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Civic Tech and Engagement: Can Hollaback's Storytelling Make For Safer Streets?

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, November 24 2014

In the 1920s there was the Anti-Flirt Club. Now there's Hollaback! (Wikimedia)

The words “hello” and “smile” traditionally don’t give us much pause. But for many women, these two words are gateways to sexual harassment in public spaces and in some cases, violence: in March of this year, Jeanne Marie was groped by a man at a London nightclub and told to smile. When she talked back to him, he punched her in the face. Seven times.

Seven months later, just a few days before Halloween, a video titled “10 Hours of Walking in New York City as a Woman” went viral. In it, actress Shoshana Roberts is bombarded with street harassment -- 100 instances in total -- ranging from suggestive “hellos,” “smile honey” and “hey baby” to stalking. The videographer, Rob Bliss, walks in front of her, a video camera strapped to his backpack. Within a few days of its release, the video received over 30 million views on Youtube.

Both Marie and Roberts’ experiences appeared on the local chapter websites of Hollaback!, a global movement to end street harassment, which international studies show is experienced by 70 to 99 percent of all women.

Hollaback! is a movement founded on the notion that telling stories leads to greater change -- of hearts and minds -- and possibly, legislation. “Movements start because people tell their stories,” Emily May, Hollaback!’s executive director and co-founder, tells me. “People start to pay attention.”

There are over five thousand stories on the Hollaback! site dating back to 2005 when the project was first founded as a simple blog by six friends -- three women and three men -- in an apartment in Brooklyn. It is now a full time organization with three paid staff at its New York headquarters and a global movement that includes 79 global chapters in 26 countries all led by local volunteer activists. Each chapter, which is based in a city, has its own website, which is modeled off of the mothership: a map to show where harassments occur, an about page, and stories. Lots of stories.

Making the Personal Political

Like Marie and Roberts, the stories on Hollaback! are sometimes difficult to read or look at because the incidents are sometimes violent and graphic: numerous public masturbation and catcalling stories; or more extreme ones such as a woman in New York City whose cab driver pulled over so he could expose himself to her; or a club-goer at a New York City bar whose skull was fractured after she refused to dance with a man; or in the most tragic instance, a young teen in Orland who was shot by a man after she refused to give him her phone number. And since there is such a large volume of stories, they are difficult to ignore or treat as anomalies.

But these stories also share a common outcome: Many of the young women relaying their stories on Hollaback!’s website say they feel empowered or less angry or that sharing their experience is “therapeutic.” While “therapy” may be helpful to victims, it’s hard to see how that actually fixes the problem. It lacks seriousness and the weight of an actual political movement. But maybe providing a place for therapeutic release and support can be the starting point to something more.

For a long time, Beantowner Kate Ziegler ignored street harassers because she thought the harassment occurred based on how she dressed or what makeup she wore. Then in 2011, when training for a marathon, she began experiencing a heightened level of harassment during her runs. “Why is this still happening? I’m not in heels, not looking or smelling my best,” she explained to me on the phone. After blogging about her experience, a friend of hers, Britni de la Cretaz, pointed her to Hollaback! For Ziegler, sharing her story helped her to realize that street harassment was not only about the sexualization of women but also about bullying and intimidation. The shift in mindset also galvanized her to take part in the movement. A shared story turned Ziegler into an accidental activist. She and Brittani co-founded the Boston chapter of Hollaback!

In 2005, Samuel Carter also had an “ah-hah” moment when his female friends, among them, Emily May, began sharing their stories of street harassment. “I realized that I lived in a New York City that was fundamentally different because of the very different experience of being in a public space,” he told me over the phone. “It was a perspective that was not part of my consciousness. It was fundamentally unfair, and when you personally recognize this, the next step for me was, what are you going to do about it?”

Carter became a founding member of Hollaback! and devoted his free time building a movement with his five other colleagues from scratch. He explains that the movement was inspired by a young New Yorker named Thao Nguyen who used her camera phone -- “a very novel thing at the time” he said -- to take a photo of a man who exposed himself to her on the R train and then began masturbating in front of her. She went to the police who told her there was nothing they could do. Instead, the woman posted the photo on Flickr -- “also a very new thing at the time” said Carter -- and the picture, as well as the woman’s story, made the front page of the Daily News. The man was later arrested.

