope can be successfully applied from our revolution to yours.

First, HollabackNYC used everyday tools as weapons. We combined cell phone cameras with blogs to seek social change in a new way. Technology was the spoonful of sugar that made the messages go down.

Second, street harassment was a common experience for women. In the U.S., 61 percent of women reported being harassed “often” or “everyday,” according to Laura Beth Nielson’s 2004 “License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy, and Offensive Public Speech.” The widespread effect drew traffic to the site and, more importantly, drew attention to the issue.

Third, HollabackNYC bridged the personal with the political. The content of the blog is made up entirely of stories, but bringing awareness to the issue had political impact. Still, grounding the issue in women’s everyday experiences kept us focused on the goal of ending street harassment.

Fourth, HollabackNYC had multiple options for involvement. A person could read the blog, comment, send us a post or start a local affiliate. These levels of engagement gave people a way to participate on their own terms with minimal commitment. With each post receiving 1,500 hits a day, they also could have an impact.

Lastly, HollabackNYC was fun. We did everything we could to make the tone of the project sassy – from calling street harassers “turds” in our banners, to coming up with witty headlines. We wanted the experience of telling these stories to feel empowering, and the women themselves to feel like superheroes.

We have different tools now than we did when HollabackNYC was launched – from Twitter to a new President. As activists, we can use these experiences to envision how to make the next revolution now.

March 23. 2009

Emily May is co-founder of She is also a board member of Girls for Gender Equity and recently co-founded New Yorkers for Safe Transit. Emily has a Master’s degree in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and lives in Brooklyn.

Also see Youth Videos Push Back Gender Violenceby rebecca s. a. connie and Tara Malik in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See MILK and Recruiting for Rights by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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