I Holla Back!

hollaback rally feature

With my Feminist Society co-founder Margaret Smiley at the rally this weekend.
Images via Margaret Smiley and iHollaback

This weekend I attended the International Anti-Street Harassment Rally in Washington Square Park, New York, right in the middle of my old neighborhood. The event, hosted by non-profit Hollaback!, was the second annual of its kind, and marked the end of International Anti-Street Harassment week.

Activist groups from across the city (and nation) gathered to share stories, performances, and to support one another. Among those groups was The Feminist Society at NYU, led by Margaret Smiley, who I co-founded the group with back in 2011. 

But why should you care about all of that?

Street harassment is one the most the pervasive and toxic forms of misogyny. It doesn’t just affect women and feminine folk, but it does so overwhelmingly. Although I was always aware of street harassment growing up in London, it was only when I moved to New York for university that I was bombarded with it. I couldn’t walk to class, go out for dinner, or even go grocery shopping without a slew of comments. I took to wearing headphones all the time in public, purely so that I could drown it out (so before you go criticizing a young woman for always being absorbed in her phone or her music think twice…) 

It’s one of the things that prompted me to found the Feminist Society, and many of our early meetings were spent sharing our experiences as young students on the streets of New York. Shortly after, we met with Hollaback!’s Emily May and began working on organizing events in the university community, including the first New York Anti-Street Harassment Rally last year. For anybody completely new to the concept of street harassment, please check out ihollaback.org, which explains it lot better than I could, and has the statistics to back it up.

hollabackrally 2013

Me with the Feminist Society E-Board at last year’s rally.

I feel like I should debunk some myths before I go any further.

Myth #1: Catcalls are a compliment

Um. No they aren’t. I know it, the catcaller knows it, there’s no misunderstanding between us. When somebody tells you exactly what graphic sexual things they would like to do to you in the middle of Broadway they’re not doing it out of admiration. It’s an aggressive display of power telling you exactly where you belong – not outside in the public sphere, but back indoors. Compliments are also rarely tinged with an inherent threat of violence – if somebody tells me I’m a good cook I’m never worried they’re going to hurt me…

Myth #2: Isn’t street harassment just a #whitegirlproblem ?

Absolutely not! Street harassment affects a majority of women of all races, ages, sexualities, and gender expressions. In fact, often a person’s perceived femininity is the thing that attracts the harassment, and men who express themselves in feminine ways are also targets of harassment. Moreover, the movement to end street harassment is made up of people of all races, genders, ages, sexualities, nationalities, classes – all everything. Personally, I feel that when street harassment and other feminist issues are called #whitegirlproblems it’s really a sneaky attempt to undermine real problems and injustices by playing on racial tensions and stereotyping of young people.

Myth #3: But only “certain” men harass, right?

Depends what you mean. Yes, it takes a certain lack of respect, a lot of arrogance, and a dash of an inferiority complex to get somebody to actually feel like harassing another person. But harassers take every form. Wall St. guys harass women just as much as construction workers do. In fact, possibly more. I’ve been harassed by men, women, in multiple languages, of varying socio-economic backgrounds. 

Now that that’s out there, I’ll move along to what we can actually do about it all.

This past week led to some really great materials and events to spread the word about street harassment. Recent videos, like the candid camera experiment by Guardian journalist Leah Green, and the short Majorité Opprimée (Oppressed Majority) by Eléonore Pourriat, went viral and helped raise awareness about what it’s really like to experience the world as a woman. 

There are also campaigns that you can get involved in right now to end street harassment, like bystander intervention programs and dedicated international conferences

On a personal level, it’s pretty hard to know what to do in the moment. It’s so much easier to pretend that you haven’t heard what a stranger is yelling or whispering at you than to react. I always think of a perfect response about five minutes later, but sometimes the harasser will do an almost drive-by catcall, saying something quickly just as you pass them in the street, leaving you with no time to react. Sometimes I pull the Jenna Marbles face, just so that people behind them know that something happened…

jenna marbles

Jenna Marbles; via GifSoup

It definitely helps to share your story – either with websites like Hollaback!, which map events in local areas – or to trusted friends, family, or groups where sometimes just the act of having somebody acknowledge that the harassment was not okay is enough to mitigate some of the damage that it does. Otherwise left unchecked, street harassment constantly erodes at our sense of self, and our feeling that we have a right to exist in public.

Eventually, I’d love to be able to fire back a response, or maybe even go full Buffy on them.

To my next harasser: consider this fair warning.

buffy gif

20th Century Fox Television

One thought on “I Holla Back!

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