“For us it was an interesting moment not because a man got arrested but because the woman got heard,” said Carter. “There’s a potential for a bigger conversation to happen using these recording devices on our phone. That’s when we got started with our blog. We didn’t anticipate it would strike a nerve and that communities would want to get involved.”

In fact, the camera phone is a fundamental tool in countering victim blaming because it turns the attention and humiliation experienced by a victim onto the harasser. “We wanted to turn that lens,” said May in a Hollaback! video. “Turn it around and put it back on them [the harassers].”

Hollaback! launched an iPhone app in 2010 for both iPhone and Android that allows users to immediately report an incident. The data is mapped and Hollaback! then sends a follow-up email to ask for a more detailed account. Later that year, the organization reconfigured the app to allow users to report incidents of harassment to the city government.

May emphasizes how vital technology is to their movement’s success. “Street harassment is not a new problem,” she said in a Tedx talk in 2012. “It probably has existed since the advent of streets.” In the 1920s there was the “anti-flirt club.” In the 1960s and 1970s, street harassment issues were wrapped up in the Women’s Liberation movement. “But what is new today is the solution,” said May. “Never before have we been able to document our stories of street harassment on the go. And never before have our stories mattered so much. With mobile apps, blogs, and social media, stories are amplified to thousands within minutes...In social media where everyone has followers, followers become the new leaders.” Hollaback! has trained over 200 activists and worked with them to make their version of hollaback! local.

For Marie, who didn’t have time to capture a photo of the man who assaulted her at the bar, she decided to turn the camera back on herself and launch a campaign of her own by posting a picture of her bruised, bloodied face on Twitter using a borrowed hashtag #nomakeupselfie, which originated with cancer fundraising.

Originally from Boston, Mass. but studying at Oxford, Marie decided to make others aware that even in the twenty-first century, women were being beaten-up just for raising their voices. She decided to raise funds for the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre and within a few weeks, received £16,808 (US$26,302), way over her initial target of £100 (US$156). The man who attacked her was ultimately tracked down and arrested. What’s interesting in Marie’s case is that Hollaback! inspires women to create campaigns within the larger anti-street harassment campaign and take ownership of their experiences through story and visuals.

Marie's #nomakeupselfie

But the recent flurry of attention Hollaback! received for its catcalling video produced a very different response. It revealed that there is a dark side to trying to stop street harassment. The video’s cast of harassers -- all hispanic and black men -- have spawned outrage among communities of color who accuse the videographer of racial stereotyping, particularly after Rob Bliss acknowledged that he unintentionally cut footage of white male harassers.

The video also got Hollaback! in a lot of hot water, even if they had no creative control over its contents. Women of color felt both left out of the narrative and stereotyped by the portrayal of harassers as only men of color. May released a statement apologizing for the racial stereotyping and is now working on creating videos that are more racially diverse. Other Hollaback! chapters like Boston and Baltimore also released apologies, even though though they operate largely independently from the New York City chapter.

Melanie Keller, the co-founder of the Baltimore chapter, wrote a special blog post about the video. “Hollaback! is not all white people,” she said. She felt people’s reactions to the video reinforced ideas that feminists are all white women and that Hollaback! isn’t a diverse movement. “I am a woman of color. We should be acknowledged.” In fact, Hollaback! has a diverse make-up among its leaders. Among Hollaback!’s chapter leaders, 40 percent are LGBTQ, one-third are people of color and one-quarter are those with disabilities.

Catcalling to Copy Cats

One positive outcome of the controversial catcalling video is that it encouraged copy-cats. It not only created a megaphone effect but also gave voice to those who have felt left out of the conversation and gave them an opportunity for them to engage deeply with the issue by creating their own narratives.

