Street harassment activism in the twenty-first century
Street harassment activism in the twenty-first century
Abstract and Keywords
The experience of gender-based violence, and the internalised shame and self-blame that so often accompanies it, hinders the full emancipation of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) members of society. This chapter examines CSOs currently working toward ending street harassment. Technological advances have created innovative options for today’s CSOs to unite in unprecedented ways. Modern activism will be highlighted through a case study of Hollaback!, an international network of unified activists who simultaneously work locally and globally to fight street harassment. Research and academic discussion about street harassment and the culture that sustains it have lagged far behind global anti-street harassment activism. Street harassment activists emphasize shifting cultural perspective to a perpetrator-focused, survivor-centred approach that supports survivors. The chapter concludes with an analysis of how the internet has provided organizations and activists the capacity to embrace intersectional and cross-cultural ideals.
Introduction to street harassment: ‘Men always bother you, all the time’
In an early episode of the television series Mad Men (episode 2 of season 1), Joan, the voluptuous, self-assured office manager, approaches Peggy, the ‘new girl’, about a letter she had submitted that was filled with typographical errors. Peggy, clearly upset, begins to express her frustration over the constant sexual harassment she is experiencing from her male colleagues, asking Joan; ‘Why is it that every time a man takes you out to lunch around here, you’re the dessert? It’s terrible. It’s constant, from every corner.’ Joan, who plays to her advantage the regular attention she receives from the men, responds; ‘You’re the new girl, and you’re not much, so you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.’ Joan’s response suggests that the harassment is something for which Peggy should be grateful, diminishing her discontent. While Joan attempts to coach Peggy into the ‘right’ way of handling the harassment, she comments that ‘Men always bother you, all the time. They follow you down the street’, highlighting that some women (in this case, Joan herself) come to accept gender-based harassment as an inevitable part of public life. However, as evidenced by the number of mistakes Peggy made in the letter she wrote, the sexual harassment had an impact on her ability to function at work. Unable to brush the harassment aside, as Joan seemed to, the script suggests that Peggy’s only choice is to grow a thicker skin: if she cannot learn to enjoy the harassment, she must at least learn to ignore it.
Mad Men presents a workplace environment in which women were forced to navigate sexual harassment on a daily basis, which from our current perspective clearly seems unacceptable. Within the office environment men asserted their power over, and ownership of, the public sphere by blatantly objectifying their female co-workers, reducing them to sex objects. While in many ways this situation (p.70) persists, there is no denying that social norms around workplace sexual harassment have shifted dramatically since the 1960s. Recognising this form of harassment as an impediment to women’s full access into the workplace, there is now established case law and legislation that officially condemns it in the United States. What has not changed, however, is the perception that at least some measure of male harassment is inevitable. This perception indicates that the problem is much wider, extending beyond the confined workplace and onto the unbounded public streets.
It is hard to address a problem when the widespread attitude towards it is one of inevitability. In this sense, street harassment today is regarded in much the same way that workplace sexual harassment was regarded in the 1960s. Both forms of harassment are manifestations of male power and control over the public sphere. There is now general public agreement that everyone should be treated respectfully and equally by colleagues in the workplace. Sexual harassment in public, however, is rarely recognised as a legitimate problem.Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals learn from a young age to navigate their daily lives through sexual harassment not only in professional settings, but also in public. This second form of sexual harassment has come to be known as ‘street harassment’. It is a separate but still harmful form of sexual harassment, one that is now in the early stages of recognition. While workplace harassment is bounded within the parameters of the office and the relationships in the workplace, street harassment has no boundaries. Strangers harass people on the streets, at the coffee stands in office buildings, in the hallways of apartment buildings, on public transportation, from cars driving past – in any and all public spaces. The unbounded nature of street harassment, being that it can happen at any moment in public, and happen without recognition or admonishment, does affect the recognition it receives as a form of harassment. Street harassment is considered to be fleeting, without consequence, just ‘boys being boys’, when in reality it carries many of the same consequences as workplace harassment, in which career and livelihood may be at risk, and is just as reprehensible.
