Hollaback!: Using Storytelling to Combat Street Harassment - Women's Week


Photo by Duncan C.

Written by: Jennifer Smith

Whether it’s speed walking, jaywalking, or planning routes to avoid certain corners, many city-dwellers have developed a different experience of their cities than those unacquainted with the catcalling, flashing, or groping. Such is the wide world of street harassment.

“I’m tired of turning away, crossing the street, watching shadows, and resorting to learned behaviours of invisibility. I’m sure I’m not the only one,” writes Rebecca, a contributor to ihollaback.org.

The site archives thousands of stories like hers, telling of women and LGBTQ individuals who have felt uncomfortable or threatened because of harassment in public places.

“I walked towards downtown, and some guy drove his car up beside me, slowed to match my pace, and then leaned down so he could get a better look at me through the passenger window,” Rebecca writes. “He didn’t say anything, he just leered and followed me for about a block.”

Individual stories such as these might have once been brushed off as anecdotal, but Hollaback!’s use of mobile technology and digital storytelling works to show the global patterns of street harassment as an ongoing phenomenon. Through collecting these stories and mapping where street harassment occurs, no longer can stories like Rebecca’s be written off as singular events. The truth is that street harassment happens around the globe on a daily basis, owing to the fact social attitudes undermine the issue by painting it as “a cultural thing” or “harmless flirting.”

“When we started Hollaback! in New York in 2005, all we knew is that we experienced street harassment,” says Hollaback! co-founder and Executive Director Emily May. “What we’ve seen is that street harassment isn’t just us because we’re young. It’s not just a New York City thing; it’s not just an American thing. Street harassment is something that happens around the world, and by reading stories of people’s experiences across the globe, you feel a sense of closeness, unity and movement-building from that storytelling.”

The story of Thao Nguyen inspired three men and four women, including May, to start Hollaback! When a man started to masturbate across from Nguyen on the subway in August 2005, she snapped his picture and posted it on Flickr. Recognizing the power of mobile technology, Hollaback! offers up a smartphone app that allows users to capture a photo of their harasser, identify the type of harassment, and then send an email to users prompting them to share their stories on ihollaback.org.

From the stories, Hollaback! creates a map to show legislatures exactly where street harassment occurs in their districts. Hollaback! also aims to elevate these stories to the mainstream media like Nguyen’s (which eventually wound up in the New York Daily News). The stories may also contribute to research projects on street harassment, such as an analysis of bystander response, or a study on the emotional effects of particular kinds of harassment.

Moreover, Hollaback! also offers training to young women and LGBTQ leaders around the world who wish to create their own grassroots movements toward ending street harassment. Since January 2011, Hollaback! has trained over 150 leaders in 52 cities, 17 countries, and in nine different languages.

For example, Harrassmap maps sexual harassment in Cairo via an SMS reporting system. Another organization from India, blanknoise.org, organizes sexual harassment occurrences with a chart pairing street harassment experiences with the articles of clothing the harassed party was wearing at the time, combating the idea that women “ask for it” based on their wardrobe choices. The top-ranking articles of clothing on that particular chart are jeans and school uniforms.

These maps and charts give individual stories an even greater power by supporting them with irrefutable visual patterns based on common experiences. But again, it’s the sharing of personal narratives that sparks social change.

“From a movement-building standpoint, I think stories have always been the catalyst for social change,” May says. “Whether you’re looking at Rosa Parks, Anita Hill, or Rodney King, or Matthew Shepard, these are stories that have captivated the public and ultimately led to changes in policy.”