“I would say that I feel most threatened by men when I’m out at a bar,” says Zoila, who spoke about her harassment experiences in a follow-up catcall video produced by Jezebel reporter Collier Meyerson who wanted to show how street harassment, while similar to Shoshana’s experience, is also very different for women of color. “And to be perfectly honest, it’s usually white guys that make me feel the most uncomfortable,” says Zoila, a woman of African descent. At the moment she utters those words, a white male, roughly in his early 40s walks up to her and say, “Hey,” and to her question, “Why did you want to come stand next to me,” he responds, “Because I want to have a kiss.” Another woman of color, Thanu, recounts in the Jezebel video that she was stopped by two white male policemen as she was riding a bicycle and mocked her with, “How do you ride in that skirt?” Meyerson herself says she experiences white men sticking their hands into her afro.

Another spin off video, created by a 28-year-old Minneapolis woman, depicts her arguing with a well-dressed man in a business suit on a street corner who makes a comment about her in passing. When she confronts him about how women don’t go searching for compliments, he responds by saying if a woman doesn’t like, the woman has a self confidence problem. She hands him a card from the site she runs called Cards Against Harassment that has a humorous explanation of why unsolicited comments about women’s appearance is considered harassment.

While Hollaback! wouldn’t take credit for inspiring Cards Against Harassment, when they started, May told me over the phone, there was only one or two other groups doing similar work. “There are now over a hundred groups and projects doing this work,” she says.

Big Brother’s Little Sister Is Here

A lot of the current media attention on Hollaback! is not new. In 2005 when the organization first launched, its founders were very quickly picked up by the media, says May. Within the first six months, they appeared on Good Morning America and other large news outlets. “People were so responsive to what we were doing,” she says. “Also, in 2005 people were interested in the technology angle. I remember one article said something like big brother is here and so is his little sister.”

But to turn a movement that is all about talking to one that actually stops street harassment seems like a giant leap. Hollaback! is trying to close that gap by going local and training leaders in cities around the world to end harassment on their own streets.

When the Hollaback! blog first began to take off, May explained in a Hollaback! video, people around the world reached out to the New York chapter wanting to start Hollaback! sites of their own. “They wanted us to be the Craigslist of street harassment, accepting photos and stories from all around the world,” said May. But when they tried, it didn’t work at first. “We had 20 sites,” May told me, and “nineteen failed.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she explained, “Nothing was happening. Nobody was talking. All you could hear were crickets.”

By the time 2010 had rolled around, when Hollaback! decided to transition from a movement/blog into an actual organization, May said that there were very few local leaders who had stepped up to lead conversations within their own cities. “We looked at why sites had failed and had conversations with the people running them. Two things were going on: the super-decentralized leadership, make it your own meant that it did not look like a movement internally,” says May. “We had a listserve but no one used it. People didn’t know each other. There were no trainings and no check-ins. Just having a listserve wasn’t enough. So the second thing that we saw was that externally we didn’t look like a movement. Although we have a lot of Hollaback! sites and blogs around the world, they didn’t look consistent and they didn’t have consistent messaging. We also realized, just telling your story online was what Hollaback! was about but it had to be paired with on the ground action.”

“In 2010 we began a whole new program,” says May. “We launched sites with classes, trainings, did five different webinars, helped them put together media lists and partner with local organizations. Once we started doing this, we saw more successful sites, conferences, and Facebook groups. We also have twice annual one-on-one phone calls [with local chapters].”

A screenshot of the Hollaback! website

To start a new site in a city that doesn’t currently have a chapter, an interested candidate contacts the mothership in New York by filling out an online form. They and other interested potential co-founders commit five hours a week to not only running the site but fostering a community within their city. They are also immediately plugged into the global support group in the form of the Hollaback! listserve and private Facebook group where new site leaders can meet the other 200 or so chapter heads. The site leaders are also responsible for finding local community organizations to partner with, hold regular meetings within the community and meet with legislators. The point is to surround yourself with like-minded activists from around the world and also get plugged into the community. Nothing is done alone. The mothership holds the hands of each activist for three months until they can function independently.

Today, Hollaback! has spawned a massive global movement with robust civic engagement at each local site, which has its trademark Hollaback! look but also its own unique focus and its own URL (for example, www.boston.ihollaback.org). It costs Hollaback! $2,500 to launch each chapter and the funds cover three months of online training, technical assistance and resources. The organization’s 2013 State of the Streets report notes that there was a waitlist of over 70 cities waiting to be trained. The Hollaback! mothership received only $244,750 in funds last year from a variety of philanthropists, foundations and the New York City Council, but its impressive productivity is fueled by dozens upon dozens of pro bono artists, designers, lawyers, and managers.