Although it is still far from being a household term, street harassment has begun to garner appropriate levels of attention as a necessary element in the struggle for women’s rights. The goal of anti-street harassment activists is that one day we will look back on the apprehension women experience in just walking down the street with the same mixture of awe and horror with which we now regard sexual harassment in the 1960s workplace. This chapter begins with the identification of the (p.71) nature, context and roots of street harassment as a global problem in need of comprehensive solutions. The efforts by community-based organisations to remedy street harassment are described, informed primarily through document analysis, alongside newspaper articles and first-hand accounts of street harassment experiences, and empirical data is presented from a case study of Hollaback!, an international not-for-profit organisation dedicated to ending street harassment globally. The case study of Hollaback! focuses specifically on its use of the internet platform to match street harassment’s unbounded parameters with a similarly unbounded organisational model for implementing those solutions on a global scale.
The development of the movement to end street harassment
In the nineteenth century, men in the United States and Canada who ogled women in public were referred to as ‘mashers’ (Johnston, 2011). Newspaper articles and studies done in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveal stories of harassment similar to stories reported today, together with a range of responses including those from fierce opponents to the harassing behaviour to people who focused on what the women might have done to invite the harassment, alongside others that attempted to find the best way to deal with this widespread problem.
Today we still see a similar range of responses. Despite that early attention, street harassment persists. But today activists all over the world are speaking out against our modern day ‘mashers’ and placing the blame rightfully on their harassing behaviours. Thanks to modern technology, activists are also speaking out globally, both through local, grassroots action and also through online activism with sites like Hollaback!, Harassmap, Blank Noise, and Stop Street Harassment. The new technological capabilities have allowed people to connect and unite together through the internet to create a tremendous platform that highlights street harassment as a global issue and locates it firmly on the continuum of gender-based violence. The belief that the safe access of individuals to public space must be ‘established as a political right’ is an echo of Dolores Hayden’s 1980s demand that such safe access is necessary in order to overcome what she termed the ‘thereness’ of women and LGBT individuals, meaning that they are present as part of the scenery but not permitted to play active roles (Presler and Scholz, 2000, 40). The international movement is taking activism to new levels, (p.72) demanding a public policy-oriented response to street harassment and an end to the culture that regards gender-based violence as acceptable.
The international scope of activism against street harassment
Modern anti-street harassment activism is heavily internet-based, but does have large components of on-the-ground action. Whether called ‘piropos’ in Latin America, ‘chikan’ in Japan, ‘eve-teasing’ in India and neighbouring countries, or ‘street harassment’, the behaviour occurs on a global scale and it has similar impacts on women’s mobility all over the world. People are starting conversations to raise awareness, many are actively intervening to interrupt instances of harassment. Some are even approaching their legislators and demanding formal responses. Each of these forms of activism is important to the end goal of challenging the culture of acceptability that surrounds gender-based violence more generally, and street harassment in particular. To change this culture, we have to change the mind-set that supports and enables it, and every conversation that occurs at a local level is a step in that direction.
Community groups and safe spaces
Many organisations have emerged across the world that provide safe spaces for women to talk about what they can do to both cope with and end street harassment. For example, women in a remote village in Bangladesh who were under virtual house arrest, subjected to public sexual harassment and even violence whenever they dared to leave the home, were empowered by a CARE programme called Shouhardo (a Bangladeshi word that means ‘friendship’) to confront the harassment. Through community-based groups of women and girls, they discussed decision-making power, violence against women, and other issues affecting the women of the village, as well as the Bangladeshi legislation available to ultimately confront the men of the village until it eventually ceased. Women and girls now walk more freely and are more informed of their rights (Gayle, 2012).
Art and public education
Art has been used by organisations to educate others about street harassment as well as by individuals as a means of working through their personal experiences. The Adventures of Salwa is a project based in Beirut, that campaigns against sexual harassment both in (p.73) public and in the workplace. The centrepiece of the campaign is a cartoon character, Salwa, an ordinary Lebanese girl who combats sexual harassment by breaking cultural taboos and fighting back. This project works through public service announcements, cartoons and community engagement activism to share information and encourage local dialogue (www.youtube.com/user/adventuresofsalwa, online video channel, YouTube).
HollabackPHILLY similarly released a comic book dealing with the nuances of street harassment, which is used as part of their youth educational programme. The comic book follows three characters and their different experiences with street harassment, outlining diverse gender experiences, including the perspective of a male bystander. The comic book medium relies heavily on superb visuals with little text, so that the comic book becomes an accessible tool to engage audiences who might otherwise not be interested in reading literature on street harassment. In this way, the comic book is an engaging way to encourage people to think about the issue, allowing them to take it home and digest the information in their own time.
