Let catcalls slide or hollaback?
Tired of lewd comments and unwanted attention, women are snapping photos of their harassers and posting them on the Web
Globe and Mail Update
November 29, 2007 at 8:54 AM EST
Hey baby! Yeah, you - the guy who just whistled at me when I walked by. Remember how you called me sweetass yesterday? Come here, I want to take your picture.
A growing number of women are starting to use this approach to combat street harassment, taking photographs of men who catcall them and posting the pictures on websites dedicated to outing the offensive behaviour.
The site HollabackNYC (HollaBackNyc.BlogSpot.com) tells women "whether you're commuting, lunching, partying, dancing, walking, chilling, drinking, or sunning, you have the right to feel safe, confident, and sexy, without being the object of some [jerk's] fantasy."
Visited by more than 1,500 people a day, the New York website has spawned copycats around the world, including a Hollaback Canada site (HollaBackCanada.BlogSpot.com), and features grainy cellphone pictures and often explicit retellings of strange encounters with men on the street.
Emily May is the founder of Hollaback.com, a site that encourages New Yorkers to report and photograph antisocial and sexually inappropriate behaviour and harassment and post the photographs on the site (Neville Elder/For The Globe and Mail)
The Globe and Mail
"Today while sitting beside the arch in Washington Square Park, I happened upon this individual, who apparently had a lot to offer," writes a woman named Meg. "This included plenty of money ... and the desire to lick me ... or more accurately, 'to lick me thru without chemicals.' "
Exposing these men gives women a feeling of control, says Sandy Welsh, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who studies sexual harassment.
"With public harassment people don't feel like they have any recourse: You can't file a complaint against someone or take them to court," she said. "So this is a way for you to feel like you have your say."
But the sites do raise issues of libel, she said, and could be seen as a vigilante approach to the problem with little large-scale impact.
"I think for some guys, that will be a deterrent," Dr. Welsh said. "But not for chronic offenders."
Some sites also provide women with advice on how to respond to men who harass them, explaining local lewdness bylaws and offering rehearsed comebacks.
"If enough people say something maybe they'll realize that women don't like it," says Holly Kearl, who did her MA thesis at The George Washington University on harassment reporting sites such as Hollaback, The Street Harassment Project and Anti-Street Harassment UK.
Ms. Kearl interviewed 245 women about their experiences with street harassment, and found that 90 per cent simply walk away. Sixty per cent of respondents said the websites helped by showing them they are not alone in being harassed.
But Ms. Kearl said the women who felt they had dealt most effectively with the problem had not uploaded a photograph, but taken a direct, assertive approach to confronting their harasser.
"They didn't get angry, they just said 'That's bothering me,' or 'Show some respect,' " she said. "If you just walk away it doesn't change anything in the long run."
Chloë McKnight of Hamilton, Ont., started a Hollaback group on the social networking site, Facebook.
The 25-year-old had stumbled upon the New York group and thought it was a brilliant way to combat a regular occurrence in her life.
"I think everyone's been in the situation where someone says something nasty to you and you think of a comeback three days later," she said. "To have some random stranger yell something at you, it's hurtful. It's an invasion of your personal space."
Ms. McKnight believes that just pulling out a camera is enough to send a powerful, simple message.
"I was on the bus and this group of teenagers on the street were knocking on the glass and making gestures," she said. "I took out my camera and I didn't even get a chance to take a picture before they took off."
Emily May, one of seven co-founders of HollabackNYC, said the project was inspired by a Manhattan woman named Thao Nguyen who, in 2005, snapped a picture of a man masturbating on the subway. She posted the photo on her personal blog and it eventually made it's way onto the cover of the Daily News, leading to the arrest of a New York restaurateur.
"We use the word Hollaback as an empowered response to street harassment," said Ms. May, 26. "If you yell at the guy it tends to escalate. If you tell the police, they don't care. No matter what, the woman goes home and feels bad about herself."
Many of the posts come from young girls, ranging in age from 12 to 15, but already sexualized by men on the street.
On the Canadian site, one Manitoba girl describes being harassed by a group of older men.
"Shake your ass hunnie!" she reports them yelling. "I'm 13. ... just leave me alone."
Men who have found the site have generally reacted with shock, she said, claiming to be unaware that so many women experience harassment, or take it so personally.
"They have no idea what the impact of their actions is," Ms. May said. "From their perspective, they're like 'I'm a good guy, I'm a father, I just wanted to tell you that I'd like to sleep with you.' It's a compliment."
She believes street harassment is more than just annoying, because it makes women worry about their safety. The site's founders hope awareness campaigns will help combat street harassment, as they did workplace harassment in the 1980s. But Ms. May does not think catcalls will be silenced forever.
"I don't think it's ever going to stop," she said. "I would imagine that street harassment is something that's been happening since the advent of streets."
Don't think it will really help anything, but I thought it was sort of funny.