August 23, 2010
On a recent afternoon, a friend of mine was walking to work across the New Haven Green when a stranger decided he needed her. “Needed me,” she stressed, incredulous, as she recounted the story over the phone. She was crying quietly at work. After proclaiming the necessity of her company, her love, her body, this man proceeded to follow her, taunting her from a few meters behind. She asked him to stop, first firmly but politely, then hysterically. He mocked her anxious gestures. My friend asked passersby to intervene—“I’m being harassed!”—but all she got were a few apologetic shrugs. From her office, she listed the details that left her so confused: her hidden skin, the daylight, the public setting. Desperately she asked me, “Where is the safe space?”
There is a corner of the blogosphere attempting to be this haven. The most prominent set of sites are the Hollaback blogs, like HollabackNYC, started by New Yorker Emily May in 2005. Protected by the anonymity of the internet, women can post accounts of street harassment, along with hastily taken camera phone shots of the perpetrators, on city-specific blogs. While some stories depict the expected catcalls and ogling, many tell of public masturbation, often on subways.
Most critiques of these blogs focus on the ambiguity of their purpose. It is unclear what exactly the goals of the Hollaback sites are, let alone whether they accomplish them. While some initially assume the blogs are used to track down perpetrators—indeed, Jezebel.com reported earlier this month that a subway “pervert” was just apprehended based on his tweeted picture, unconnected to Hollaback—the site does not promote this tactic, nor report any successes. Earlier this year Hollaback posted a series of ten videos of women explaining “Why I Hollaback,” but none actually clarify—they simply recount stories much like the written posts, simply in a different medium. A comfortable community to share such stories has a certain therapeutic utility, but reading through story after story, it is clear that a virtual safe space will not fully satisfy many of these women, nor my friend on the phone. A place to talk is helpful, but many could use a platform from which to act.
Such was the thinking of Holly Kearl, a former George Washington University student now working for the American Association of University Women in D.C. At GW, Kearl wrote her master’s thesis on street harassment, and was inspired to continue work in the field after a CNN report cited her paper. Although Kearl freely admits she “probably wouldn’t be doing street harassment work if it weren’t for Hollaback,” which she discussed in her thesis, she found their approach problematic. “Their model is just to take a guy’s photo and put it on the website, which doesn’t really change the behavior,” she said in an interview with Broad Recognition. Kearl believed online resources, like guides on legal rights and self-defense, were badly needed to help women battle the systemic problem.
To address this dearth of information, in 2008 Kearl started two “Stop Street Harassment!” websites: one to function as a blog much like Hollaback, but without the photos and the restrictions on location, and another to offer strategies and resources for victims. Kearl’s first book, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women, is available this month.
Despite Kearl’s thoughtful improvements on the original model, Hollaback remains the better known of the blogs, and is now rapidly evolving into the home of a more aggressive strategy. What started as a simple blog is now an incorporated organization. There are sites for four other American cities (growing from the original three of New York, DC, and Savannah) in addition to Toronto, the UK, and Australia, with more on the way, including more specific sites for the Brits. The websites include links to resources like the sexual harassment statutes and self-defense training programs and soon there will also be an iPhone application for women to report the precise location of harassment.
Yet despite this revamping of the Hollaback sites, the larger purpose of the blogs remains unclear. The only understanding I gained from speaking to May is that the sites, while rooted in good intentions, are limited by the ambiguity of their goals and the founder’s unnecessarily limited view of who is vulnerable in our cities.
“We’re going to end street harassment,” May told me in an interview. She launched into an explanation of her motivation, her words and cadence exactly following the script I had heard her read to a laptop camera on a May 2 video on the blog. “I felt violated, and when we yelled [at harassers] it just made it worse, and of course, the police didn’t care.” Clearly, she had done this before. After all, Hollaback had been getting a lot of press recently: when we talked, Jezebel.com had just picked up the story, and May had been named a “Woman Making History” by the Women’s Media Center.
The closest May came to defining the purpose of her movement in our conversation was in her identification of Hollaback’s audiences—but in this articulation I found a disturbing close-mindedness. She conceives of the project as comprised of two parts, one for each gender. First, there are “women who experience street harassment.” May hopes to create a place where these women can “realize they’re not alone, realize it’s something that happens to all women”—and again, I cannot accept that a place to vent is sufficient to “end street harassment.” Her other audience are “those who don’t experience sexual harassment. Namely, men.”
Hollaback does not post accounts sent in by men. “There are plenty of definitions of harassment,” May concedes when I object to this limitation, “but we are really focused on harassment that is part of a power dynamic.” While I do not accept that such a “power dynamic” can only exist between a dominant man and victimized woman, I think I understand what May is trying to say. It is the same defense I use when explaining to acquaintances why sexual violence awareness efforts are rooted in the Yale Women’s Center, or why I am more likely to pick up on lyrics objectifying women than men. Gendered violence and disrespect can go both ways, but in as much as these isolated incidences derive from a larger problem, I cannot help but expect the perpetrator to more often be a man.
Yet May’s exclusion of men does not derive from empirical observations of harassment patterns, but damaging assumptions about the entire male sex. “I don’t think that men can be sexually harassed in the same way,” she says. “I think that if a woman says ‘hey baby, nice package,’ a man might find it flattering or annoying but they won’t be threatened.” I am disturbed by how closely this logic follows that of the casual male cat caller, who is convinced women love hearing they have great breasts while walking to work. What about same-gender harassment? When I ask May about this, her certainty falters. “You can go back and look at the posts,” she instructs me, though I am unable to find any depictions of this sort of harassment. She talks about “homophobic harassment,” in which gay individuals are taunted for their orientation, but May does not address the difference between homosexual and homophobic harassment.
After all, any scenario in which a woman is the harasser will not fit into May’s inflexible framework for Hollaback.
May claims she cannot tell a woman where the line is between friendly advance and threatening comment from a man—if she is uncomfortable, the line has been crossed. Yet, May makes this same judgment for men and women targeted by female harassers. It seems again that Hollaback cannot, despite its best efforts, move beyond a simple sounding board for frustrated girls to a true tool to fight street harassment. Whatever May’s good intentions, the blog is constrained by an unclear mission and dangerous assumptions.
I do not want to cast aside Hollaback entirely. May’s vision for the iPhone app seems promising. If it is used to report locations of incidences, the app could lead to the first real set of spatial data on street harassment. “We’re going to take these stories, map them, and then put them in front of legislators, ask them what they’re going to do about it,” explains May, and I want to buy into the whole movement. I believe the political pressure such public data could exert would be significant, and even if it is not, I still do think a digital safe haven, if refined, could be valuable.
Given this promise, it seems Hollaback is a good idea poorly executed, lacking vision and scope. May calls herself a “street harassment expert” on the website, but when I question her credentials—did she, like Kearl, write a book on the subject or work for a legal team representing victims?—she defensively explains “well, I have been doing this work for five years and I run the only anti-harassment organization in the world.” Yet originality does not ensure efficacy. I wish May and the movement luck. With a reshaping of these virtual havens, perhaps we can find some safe space on our streets.
Alexandra Brodsky is a junior in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.