Public advertisements have also been used to address harassing behaviour. Public transport vehicles and stations are major sites of harassment incidents, making them the perfect platform for educational efforts. Strategically, the passengers are also a captive audience, so many organisations have taken to creating public service advertisements to run on their local transit systems. For example, in Sri Lanka the Chairman of the Legal Aid Commission, SS Wijeratne, spoke out against street harassment, most rampant in public transportation (Lanksari News, 2011). Wijeratne said that women were reluctant to report harassment to the bus conductors, drivers or the police, and the bus drivers are also reluctant to report harassment for fear of losing income (Lanksari News, 2011). The Chairman and the Road Passenger Transport Authority in Sri Lanka allocated a two-week public awareness campaign, to raise awareness and spread messages aimed at deterring men from harassing, and encouraging women and bystanders to report the harassment (Lanksari News, 2011). The Latin American Women and Habitat Network in Colombia created a no-groping campaign for the Bogota bus system (Valente, 2010). Similarly, in the United States, DC Metro in Washington DC and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority in Boston, each released a public service campaign focused on groping in public transit. HollabackPHILLY released a public transit ad campaign in spring 2013 that was the first to address the roots of street harassment at every level, from menacing stares to unwanted comments and more extreme forms of harassments such as following and even touching. In (p.74) partnership with Feminist Public Works, HollabackPHILLY published a more expansive campaign across the entire Philadelphia transit system in the spring of 2014. This second campaign again defined street harassment, attempted to instil a sense of community accountability, and encourage people to intervene when they witness harassment occurring. Both campaigns received international attention, as well as local legislative attention, and were adapted for use by Hollaback! Boston in the Boston transit system in 2014.
Another powerful use of art to combat street harassment is also found in Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s wheat pasting project. Fazlalizadeh has travelled the world, drawing portraits of local women on posters in public spaces, with captions that speak directly to offenders (http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com). In 2014 she partnered with Fusion Digital to take her anti-street harassment wheat pasting project to Mexico City, where they interviewed 76 women. The project, portraits and stories were turned into an interactive website.
Academic research projects and community-based responses
The Blank Noise Project in India started as a college student’s senior project in 2003, designed to combat ‘eve-teasing’ (as street harassment is called in India). This project has since blossomed into an organisation with a local presence through on-the-street activism and community engagement. The Blank Noise Project has reached out to legislators, created public art, engaged in performance-based activism, as well as developing an international presence through their blog and social media presence (http://blanknoise.org).
Harassmap, based in Egypt, encourages real-time reporting of harassment via mobile technology and social media. In partnership with the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, the United Nations Population Fund and the European Union, Harassmap conducted a sociological study of the reach and impact of street harassment across Egypt, releasing a ground-breaking report detailing the scope and nature of Egypt’s street harassment problem (Hassan, 2010). In 2014, they partnered with a number of local organisations and officials to release a follow-up survey on the effectiveness of crowdsourcing data in the fight to end street harassment (Fahmy, 2014).
Stop Street Harassment was founded by Holly Kearl after she had completed her master’s thesis, entitled Stop street harassment: Making public spaces safe and welcoming for women. Following the publication of her thesis as a book, Kearl (2010) founded the online resource website StopStreetHarassment.org, which is filled with international resources (p.75) to support anti-street harassment activism. She is also the organiser of International Anti-Street Harassment Week, held the first week of each spring, which encourages international organisations to host local discussions and activism around street harassment, which are then documented on her site (www.stopstreetharassment.org).
Numerous cities worldwide have launched segregated public transportation programmes, most recently in Delhi where one subway car or bus will be designated ‘women only’. Although not an ideal solution, it is an official, citywide acknowledgment that the harassment is a problem (Times of India, 2012).
