A national organization created to combat street harassment now has a local chapter. What exactly do they do, what do they want to change, and does it matter to Richmond?
For many women, simply walking down the street isn’t as comfortable an act as it could be. There’s the, “Hey baby” said from a stranger walking on the same street, the guy who looks at another person’s body and voices his assessment. It’s a daily part of life for many people — but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted, which is where the Hollaback! movement comes in. Hollaback! provides a safe space online for people who have been harassed to share their stories as anonymously, or non-anonymously, as they would like. Sometimes, people even take photos of their harassers and post them. Reading the site, one comes across story after story of people upset and outraged over their encounters with those who have demeaned them and made them feel uncomfortable.
“It’s time for people to step up and make more social rules amongst themselves,” explained Jenny Walters when we sat down to talk about the HollabackRVA movement. Walters is one of the coordinators of the Richmond Hollaback! group. What, precisely, is street harassment? It can be “Gawking, staring, looking someone up and down, trying to interact with them in an inappropriate way. We definitely consider even the hey baby’s…it’s just inappropriate. Why should somebody feel like they have the right to talk to somebody that way when a lot of people really don’t appreciate that?” Walters pointed out. “It’s basically anything that makes somebody else feel uncomfortable.”
The Hollaback! mission statement states: “A resounding, united statement of disapproval for the tactics of street harassment will be articulated through our stories, and in turn, we will be educating our peers and neighbors by displaying our unwillingness to allow this issue to remain invisible.”
But there’s more to Hollaback! than simply making it known that street harassment is uncomfortable. The Hollaback! premise is that people should be able to share their stories of harassment in a safe venue, around a virtual campfire, as it were. Harassment can be very unsettling and upsetting. Said Walters: “I think [Hollaback!] is a really inspiring and empowering movement. […] People experience the street harassment a lot, and they don’t really have an outlet or venue to talk about it or even feel comfortable acknowledging that it’s something that they dislike. I think a lot of people definitely fall into the mindset of ‘well, you know, this just happens…there’s nothing I can do about it’…there’s the age-old thing, like ‘boys will be boys,’ that type of thing. As if it’s something that just can’t really be prevented. With the cultural constructs that we have right now, it is very prevalent, and that is the mindset of most people which is why it happens. I think it is really important that Hollaback! exists, and the impact I would say that it has is that it really gives people a safe space to be able to come together and talk about their concerns and voice the issues that they’ve experienced, and really just get the word out.”
“Our website just officially launched on August 10, and we’ve had some responses on our website.” In talking with friends and co-workers shortly after the HollabackRVA launch, Walters expressed that the response has been positive: “I got a lot of personal feedback — almost every single one of my co-workers mentioned something to me about it, like ‘I’m so glad this exists’, ‘I feel like there isn’t a forum yet for people to really…voice their concerns,’ and ‘it is uncomfortable and it does make people feel unsafe’.”
Question: Confronting street harassers can be dangerous. What about safety issues?
Answer: While everyone is vulnerable to stranger rape and sexual assault, studies show that those who are aware of their surroundings, walk with confidence and, if harassed, respond assertively, are less vulnerable. Nevertheless, direct confrontations with street harassers may prove extremely dangerous, particularly if you are alone or in an unpopulated space. While it is each individual’s right to decide when, how, and if to hollaback, do keep issues of safety in mind. Upon deciding to photograph a harasser, you may consider doing so substantially after the initial encounter and from a distance, ensuring the harasser is unaware of your actions.
Is the movement more about sharing in a safe online space, or actually hollering back at harassers in public?
“I sort of have several different answers for that question,” Walters responded. “Number one, I know every [Hollaback! group] has the option of whether to allow photos or not. We haven’t made an official statement yet on whether we are or aren’t going to. […] Personally, I’m definitely under the impression that fighting harassment with harassment isn’t really the best way to go. If you are taking somebody’s photo, and then posting it online…I mean I understand the mentality that’s behind that, but at the same time it’s like you’re harassing them in the same way they’re harassing you…Is that really the best way to go about handling that?”
Walters was honest in her assessment of the dilemma: “I don’t know. On the other hand, as you were saying, there is a safety issue about it as well. I feel like there are a lot of things that affect the safety of a person: what time of day it is, how many other people are around, and different things like that. Richmond is actually trying to start a way that people can respond in a non-confrontational way, which we’re still working the kinks out of.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a small piece of bright pink folded paper with text written over the form of a stick person. It stated: “STOP! When you yell sexual comments at us, it makes us feel uncomfortable and unsafe. We don’t like it.” The card was folded so that it could stand alone on a table.
To explain, Walters said, “I think there’s a bit of a disconnect between the Internet space and the mobile technology space where like-minded people are coming together to voice their concerns, and feel empowered by being able to tell their stories and things like that. […] I’m really happy that it exists. Richmond is also trying to potentially find a way that we can connect that space with real time, real life space.
Walters demonstrated the STOP sign: “It’s a little stand-up because somebody could just leave it in front of somebody or for somebody on a bench or wherever. […] we’ve already talked with other Hollaback! members about, and with site organizers, other coordinators, so that we can be sure that the language is non-confrontational but it still potentially offers some type of awareness for that person to make them think about what they’re saying basically.”
There’s one other type of non-confrontational anti-street harassment project going on called HollaSpace. If you’re imagining the yellow Safe Space signs that you may have seen on libraries and fire stations and other venues, you’re on the right track. HollaSpace would be harassment-free safe-spaces, and they would be designated by window clings. Walters said, “Richmond is sort of the coordinator for HollaSpace; it was kind of like our brainchild. […] The little window clings that we’ve been tossing around design-wise would be pretty self-explanatory in a ‘This is what this means’ sort of way: Okay, well this is a place where I can be safe from harassment.