While New York City provides the structure, the local chapters operate completely on a volunteer basis and largely independently from the mothership. Many of the local chapters focus not only on street harassment but making all public spaces -- bars, parks and biking routes -- safe and harassment free.

Shawna Potter, a rock musician, guitar-fixer and custom amp maker by day and Hollaback! volunteer site leader by night, ran the Baltimore chapter on her own for two years before she met Melanie Keller who became a friend and co-founder. Together, they have launched fundraising concerts, a campaign called Proclaim No Shame, and also Safer Spaces.

The latter campaign involves open training sessions with citizens as well as managers of bars, clubs, coffee shops and restaurants on how to address complaints of harassment appropriately. “We show these venues how to set the tone, to perhaps say to an offender, ‘that’s not cool’ and possibly, even remove the harasser if necessary,” says Potter. Another important aspect of training is encouraging managers to take the position of believing the victims when they speak out about an incident. Sometimes it is as simple as having the bar put up a “no harassment policy” on its walls. “People definitely feel better when they see the poster on the wall showing that it’s a safe space. Also, employees of these venues can point to it, and can show that it’s part of its policy. That they aren’t just making it up.”

In April, Potter says that two women, who were actually harassed three times by the security guards at a bar, reached out to Hollaback! and asked for the chapter to offer Safer Spaces training to the club. “There is a huge difference between being hit on versus being harassed,” said Shawna. “And especially security guards. They should never comment about your body.” The two women also emailed the manager of the club and told them to sign up for Safer Spaces.

“The manager of the club emailed us directly to start discussing dates for doing a Safer Spaces training for their staff,” Keller later explained in an email. “We're in the process of setting that up with them and have been in touch regularly. One of their managers also attended a Safer Spaces training specifically for bartenders that we held, and I've spoken to both managers one-on-one about this incident multiple times. So, in short: yes! This club has been very responsive and in addition to partnering with us, they've made internal decisions and changes to ensure this doesn't happen again.”

While both Keller and Potter work completely voluntarily, the time and resource commitment can sometimes be a burden. “I spend a lot of my free time doing Hollaback,” says Potter. “There is no money but sometimes if we’re lucky we can get funding to do a workshop. We try to raise donations to pay for expenses with posters. But I try to raise money only for the bare minimum expenses otherwise I’d be obsessed with fundraising.”

Keller explains that she got involved with Hollaback! because her own experiences with street harassment -- from sexually charged language to death threats -- made her feel powerless. “I still get harassed,” she says but it is a relief to have an outlet to channel her frustration and anger. As a woman of color, of mixed ethnicity who is fluent in Spanish, Keller is also pushing to engage with local communities of color and translate educational materials into Spanish.

In Philadelphia, the chapter ran its own global anti-street harassment campaign called We Chalk Walk, making a global call to document one instance of street harassment in chalk on the ground, take a picture of it and send it around on social media with the hashtag #chalkwalk. The team in Philadelphia received responses from all around the United States and the world: from Egypt, Italy, Germany, and Canada, to name a few. “The sidewalk shouldn’t feel like a meat market,” wrote one participant from Ottowa. “Whistle while you work not at my walk,” wrote another.

Credit: Hollaback! Belgium

Philadelphia and Baltimore are just a small sampling of the local work being done at each of Hollaback!’s 76 chapters. Each local chapter site presents a dizzying array of art projects, campaigns, marches, and other creative ways to get the word out about Hollaback! and street harassment. Then there are the international branches.

Hollaback! London launched a similar campaign against harassment in bars called Good Night Out. In Scotland, the Hollaback! team raised a ruckus when it discovered that a mirror in the women’s bathroom of a bar named the Shimmy Club was actually two-way: it allowed men to look into the women’s bathroom without their consent. After Shimmy Club released a half-hearted apology, saying the mirror was “for fun,” the two-way mirror was removed.