Women all over the world have demanded public and political responses to street harassment including formal legislation. In March 2012 the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, committed the government to taking a harder stance against street harassment and stalking, supporting international initiatives and improved local laws (Hill and Jowit, 2012). In May 2012, France’s parliament overturned the country’s sexual harassment law on the grounds that it was too vague and thus did not adequately address the problem, and subsequently, in July 2012, unanimously approved clearer and more comprehensive legislation criminalising sexual harassment (De La Baume, 2012). An anti-sexual harassment bill was introduced in Chile specifically focused on groping in public space (Kearl, 2011). The Shoura Council in Saudi Arabia issued a new law punishing men who harass women in public with a fine and public defamation (Saudi Gazette, 2012). A bill against street harassment was introduced to Panama’s national assembly in February 2015 (Asamblea Nacional, 2015). As reports of sexual harassment increased in Peru, the Peruvian government passed a law in March 2015 outlawing sexual harassment, while proscribing enforcement mechanisms at local and national levels, with a penalty of up to 12 years imprisonment. The new law defines sexual harassment as ‘physical or verbal conduct of sexual nature or connotation by one or more persons against another or others who do not wish or reject such behaviour as affecting their dignity and their fundamental rights’ (Ojeda, 2015).
These instances of activism in cities across the world, although sometimes powerful agents for change at the local level, don’t often expand beyond the individual communities in which the organisations are based. For a global response to succeed in crafting sustainable, (p.76) culturally nuanced, long-term solutions to street harassment, it requires international collaboration.
Global activism in a digital age
I was wearing sunglasses, so no one could see me cry on my way home. I don’t let anyone talk to me like that, but he was so much bigger and filled with so much anger. I felt so powerless and so small.2
Hollaback!, a community-based organisation dedicated to ending street harassment, began in 2005 with a group of friends who were discussing their discontent with the harassment women experienced while walking down the street. As an initial response they started a blog, HollabackNYC. Five years later, in 2010 Hollaback! was incorporated as an official not-for-profit organisation. By the close of that year Hollaback!’s initial goal of launching five branches had been exceeded nine-fold, with 45 branches, operating in nine languages spread out over 16 countries across the world. By the end of 2014 the organisation had established 84 branches spanning 25 countries in every continent except Antarctica.
Members of the Hollaback! network from 84 cities share a common experience of street harassment and the goal of emancipation from the fear of gender-based violence. They aspire to a world where safety on the streets has nothing to do with gender. Technological advances have created innovative options for today’s CSOs to unite in unprecedented ways, and these have enabled Hollaback!’s rapid growth. The organisation utilises the internet to facilitate a prodigious platform for activism, uniting over 300 site leaders on an international stage. These leaders run activist branches in local communities all over the world, holding workshops and creating dialogue about street harassment. Through its international branches Hollaback! collects accounts of personal experiences of street harassment from community members via community meetings, online networking and mobile technology. Those stories are then shared on local Hollaback! websites, and are mapped globally. Mapping the stories illustrates the scope and tenor of the problem, while also allowing for direct comparison of the styles of street harassment that span the globe.
Unique to the Hollaback! model is its approach which recognises and highlights the intersections of oppression present in street harassment behaviour through regular collaboration and skill-sharing between its global site leaders. The diversity of its site leaders (as of 2014, 78 per (p.77) cent of Hollaback! site leaders were under the age of 30, 36 per cent identified as LGBT, 29 per cent as people of colour, and 17 per cent as having disabilities) is magnified by the cultural variances in their experiences and perspectives, which informs the movement’s activism at both local and global levels. Many Hollaback! site leaders have the opportunity to interact regularly via the internet, collaborating and transforming their activism to be culturally relative and sensitive. This model of global collaboration provides the potential for Hollaback! site leaders to learn from each other’s strategies and to be inclusive of subcultures within their own cities while expanding access to perspectives and approaches through brainstorming within the network. The diversity of Hollaback!’s leadership also makes the movement more accessible to a diversity of constituents. As each new site launches the site leaders are trained in the movement’s goals and objectives as well as ways of problematising street harassment and organising effectively so that the volunteer leaders are at least operating within the same messaging frameworks.
When a Hollaback! branch starts in a new city, its initial activity is to familiarise their community with what the term ‘street harassment’ actually means. Sexual harassment is normalised behaviour to some women; ‘simply routine, a commonplace part of everyday life, and thus not something that can be challenged’ (Riger, 2000, 93). Such normalisation prevents people from even recognising the harassment let alone acknowledging the negative emotions people experience in response to harassing behaviours. For example, many workshops done by HollabackPHILLY with high school- and college-aged students have begun with little response to the question, ‘What is street harassment?’ But when asked, ‘How many of you have been sexually harassed by strange men on the street? How many of you have been followed by strange men on the street?’, many more hands are raised (from an interview with Anna Kegler, 16 July 2013). People have an intimate knowledge of street harassment, but haven’t, until recently, been given a name for the experience or been told it’s an experience which they are entitled to consider as harassment.