“The idea is that different businesses, restaurants, and organizations can be identified as a harassment-safe place where, if somebody does feel like they’re being harassed for whatever reason, they would be able to go to the staff or the management and say, ‘Hey, this person’s making me feel uncomfortable’ and the [business] would have some type of action plan for how to deal with that. On our end, other than designing and saying ‘Here’s a window cling, have fun,” we’d be offering training for bystander intervention, and also helping different establishments decide their own action plans, what’s best for them.”
People simply standing up to intervene in harassment situations can really make a difference. Walters shared her own experience with just that: “I submitted a story of harassment on the Hollaback! website. It’s on there now. One of the times I was harassed, it was two men together, and one of the people was saying things to me. Then this person’s friend was like ‘Hey, just leave her alone, come on.’ It’s just really fortunate for me…it was late at night, and in general it made me feel uncomfortable, so I was fortunate in that situation, and I would hope that other people’s friends or acquaintances would feel comfortable to be like, ‘Hey, that’s enough.’”
Harassment can come in many forms, of course. Sometimes, not all parties may view the behavior as harassment at all. Sometimes, what is a “compliment” to one person is “harassment” to another. “What do you say to folks who view harassment as a compliment?” I asked.
“It’s funny — of course talking about Hollaback! we have talked to people who are totally advocates for Hollaback!, and some people who just completely don’t get it and are probably harassers. Tori [another HollabackRVA coordinator] and I were out videotaping for Hollaback! one day and a guy very randomly came up to us and was like, ‘Hey what’re y’all doing?’ and he didn’t say something like ‘Oh hey baby,’ or anything like that; he wasn’t making us feel uncomfortable in that way, he was just like ‘What’re you guys doing?’ so we were talking to him about Hollaback! and he said, ‘Well I don’t understand because how am I supposed to meet women if I can’t go up to them and say hello?’ and we were kind of like, ‘Okay, well let’s break it down for you.’ We were telling him that there’s definitely a difference between coming up and saying hello to somebody and coming up to them and making them feel uncomfortable. You know, you can tell when you come up to somebody whether you just say hello or say something really raunchy. You can tell when somebody’s uncomfortable. So that’s what we were mainly telling him. There’s definitely a difference between just saying hello to somebody new who you want to make friends with, or whatever, and there’s also a difference between when you’re coming up to somebody randomly on the street and when you’re actually introduced to them. Maybe you’re in a bar setting where that’s maybe more of a natural thing, where you’re going out to meet people, then introducing yourself kind of makes sense.”
I chimed in, “Sort of a context-based thing?”
“It’s context, exactly,” Walters confirmed.
“We were telling him a lot of people don’t feel comfortable with the things that are being said at them, and it’s not even that you’re giving them a compliment. […] A lot of things that are said on the street are solely about women’s bodies or their sexual appeal, or things like that, and that’s where it definitely crosses the line.” She goes on to say that “if you’re just giving somebody a ‘compliment’ based on their physical appearance, then it’s not really a compliment at all; you don’t know that person, and it can be really less flattering than engaging for a lot of people, and again, it just makes people feel uncomfortable. I’ve always said that if somebody was really trying to flatter somebody or flirt with them or something, then if they did say something and then saw they felt uncomfortable with [that], and you were trying to flatter them, then you would obviously back off — you would know right away that ‘Oh, I’m not getting my intention across, I must have done something that crossed a boundary.’”
Boundaries, however, exist for all people. With that, I posed my next question: “I’m a straight guy who got cat-called by a woman. Is Hollaback! a place for me?”
“This is a tricky one to answer a little bit because of course as with other forms of assault, violence, it’s not just women or the LGBTQ (editor note: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and those questioning their sexuality) individuals in our communities that get hollered at. Obviously women do sometimes holler at men, sometimes men holler at other straight men for random reasons, so we do recognize that that happens. When this movement started it was solely based on gender-based violence, including sexual orientation and gender identity-based harassment because the founders feel — and I agree — that street harassment specifically and definitely happens marginally to women the queer community. […] Maybe some women are cat-calling at men and if that makes them feel uncomfortable then I totally think that’s legitimate — if somebody submitted their story to us and they said ‘Hey, I’m a guy and this happened to me and it made me feel uncomfortable’ I would still say ‘Yeah, let’s post it,’. We’re not trying to promote women doing it, we’re just trying to promote a social equality where men who — it’s the majority of people who are men who are doing the harassing — that they no longer feel comfortable doing that.
Walters ventured a hypothesis for the demographic differences in those who harass versus those who are harassed: “I feel like in our society in general men feel a kind of superiority over women, that they feel entitled to call women or anybody whether it’s a queer-identified person or a woman or another man or whatever. I’ve also heard straight guys who maybe look a little effeminate say, ‘Well I’ve been harassed for appearing to be gay’ and I don’t want that to happen, I think that’s just as valid as a woman saying ‘This made me feel uncomfortable’ and we totally wouldn’t reject stories like that. So basically it’s just that the focus is mainly on women and the LGBTQ community because of the social constructs that are already in place that make men feel the entitlement to even come up and talk to somebody they don’t know, let alone saying sexual things about their body.”
Walters also let me know that there was an upcoming party for the HollabackRVA community: “Together we can end street harassment. Post your story at richmond.ihollaback.org and join us for our launch party at Aloft Hotel in Short Pump on September 17th from 8pm-12am. Free food, new friends, great fun.”
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The HollabackRVA mission statement features this chant: Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes, and no means no!
Perhaps the chant is a good way to summarize the Hollaback! movement in general. It doesn’t matter what someone’s wearing, or where someone is; consent and a sense of basic dignity and safety should be the given cultural default setting, rather than the ‘harassment just happens’ mindset.