In places like India and Egypt, with significant levels of violence against women, Hollaback! chapters have also broken ground. In Egypt, a volunteer named Shahinaz El Hennawi shares her story in making the the post-Ramadan feasting period, called Eid Fitr, a safe place for women:

Usually in our culture the feast is a big event, where everybody is in the streets and many teens specifically go out and think that sexual harassment is fun to do in these days. About almost 6 years ago we witnessed for the first time in Egypt mass group sexual harassment in front of the movie theatre and then couple of others took place specially during feast time. But this time we wanted it to be different, we wanted our campaign to be filled with the energy of freedom and solidarity.

So we had an idea to reach out for the community groups (Groups of male youth who were formed during the revolution to protect their neighborhood during the time of chaos right after the revolution began). A friend of mine, Karim from the Green party, who is very politically active decided to work with me on this campaign and he believed so much in the cause. We decided to call it “Welad el Balad” meaning the sons and daughters of the country, it has a culture connotation meaning “Having good manners.” So if you call it to someone misbehaving, they would usually become ashame and stop.

We started up a facebook event and invited people to join us and we started preparing for this campaign a month before. We reached almost 3000 volunteers in less than a month. We divided ourselves into committees, held training for each committee with a specific assignment, we held several events in the street, we approached so many shops and cafes, and during the Eid itself we had shifts on the ground for 3 days, each working on a specific task, such as raising awareness, legal counseling, psychological counseling, survey, music, games, media outreach, in addition to a great show of a football team who volunteered to assist us. The idea behind sports was to engage the young youth is something constructive and shift their perceptions. The young men of the committees served as mentors for the young ones to the extent that some of the young harassers apologized, asked to join the campaign and brought their friends. The campaign demonstrated huge success, we were approached by the media, TV, sponsors, we also were mentioned in NGOs reports.

This is the second year of the campaign, where we decided to go beyond Alexandria and reach out to different places in Egypt, I am very proud of my partners on the ground who are currently in the streets working in the campaign instead of having their holiday and enjoying their time with their families. I am watching them with joy and gratitude while being a fellow here in mother Hollaback! to return to them with more inspiring actions from all over the world.

Hennawi is not just any volunteer, however. She is an experienced activist in Egypt and was invited to New York City in 2012 to lead five workshops at Hollaback! as its international movement fellow.

In Boston, with a small core team of three and an unfixed rotation of part time volunteers, the chapter has also produced several high impact projects. The Boston chapter runs education seminars on college campuses and local schools. It pushed the mayor’s office to better respond on its hotline to calls for harassment by pointing back to Hollaback! and other groups as a resource. It also pushed to make public transportation safer by getting some numbers. “The starting point was that there was no data in Boston. We wanted to start to quantify the stories we were getting from people,” said Stiegler. She explained that one in five stories submitted to Hollaback! Boston since their launch in 2011 took place on MBTA vehicles or grounds. Among those who responded to their 2013 State of the Streets survey, 63 percent had that experience on the MBTA. The Hollaback! Boston team presented the data to MBTA, and while the department expressed support, could not offer any financial assistance since the ads were run by a private contracted company, says Stiegler. In the end, the Boston team partnered with two local organizations to raise $4,000 for bus and T-train ads with simple slogans like, “Hey sexy is not a compliment” or “If you see it happen, have her back.” Underneath each catchphrase is a brief encouragement to take action: “Unwanted comments are street harassment. Don’t just walk on. Hollaback!”

Trickle Down

Boston is one of the few cities, along with Philadelphia and London, that have successfully put up ads in public spaces. But often these projects trickle down after New York City chapter has first successfully pushed the model. Hollaback! New York still remains at the forefront of initiating policy change that other chapters can emulate.

In July 2007, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer decided to launch an online survey to measure the extent of harassment on the subways since neither the MTA nor the NYPD collect such data. He worked with dozens of nonprofit and other organizations, including Hollaback!, as well as the media, to spread the word about the survey. In the survey report, Stringer cited nonprofits like Hollaback! New York and Right Ride, as examples of the growing need to address public safety on public transportation. The survey was well received, breaking ground by finally putting a much needed number to public harassment. The study corroborated what Hollaback! has been documenting on its site through its stories:

A significant majority of responders have been sexually harassed: 63 percent of respondents reported having been sexually harassed in the New York City subway system.