Naming street harassment and labelling it a problem in need of a solution is the first step to validating the unique realities of women and LGBT individuals and placing them into mainstream consciousness. The collective consciousness-raising that occurs online through the Hollaback! platform provides a way to literally write the experiences of street harassment into a reality that is both qualitative and quantifiable, and on a global scale. Hollaback! provides hundreds of names and human reactions to street harassment from all over the world in a visible, (p.78) accessible way. The blogs documenting these experiences humanise the issue and provide solidarity for the various people speaking out about being harassed. Additionally, they serve as a resource for those in need of a community who are still uncomfortable speaking out.
Street harassment often goes unreported, as many people are still uncomfortable reporting gender-based violence. Research into the experiences of rape survivors suggests that there are two preconditions for people to be comfortable reporting a rape: they must identify themselves as a victim of a crime, and they must be confident that they will be perceived as such by others in their lives (Williams, 1984). Being unable to get support from community, friends, and family ‘causes harmful psychological effects that are more severe than effects of other crimes and engenders fear among women that leads them to restrict their behaviour to avoid sexual victimization’ (Ullman, 1996, 505). If a survivor ‘detects a scepticism and lack of support by those to whom the report is made, her feelings of guilt and lack of self-worth may be enhanced, and the psychological impacts may thereby be increased’ (Norris and Feldman-Summers, 1982, 562). This logic also applies to the reporting of street harassment, even informally to friends or colleagues, which can have lasting benefits to the person harassed.
Hollaback! sites all over the world challenge the more mainstream, sceptical approach to survivor accounts by providing safe spaces for women and LGBT people to post their stories, creating a sense of community with people who have had similar negative experiences. Survivor narratives ‘give voice to heretofore silent histories; help shape public consciousness about gender-based violence; and thus alter history’s narrative’ and can be essential to recovery (Hesford, 1999, 195). Collecting anecdotes of experiences illustrates the world which many inhabit, emboldening those with similar but silenced experiences, and enlightening those to whom the experience is foreign. Hollaback!’s global community names the problem of street harassment, validates the experience of those who are harassed, and allows them the freedom to identify themselves as having been victimised by harassers. Many site leaders also email individuals who have submitted stories, thanking them for sharing their experience, and reminding them that the Hollaback! community ‘has their back’: humanising the reporting experience, even when it happens anonymously online. Such responses emphasise acceptance, empathy and a sense of community outrage that street harassment is not okay, and allow ‘members of stigmatized groups…[to] evaluate themselves in comparison with others who are like them rather than with members of the dominant culture. The in-group may provide a reappraisal of the stressful condition, yielding (p.79) it less injurious to psychological well-being’ (Meyer, 2003). Support and encouragement allows for healing, and helps survivors to resist the more common reaction of internalising the shame of the harassment.
The psychological benefits to people who feel able to respond to their harassers are numerous. Countless user submissions describe the relief and even uplifting feelings associated with talking back to their harassers. On the Hollaback! website, Asasia (2011) recounts:
Now sure, it wasn’t the most clever comment in the world. It wasn’t the toughest either. It wasn’t revolutionary or life changing, or anything. But it made me feel good. It felt good knowing that I stood up to those boys and put them in their place. It felt good to let them know that I meant business and I wasn’t going to put up with their harassment. It felt good to be able to walk away with no regrets other than not saying something cooler.
For the rest of the walk I felt great and I told my stepmom about it immediately when I got home, then popped right on here at Hollaback! to share my story with other girls. For the first time, at sixteen years old, I stood up to the boys who wanted to show their superiority over me and proved that hey, I might be a girl, and a hot one at that, but I won’t let anyone try to make me feel like that’s all I am.
For many, Hollaback!’s sense of community is what empowers them to speak out against street harassment. Kristin credits that sense of community for giving her the courage to stand up to her harasser:
I told him his version of a compliment was fucked in all directions. I told him that this wouldn’t go under the rug, like so many experiences like this I’ve had before.
