Street Harassment May Never Disappear, But You’ve Got Rights Too

Hollaback! made history recently when they released the first-ever comprehensive guide to laws and policies regarding street harassment covering 36 jurisdictions, 22 countries, and 12 languages. The Know Your Rights guide, compiled in conjunction with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and coordinated by global law firm DLA Piper, was produced with the intention of making local laws accessible to activists, legislators, and victims hoping to fight back against public harassment.

Street harassment is an epidemic around the world. It’s one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence, and it uniquely and disproportionately impacts LGBTQ folks and women of color. Hollaback!’s website has documented stories by countless individuals who face public harassment everyday, and in the wake of a controversial viral video about the subject where men of color were overrepresented and white women were made central, they’ve vowed to make more videos to continue to capture how widespread street harassment experiences are in communities of color and for LGBTQ folks in particular.

Despite controversy, however, one point stands: although studies show that there are overwhelming negative side effects for the folks around the world who suffer through catcalls, inappropriate gestures, unwanted touching, and generally creepy men on a regular basis, it’s the one of many forms of gender-based violence that is least addressed through formal legislation and policy efforts. Hollaback!’s new guide will no doubt be an invaluable resource for those leading the movement to eradicate street harassment in their communities, but as illuminating the data is, it’s also telling of a need for a larger solution outside of policy change that is required to fulfill their mission to make all gender-based violence unacceptable.

People surviving street harassment around the world have options. Who knew! 200 plus pages of options, in fact. But one truth remains: all the laws and policies around street harassment haven’t made it disappear.

Activists in Hawaii fighting street harassment, via the Pixel Project

Activists in Hawaii fighting street harassment, via the Pixel Project

Hollaback! was founded by Emily May, who describes her motivation in the introduction to the organization’s massive report:

One summer night in 2005, I was sitting on a roff deck with my childhood friend Sam Carter. I was telling him stories of the sexual harassment I faced on the streets – verbal harassment, gestures, groping, and worse. He was shocked. He had no idea that this was so common, much less so grotesque. He looked me in the eye and said, “Emily, you live in a different New York City than I do.”

May set off to end street harassment, and since has found herself at the helm of an incredibly successful worldwide movement to do so with chapters on every continent (except Antarctica!). But Hollaback!, which was started with the intent to create a space for street harassment victims to tell their stories and document their harassment, never set out specifically to change the legal system. In fact, May’s organization doesn’t advocate for stronger criminal penalties to street harassment at all.

“We don’t endorse increasing criminalization for a few reasons,” May told me in an interview. “One, we think the solution to street harassment doesn’t lie in our courtrooms, it lies in our culture. Street harassment stems from sexism, racism, and homophobia, and we need to tackle it at it’s root. Two, we fear that if we increased criminalization those laws would disproportionately applied to low-income communities and communities of color, and three, if those of us who experience harassment reported each incident, we’d spend all day at the police station.”

That being said, having the law on your side is typically a boon. “There is power in knowing when and where street harassment is illegal,” May wrote in the press release announcing the Know Your Rights guide. “It encourages communities not to tolerate such behaviors, and it gives options to survivors.”

Stop Street Harassment founder Holly Kearl, whose organization released a similar Know Your Rights guide covering the United States, echoed May when I spoke to her. “SSH is not currently advocating for more laws,” she told me, “but we want people to know what laws do exist so they can have the option to report relevant crimes if they wish… While I believe laws can help change attitudes – just look at the same-sex marriage laws and how that has helped foster more acceptance of same-sex relationships – and that people should have the right to choose to use relevant laws if they want, SSH’s work to stop street harassment focuses primarily on education/public awareness and community mobilization so we can change its social acceptability, especially among youth and the next generations.”

For both advocates, however, the law can be an invaluable resource in pushing their agenda. Laws can be huge aids to advocates hoping to make mandatory educational programs stick or looking to set national standards for behavior, and they don’t necessarily need to be punitive in nature to push progress. “The best laws are the ones that focus on prevention,” May told me, “like getting street harassment education in the school system, PSAs, and research.” Kearl’s organization also embraces the law by working with law enforcement organizations to improve their handling of street harassment.

Regardless of May and Kearl’s ideal routes to social change, efforts to end street harassment have often culminated in courtrooms and government chambers. Aside from building a network of activists around the world, Hollaback! has also built a global map of street harassment since the launch of their also historic app of the same name in 2009. Folks can use the app to write up their stories, snap photos of their harassers, and pin their experiences for the world to see — and legislators have undoubtedly been watching.

“I think we have to show people what’s wrong if we want them to see what’s possible,” May told me, adding that Hollaback!’s map as well as the efforts around the world by their leaders have led to tangible policy changes related to street harassment. “In response to the tremendous number of stories told and work of local leaders on the ground – we’ve seen real change. In Scotland, the Parliament passed a motion against street harassment. In Brussels, they responded to a local law to create street harassment fines. In Boston, they got street harassment on the Mayor’s agenda.”

For May and Kearl, the future of their movement isn’t centered around criminalizing harassers or relying on a broken justice system to change the world — and, in many ways, the community-centered solutions they advocate for are being felt much more strongly by people around the world. Kearl’s work with a local DC organization has led to increasing harassment training for public transit and law enforcement employees, leading to improved experiences for victims looking for recourse as well as improved responses by those they rely on. Hollaback! partnered with Columbia students on October 29 for a day of action against sexual assault aimed not at recourse, but at discourse. And for May, the empowering aspect of her own efforts — which encourage women to stop suffering and speak out, or holla back — have impacted even her own experiences in that second New York.

“I think that as much as our work seeks to change society — it’s also changed me,” May said. “I’m not ashamed any more when I get harassed. I don’t blame myself. And I have a response that I think is pretty badass. It’s still a different New York City than my friend Sam’s, but my experience of harassment has changed — and for me — that makes all the difference.”


Hollaback! is currently doing a global, cross cultural study with Cornell University on street harassment. To be a part of it, just fill out this survey

Carmen is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. , host of Bitch Media's POPAGANDA podcast and co-founder and Contributing Editor at Argot magazine. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 926 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I really appreciated this perspective. Focusing exclusively on the victimhood of women can be so damaging. Sometimes I get so caught up trying to explain to people WHY this is so f’d up, I forget to go back to my grassroots and take a stab at fixing it. Thanks for being a fixer.

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