Every woman has her own story of street harassment. You know the drill: you’re walking along the sidewalk in a flouncy little skirt, rockin’ a pair of confidence boosting heels, when up ahead you see a construction site. It is lunchtime, so the crew is hanging around the sidewalk eating sandwiches and drinking coffee. You can feel that familiar apprehension creeping up. Here we go again, you think, every mouth in that posse will be catcalling, whistling and generally behaving like drunks at a strip joint as soon as you catch their collective eye. Your confidence will flee, and you will feel like you are stark naked, twirling around a pole. And you can already hear the inevitable tired riff: “Well, if you dress like that, you are obviously asking for it.”
Street harassment takes many forms, and hurts many different types of victims. Women who like to present an attractive appearance to the world tend to do so because they like the confidence it gives them, and they are not the only victims of street harassment. A man who stands out for a unique personal style, or who doesn’t measure up to some outworn “masculine” standard, can fall victim just as easily. In 2011, a young man was brutally beaten outside a West Village McDonald’s because, in his words, “apparently wearing fluorescent colored clothing and pink shoelaces really bothers some people.” He was left with a black eye and a severely bruised face that was the result of a beating that was accompanied by anti-gay epithets. That same year, 18 year old Anthony Collao was beaten and stomped to death during an anti-gay rant at a Queens party he attended. One of the young men who had hosted the party told police “they called us homos and all kinds of stuff.”
These are extreme examples of the results of street harassment, but the psychological effects can be deadly as well, as was the case with the suicide of Tyler Clementi, in 2010. Clementi, a student at Rutger’s University in Piscataway, New Jersey, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man. The roommate streamed the video online, and opened up a national debate about the issue of cyberbullying and the struggles facing LGBT youth. In 2012, Staten Island 15 year old, Amanda Cummings, killed herself by jumping in front of a bus because of mean girls who had been tormenting her for months. In February of this year, 22 year old Ashley Riggitano jumped to her death from the same bridge as Clementi, on her birthday. In her suicide note, she revealed that she felt victimized by negative comments on social media by “so-called” friends.
Hollaback! is an organization that was started in 2005 as a project of seven youth (three men and four women). As the women told story after story of harassment, the men became increasingly concerned. Samuel Carter, who is today Hollaback’s Board Chair, said, quite simply, “you live in a different city than we do.” Collectively, they resolved to change that. Around the same time, a woman named Thao Nygen bravely stood up to her harasser – an older, upper middle class raw-foods restaurant owner – who terrified her by masturbating across from her on the subway. She took his photo with her camera, and when the police ignored it, she posted it on flikr. The picture eventually made it to the front page of the New York Daily News, where it incited a city-wide conversation about street harassment. The youth were inspired by Nygen’s story, and decided to apply her model to all forms of harassment and to document these experiences on a public blog.
Over the five years that followed, interest in Hollaback! grew. What began as a simple idea: a blog to collect women’s and LGBTQ individuals’ stories of street harassment grew into an international movement. In May, 2010, Emily May, one of the original co-founders, became the organization’s first Executive Director. Named one of twelve women to watch by the Daily Muse, May is an international leader in the anti-street harassment movement. When feminist icon Gloria Steinem was asked “What women today inspire you and make you feel that the movement continues?” Her response was “Emily May of Hollaback!, who is empowering women in the street, literally.” May received a standing ovation at a 2012 TEDxWomen speech she gave in Washington D.C. and the same year was named one of 20 women “leading the way” by the Huffington Post, a prestigious list that includes Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Diane Sawyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Hollaback!’s mission statement is to put an end to street harassment and to support the belief that everyone has the right to feel safe and confident when they walk down the street. Eileen Fisher, Inc. is an American clothing retailer that takes social and environmental responsibility seriously. To that end, the company makes a point of supporting women and girls through social initiatives that address their well-being. Fisher has created the Activating Leadership Grant Program for women and girls and the Women-Owned Business Grant Program. Both endeavors follow the company’s commitment to social consciousness, and the company extends this support by hosting in-store events that help raise funds and promote awareness for grass roots organizations that focus on women’s issues. On a recent Saturday afternoon all of Eileen Fisher’s NYC stores hosted Hollaback! representatives so they could meet customers and talk about the organization’s global efforts to end street harassment. Each store offered wine, champagne and pastries, and donated 10% of the day’s sales to Hollaback!
At the Columbus Avenue store, Hollaback!’s Deputy Director, Debjani Roy, discussed how the organization has grown to 62 sites around the world, and why it is important for lawmakers to take street harassment seriously. “It is a gateway crime.” Roy said. “Men who get away with street harassment can feel empowered to take the behavior further, escalating into other forms of violence.” “Hollaback! is about giving a platform to people who have faced harassment, and we put a huge value on storytelling. When a story ends up on the cover of a major newspaper, that is powerful.” Roy gave out a “Bystander’s Guide”, a list of 5 things a witness to harassment can do to make a difference. A man waiting for his wife in the store was inspired to share his son’s story of being a bystander to a severe bullying of a school friend. The man said his son still felt the guilt, 20 years later, of not having stepped in to defend or to help prevent the abuse at the time. His son wishes now that he could go back in time and act in a different manner.
The in-store event at Eileen Fisher caught the interest of many of the customers who shopped that day, and May later said “We’re so grateful to Eileen Fisher, and with their support we’ll build a better, safer world.” The next event Hollaback! will hold is set for April 13, 2013. At 12 noon there will be a rally with a mix of speakers and performers on the stage located east of the fountain in Washington Square Park. At 2pm the rally will leave the park to chalk the streets of New York City with positive messages against street harassment. Chalk will be provided!