Hollaback Moves Forward

Lewd shouts on the street, grabby hands on the bus: Most women familiar with city living know what it's like to be harassed by strangers. Want revenge? Emily May is on a mission to make sure there's an app for that.

May just took the helm as executive director of Hollaback an organization offering women and LGBT people a bold way to respond to street harassment. The concept -- which blossomed in New York City and spread worldwide -- is simple. If you're harassed, Hollaback. Take a picture of the creep, write a quick story about it, and post it online. That way the world knows you don't have to stand for it.

May co-founded Hollaback five years ago. Now she's back as the organization's executive director and is working to bring the movement into 2010. A new, streamlined website will reorganize Hollaback from disparate local efforts into a cohesive, global one. And there's a Kickstart campaign to help fund a mobile-phone application that will enable women to Hollaback on the go.

TAP talked to May about street harassment and using technology to empower women, one Hollaback at a time.

If a guy hollers at me on the street or on the subway, I usually just roll my eyes and hope he'll get hit by a truck or burst into flames. How do you convince women who ignore the catcalls to take a stand and Hollaback?

This is all part of violence against women. Like the rape-crisis movement, and like the workplace-harassment movement, we're not going to be able to end street harassment until women have a meaningful platform [with which] they can start to tell these stories and document them in a meaningful way. And Hollaback isn't just about telling stories. It's about documenting them so we can have a map, and we can really look at this as a society and say that this is not just a problem. This is of epidemic proportions.

You're now the executive director of Hollaback, but you co-founded it in 2005. What motivated you to start it in the first place?

It started as a conversation among friends. Basically, we were all pissed off. Most problems in the world, whether you want to fix them or not, have some kind of solution. With street harassment, if you walk on, you feel victimized. If you yell at the guy, you put yourself in danger. And of course, if you tell the police, they don't care. So when it happens to you three, four times a day, it really starts to weigh on your life. It changes the way you live your life, the clothes you wear. More than anything, we all wanted a response to street harassment that felt good.

How exactly should we define street harassment?

It's a sticky question, and I know that everyone wants an easy answer on that. Street harassment is really up to the women themselves. It's not my job to decide what hurts a woman when she walks down the street.

So the line is where it creeps someone out?

I've decided [it's harassment] if it's not just annoying, if it's scary -- but where that line between annoying and scary is depends on what your life experience is. We have a lot of women who are extremely affected by street harassment because they are survivors of some other form of violence against women. Street harassment, to them, feels like ripping a scab off.

And why does anyone have to push that line in the first place, right?

Exactly, and you know, for some women, even something like "Good morning" is too much. The world I want to create is a world where people can say, "Good morning," and the implication isn't that it's sexual.

I just moved to D.C. about a year ago. What do you say to people who warn that this kind of thing comes with the territory of living in a city?

They've been saying that for a long time, like being in the workplace. People used to say, "You're in the workplace. You're going to get harassed. That's your decision, and you should just put up with it." A lot of people think harassment is the price we pay for living in the big city. I think that taxes are the price that we pay.

OK, but as frequently as I'd like to give street harassers a piece of my mind, I think we all worry about our safety. How is Hollaback working to end objectification without making women feel like they're at risk?

Our model has always encouraged people who didn't feel comfortable taking a picture to submit a written story when they get back home. Now, we're launching an iPhone app and a mobile texting application to allow women to report on the go.

I bet new technology makes that a lot easier?

We found that one of the main reasons that women don't Hollaback is because by the time they get home, they just kind of want to forget that it happened. The real fierceness of Holla-ing back is that it's in the moment. We're using mobile technology and launching an iPhone app at the end of June. And we'll post the harassment online, so people can go and look. We're also planning on bringing the maps to legislators and to use them for public-service announcements and community education.

What about men? They aren't featured on Hollaback -- though there are a few photos of men posted on your site. Why don't we see men taking part?

When we're talking about street harassment, we're talking about sexual harassment. We're targeting a power dynamic, so we're not looking at men harassed by women -- to the extent that it may happen -- because it's not the same degree of power dynamic. We do look at, for example, gay men, who are harassed by other men, but we've received very few posts over the years. It tends to be an issue that women are most affected by.

That's certainly not surprising. One last question. On your website, you mention that replacing sexism with racism is not a "proper Hollaback." What have you done to combat stereotypes that men of color perpetuate sexual crime?

That was a huge issue for us when we launched, and we were really concerned that a latent racism would come out in the way that women reported their stories. What we found was that, like all forms of violence against women, street harassment cuts across lines of race, and it cuts across lines of class. It's not one kind of guy doing this. It's a certain type of every type of man. We do aggressively take all racial identifiers out of our language. It's just not relevant to the story ? this is an across-spectrum issue.