When people see something, no one says anything: 96 percent of respondents who indicated that they were sexually harassed did not contact the NYPD and/or the MTA to file a report or seek assistance. Another 96 percent of respondents who indicated that they have witnessed an incident of sexual harassment stated that they did not contact the NYPD and/or the MTA to file a report or seek assistance.

Even when assaulted, no one says anything: 86 percent of respondents who indicated that they were sexually assaulted did not contact the NYPD and/or the MTA to file a report or seek assistance. Another 91 percent of respondents who indicated that they have witnessed an incident of sexual assault stated that they did not contact the NYPD and/or the MTA to file a report or seek assistance.

Women are the primary victims, men the primary perpetrators: 44 percent of respondents indicated that they have witnessed an incident of sexual harassment in the New York City subway system. Of those respondents, 93 percent indicated that the victim was female, and 98 percent indicated that the perpetrator was male.

Today, the New York City subway ads and announcements, “A crowded train is no excuse for inappropriate touching,” are something we’ve grown as accustomed to “See something, say something.” In fact, many commuters probably do not realize that the MTA put them in place in 2008 after Hollaback! had been advocating for them for several years. Just last month, the MTA announced it will be installing hundreds of new cameras in the trains and offer better reporting systems for victims. In some ways it is easier for Hollaback! New York to push for these changes because it doesn’t do it alone. Its goals often intersect with the work of dozens of similar groups like the Straphangers Campaign, New York City Anti-Violence Project, and Title IX, for starters.

Still, the New York City chapter is still very active in fighting for more data and pushing the boundaries of what can be done. In addition to writing op-eds, speaking at city council meetings, and writing letters to local politicians, On October 15, Hollaback! partnered with Beth Livingston at Cornell University to crowdsource data collection on street harassment. The survey covers six continents and is translated into 16 languages.

The mothership’s push to gather data will help the chapter branches as well with their projects. “We’re hoping with the survey we can use it to push the MBTA again for support and funding,” says Stiegler. While Hollaback! Boston's ads cover nearly all the bus lines, they only appear on one T line.

One has to wonder, however, whether there is any data showing whether the subway ads, the stories on the website and the publicity campaigns are creating actual change on the ground -- is street harassment decreasing? That particular data is incredibly difficult to document, says May, since it’s about a personal change in mindset. But even here, Hollaback! is trying to break new ground.

Micro-Shaming

Hollaback! is strictly anti-policing and recently released a legal framework to guide policymakers and citizens on what is an appropriate policy approach to ending street harassment. As explained in an
article on Hollaback! by its Deputy Director, Debjani Roy:

Criminalizing verbal harassment and unwanted gestures is neither the final goal nor the ultimate solution to this problem and can, in fact, inadvertently work against the growth of an inclusive anti-harassment movement. The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and affects low-income communities and communities of color, as evidenced by policies such as New York City’s Stop and Frisk program and other degrading forms of racial profiling. Our objective is to address and shift cultural and social dialogues and attitudes of patriarchy that purport street harassment as simply the price you pay for being a woman or being LGBTQ. It is not to re-victimize men already discriminated against by the system.

While the New York Chapter does collaborate with the NYPD to collect more data, responding more appropriately to harassment reports (not just a “sorry, we can’t help”) but by pointing them to resources, Hollaback! does not advocate for making more arrests.

So then, how does one end street harassment? Can Hollaback!’s methods also change the minds and hearts of perpetrators -- men -- and is one of the glaring problems with Hollaback! is that men are perhaps excluded from the conversation?

“The conversations we’ve had has really taken this question seriously,” said Samuel Carter who is one of three of Hollaback!’s male co-founders. “How do you engage multiple and different audiences? We always maintain a gender balance on our board and keep it diverse as well. It strengthens our board to have multiple perspectives.”

But in terms of engagement, “There’s more obvious ways men can engage,” he says. “It could be a moment of awakening like I had. That’s the first order of intervention. The whole point of publishing stories is to raise awareness of the issue. Most fundamental way we do our work is through storytelling.”