He started walking away, I was making a big scene. I started stopping women on University Ave, asking them if they have ever been harassed by this man? None were, and if they were they never told me. I yelled to sisters further up the street to watch out for that 45 year old in the orange shirt with the beer gut. ‘He harasses women!’ I screamed. He slinked around the corner and away, tail between his legs. I am livid, hurt, vulnerable and in desperate need of reassurance. This shouldn’t have to happen…to anyone! If it wasn’t for Hollaback! I would have never had the guts (p.80) to stand up and say something. I hope this humiliation is something he carries with him everywhere he goes.
Letty shouted after her groper, calling out his behaviour and announcing the shame he should feel at having violated her.
A stranger grabbed my crotch on the metro today. And then tried to deny it and get away from me when I started screaming at him. Eventually he mumbled ‘sorry’ and walked away and I didn’t have the energy to keep following him. But I’m proud of myself for yelling: ‘You can’t treat women like that! You are disgusting! You should be ashamed of yourself! That is unacceptable!’ Next time I’ll be mentally prepared to take the next step and report it.
Although she was unaware of his reaction, or whether he even heard her, Letty felt empowered at having said something, and encouraged to take her response further the next time she encounters street harassment or groping. Of course, she still mentions the inevitability of ‘next time’, but at least she is heartened enough by having spoken up to imagine that next time as one where she might act even more powerfully.
The testimonial, community-based approach also has value to those outside the community. The frequency and severity of the harassment catalogued by women of various ages and locations provides the basis for reshaping our conception of reality to include the marginalised voices of those who are harassed. The stories collected across sites are available on the same online map, providing a sense of global community around the experience. The Hollaback! smartphone applications available internationally, in multiple languages, provide geo-mapping capabilities which can transform the reporting of street harassment anecdotes beyond that of providing solidarity to providing a tool for organisations and legislators to monitor the pervasiveness and severity of street harassment in their regions. This information can be used to agitate for action and also to further academic discussion about long-term remedies for street harassment at the local level, while supporting the identification of the issue as a global problem.
Hollaback!’s global platform unites international activists to share diverse resources and ideas and educate one another about different cultures and their approaches. The model also has the ability to harness the wide-reaching capabilities of the internet, mobile technology and global partnerships to incorporate as many perspectives as possible and (p.81) to create a more accurate appraisal of street harassment and solutions that correspond to those geographic and cultural variations. The local voices and actions are then magnified as those in the network support and are supported by one another, largely through social media and e-mail. The reporting and cataloguing of the reality of this experience from the perspectives of those harassed, coupled with the international scope of the anecdotes and activist efforts, encourages state actors to notice and take action. Once the state takes action it creates a cycle where, having expressed interest in the issue, the state’s involvement encourages more reporting. Study results have showed that ‘women who perceived that leaders made honest efforts to stop harassment felt significantly freer to report harassment, were more satisfied with the complaint process, and reported greater commitment than those viewing leaders as more harassment tolerant’ (Offerman and Malamut, 2002, 885). The more women and LGBT individuals who are reached by Hollaback! and encouraged to give voice to their experiences, the more successful the movement will be in inspiring policy and long-term, systematic change.
In the spring of 2011, the site leader of the Buenos Aires branch of Hollaback! in Argentina was threatened by a prominent local journalist, Juan Terranova at the El Guardian newspaper, for her outspoken response to a Coca Cola advertisement that encouraged street harassment. He explicitly threatened to physically and sexually assault her for her activism. Hollaback! demanded the journalist be fired and an apology be issued, but El Guardian refused. So, the Hollaback! network rallied, created petitions, and lobbied advertisers to pull their contracts from the paper until it issued an appropriate response to the published rape threats. Hollaback! convinced Fiat and Lacoste to pull their ads from the paper, which finally pressured El Guardian to fire Terranova and to apologise publicly. The Hollaback! network’s ability to rally around the site leader demonstrated a strong showing of public support against the media attempt to silence her voice and her efforts.
The future of anti-street harassment activism
Social practices change when the conditions that support them change…They change when the costs of the behaviour begin to exceed the rewards.