But a second part of Hollaback! is engaging bystanders, which often includes men, to react; to put the moral onus on them and let them know it’s not ok to stay silent or remain just a bystander. “We’ve also launched development of a bystander intervention process. Also, a process that enables people to feel support from the community called “I Got Your Back.” It’s another way to encourage men to support community and moments when harassment take place, to intervene.”

“What’s worse than being harassed in public?” the Hollaback! site asks, “Being surrounded by strangers who could have done something, but didn’t.”

The Hollaback! initiative, “I Got Your Back,” is aimed at also building a movement around shared responsibility. The site offers infographics in a Bystander Guide on what to say and what to do to intervene and offers a hint: even a knowing look to the person being harassed can reduce their trauma and experience of isolation.

But when it comes to intervention, it is much easier said than done.

I personally witnessed a harassment on the subway a few months ago and I can tell you, it does not always end well for the intervener and instead, seems to elicit more violent behavior. A young woman who was sitting on the subway was being harassed by a male standing over her, telling her she was sexy. She didn’t respond but she looked very uncomfortable. A woman next the man called him out.

“Stop it,” she said.

“She likes it,” he responded.

“No she doesn’t,” she said. “I think you should apologize to her.”

The man quickly lost his cool and began to shout and curse at the woman who had intervened. It went on for three subway stops. He grew increasingly vocal and sought every which way to humiliate her: he criticized her hair, the shape of her body, her clothes. Everyone in the entire car, including myself, looked at the ground and didn’t say a word.

The statistics from Scott Stringer’s 2007 survey reveal, sadly, that I behaved just like everyone else, with 96 percent of New Yorkers choosing not to report or take action on an incident.

Fortunately, the 2007 survey is old and not everyone remains passive, even if it is very difficult to gauge whether there has been measurable change. When surfing the Hollaback! site, for every three or four stories of harassment, I also found one more uplifting bystander story where intervention helped.

A woman in London confronted a man on a double decker bus harassing a young lady and got him to back off. Sometimes a mean stare works. In Baltimore, a woman came to the aid of an intoxicated woman when a bouncer physically threw her out of the bar at closing because she was having trouble finding her way out. The intervener made the bouncer apologize and he did. Even the viral catcalling video encouraged a bystander to speak up:

I work in the Financial District of Manhattan, a male dominated environment to say the least. As a female professional in this area, I am dressed in business attire daily, and I am frequently the recipient of verbal commentary and gestures on my walks to and from work, as well as on my walks to and from picking up lunch. Today on my walk back to the office from lunch, a man walking with a co-worker turned around as I walked by and yelled “Hey, how are you gorgeous?” and of course, I kept my head down and kept walking. To my utter disbelief, I then heard his friend say to him, “Come on man, have you see that video with the girl getting cat-called? You’re not helping our case.” As feelings of satisfaction and purpose and joy overwhelmed me, I felt I had to share here to make it known that you are TRULY making an impact. Even if it remains this small–and it won’t–it was remarkable to hear this man calling his friend out for the unsolicited “compliment,” and it’s all because of this movement.

Credit: Hollaback! Baltimore

Hollaback! has also partnered with the Green Dot movement to create a map of where positive action counters negative ones, which are denoted by red dots. It is one method for measuring bystander intervention and to get more data on whether it works.

Jennifer M. Sayre, Ph.D., the Director of Training and Development for Green Dot, has build an organization that provides anti-violence training and consultations to universities and non-profit organizations around the world. She told Hollaback, “I become more certain each day that as a direct result of our work, rates of power-based personal violence will go down.”

Conclusion

The subject of street harassment is often full of contradictions: when it first started, it was just about making people take it seriously. Then when it gained traction, it was about not taking it too seriously with heavy-handed police tactics or gender segregation in public spaces. When the viral catcalling video made its first waves, the comments it received were also divisive and extreme: sympathy, anger, and not unexpectedly, violence, in the form of rape and death threats against the actress and crude remarks about Emily May. As Hollaback! begins to make strides on streets, parks, and bars, perhaps the next frontier of freeing public space from harassment is the Internet. And in that case, using the Internet itself to stop public harassment online.