(Langelan, 1993, 73)
The Hollaback! model stresses the importance of widespread public education and legislative pressure in bringing about the cultural shift necessary to end street harassment, including incorporating (p.82) street harassment into middle and secondary school curricula, and encouraging employers to educate their employees about street harassment as a public health issue. These are all important steps in bringing about the cultural shift away from one of acceptance of harassment and towards awareness of its multi-layered consequences. Hollaback!’s long-term goal is that we will look back on street harassment with reactions similar to those we feel when watching Mad Men at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We will ask ourselves how and why people endured such behaviour, and we will feel grateful for the shift in cultural and societal attitudes. To reach this objective, Hollaback! has many more short- and long-term goals.
In the short term, Hollaback! champions the development of training and comprehensive guides for those who most often come into contact with survivors and perpetrators of street harassment, including service providers, educators, law enforcement and healthcare providers. Next, Hollaback! emphasises learning about community needs through safety audits of local neighbourhoods which will provide concrete evidence to bring to local legislatures and law-making bodies. In training and encouraging local activists on a global platform, this data and information is being collected by and from locals in the network who can then learn from, and replicate the efforts to enhance the scope of data collection and distribution. Longer-term goals include continued educational efforts and legislative outreach, but as the data develops and the movement grows, Hollaback! is poised to have robust data sets from countries spanning six continents, which will allow for larger scale academic discussion and policy change. Seizing the opportunity provided by that data, the Hollaback! leadership, based in New York City in the United States, can also expand their goals to incorporate social change relevant to their international network of activists.
Ideally, the future will be one without street harassment. Women and LGBT individuals will feel safe walking down the street. Men will not feel entitled to constantly evaluate others’ bodies. The explicit perception that women and LGBT individuals are less-than, or are valued only for their sexualities, will be distant memories. While this ideal is the solution to which we should all work, realistically, that is not a short-term goal. The extent and types of harassment are difficult to ascertain ‘because of what is counted as sexual harassment and, secondarily, how data on the phenomenon are collected’ (Gruber, 1992, 460). The community-building, narrative form of data collection produces rich data but is often perceived as less objective. An examination of street harassment at its various intersections and (p.83) within its various cultural and geographic contexts is necessary before a holistic solution can be found.
While Hollaback! works to shift culture and to lay the groundwork for reform, it also recognises that deeper legal and legislative analysis will be necessary to reach the long-term goal of uprooting street harassment from our societal landscape. Long-term solutions require legislative and legal action, both of which are blunt instruments that require extensive research and society-wide reform in order to be effective. Even when that time and energy has been expended, they are also arguably imperfect tools, as evidenced by how far workplace harassment policy and legislation still need to go in ultimately ending gender-based harassment in workplaces.
Workplace harassment is the closest model from which street harassment activists would work in establishing laws and policies, but street harassment would not be able to follow quite the same form. Though street harassment is a form of sexual harassment, it’s quite different from workplace harassment. Street harassment occurs between strangers in public spaces where no formalised power structures are in play, because the streets are unbounded and less defined than the workplace, for example. Laws and policies on workplace harassment have been over 50 years in the making and, while those laws have dramatically improved workplace culture, workplace sexual harassment is still rampant and far from resolved. While streets and sidewalks often provide a hostile environment for women and LGBT individuals, there’s hardly a single actor that can be held accountable for the environment created. Instead, we have to collectively hold each other accountable, and value our communities enough to recreate them as nurturing and safe environments.
However, although the process of legislative changes is long and imperfect, this has not deterred Hollaback!. Site leaders collectively met with a total of 94 elected officials around the world in 2012 and an additional 68 in 2013 (Hollaback! website, 2012 and 2013). Even if no formal laws or policies are put into place, having the awareness of an issue plaguing our cities recognised in legislation goes a long way to validating and empowering the efforts toward ending street harassment. Additionally, relationships with those officials can significantly empower local activism. Governments are able to fund and assist with research, the conducting of safety audits, the release of public service advertisements to help educate the public, and to expand the reach of activists, helping them get into schools to host educational workshops. These are resources and opportunities which they would have great difficulty in accessing on their own.
(p.84) Progress within western countries is, of course, necessary, but expanding its scope to include legislative and cultural shifts in other countries where the Hollaback! network operates is an essential step in progressing from an internet-based collaboration into a movement able to create large-scale, cross-cultural social change. Much more extensive research needs to be done at an international level, examining different aspects of street harassment behaviours in order for these goals to be achieved. Important details that need to be determined are the frequency with which men harass and women experience harassment; the tenor and scope of harassment experienced by members of LGBT communities; the frequency with which women and members of LGBT communities perpetrate harassment; the degrees to which race, gender, and LGBT identity factor in to both the harasser and harassee experiences; how, and how often, street harassment limits the mobility of women and LGBT individuals, and has an impact on their willingness to enjoy access to the streets; how, and how often, that harassment escalates to violent speech or physical action; and how often physical assaults, sexual assaults, rapes, and stalking, begin with harassment. All of these variables, and many more, need to be evaluated before lasting policy solutions can be found and implemented, as they vary by country and among cultures and subcultures within each country.
While Hollaback! has incredible potential for revolutionary work, it also perpetuates problematic social power constructs. As Hollaback! expands its programming efforts outside the United States, it is essential for the organisation’s leadership to expand as well, from its current arrangements where the staff and board are based in the United States, to a more globally representative leadership. This diversification of the leadership is essential for challenging street harassment at the global level and incorporating the cultural variations and legal customs unique to each location in the movement’s long-term strategic planning. Additionally, having a leadership centred in the United States diminishes the potential for truly international expansion and limits access to funding for international action. In order to fully utilise their robust network of activists, Hollaback!’s long-term goals must include a diversification of the leadership and its location, as well as an expansion of their created resources to include culturally relative school and employer curricula, and legislative pressure for the implementation of acts and treaties that are relevant outside the United States. Hollaback!’s funding structure is also problematic. The decentralised leadership inherent in an international, digital network empowers active citizenship, created out of a collective need (p.85) to challenged gendered access to public space. However, although Hollaback! started as a member-led collective of activists, as fundraising became a primary focus in order to pay the staff in New York, the staff began asserting themselves as the face and voice of the movement, while capitalising on the unpaid labour of the international network to continue the income stream. While the earned funds pay salaries for staff in New York, the organisation does not provide financial support to the activists on the ground, while also charging a fee for use of the ‘Hollaback!’ name.
In addition to the internal impediments this system creates for the networked activists to fund their work, it also creates external competition. When the New York branch publicises the work of the international leaders as part of their fundraising campaigns, it implies that the money earned would assist in that on the ground. When Hollaback! then doesn’t directly fund the international site leaders, this actually impairs those individual activists from using their own work to justify additional funding as the work has already been funded through grants won by the main New York branch. Given the dearth of funds available to fund gender-based activism these issues create a cycle where the transformational work the domestic and international site leaders do is not compensated, but is used as the basis of generating funds for the New York based paid staff.
People experience and understand street harassment in many different ways, therefore its remedies cannot presume one uniform definition or response. When we compare it to the legislative and legal frameworks surrounding response to sexual harassment we see that such a uniform response is limiting and imperfect. If someone alleging sexual harassment cannot meet the strict conditions required by the law, s/he has no remedy. Sexual harassment in public is even more unbounded and expansive than sexual harassment in the workplace, it occurs between strangers and it is more difficult to monitor or regulate. This unbounded nature of street harassment thus calls for a similarly unbounded response; one that can adapt and respond to the behaviour in a collaborative but expansive way. Organisations and individuals must work together as part of a global society, at the personal, organisational and governmental levels, to determine street harassment’s behavioural roots and create effective solutions that are focused on eliminating the offensive behaviour while supporting the people who endure the harassment.Organisations such as Hollaback! have begun to seize the (p.86) opportunity provided by the internet to collaborate across cultural and social borders to create inclusive, skill-sharing spaces where meaningful, culturally sensitive and relative change can be made at local and global levels. However, they must be careful to avoid the risk that they perpetuate abuses of their networks with an over-emphasis on centralised power and finances. The global platform which the internet provides is one that enables a truly global response, not only revolutionising activism, but transforming the ways in which we relate our struggles to one another, allowing for more comprehensive, inclusive solutions. As the organisations continue to grow, they have the power and duty to expand their leadership, legislative and cultural goals beyond their home countries by harnessing the collective power of these international networks.
Presler suggests that it is time to expand the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ to ‘think futuristically, act daily’ (Presler and Scholz, 2000, 40). By focusing on the future we want to achieve and living our lives on a daily basis in ways that actively create that future we can bring about an end to street harassment and a cultural ethos that actively condemns gender-based violence.
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(1.) Debra Gilbert and Anna Kegler’s assistance with the research and organisation for this article is sincerely appreciated.