Hollaback: Bringing Sexual Harassment Above the Radar


Verbal street harassment is legal in most places around the world, but groping, flashing, and public masturbation typically are not. Regardless of the illegality of more severe forms of street harassment, women and LGBTQ individuals have historically avoided reporting these incidents to the police for several reasons.

A recent New York Times article, “Sex Crimes Pass Under the Radar on Public Transit” provides the latest examination of why street harassment remains largely underreported. While the article focuses on harassment and assault on San Francisco’s Public Transit system, the findings are similar to New York City, where a 2007 study found that 86 percent of riders assaulted on the subway do not report it to the police. At a glance, if individuals are failing to report street harassment this could mislead others into trivializing the issue. In reality victims are sharing their stories, just not with the authorities, who, when faced with such complaints vary in their degrees of helpfulness. For instance, in New York City, if you are not too traumatized by and do report being confronted with someone publically masturbating, by being groped or by being verbally attacked on public transit, police provide you with a enormous catalogue of New York’s most degenerate sex offenders to leaf through and tell you to “Name your guy.”

Instead, individuals are sharing their stories with Hollaback!.

Over the past year, we’ve collected over 3,000 stories internationally of street harassment, many of which never make it to the police. Many victims of groping and assault are reluctant to report their stories for fear of being blamed for the situation as a result of their clothes, actions or decided route home. Others worry that they will be branded a ‘victim’ or ‘weak.’ For numerous reasons some have also lost faith in the police’s ability to defend their safety and well being altogether. Particularly when authorities such as the NYPD, during the height of the Brooklyn rapist fiasco in September, are doling out such anti-rape advice as “Don’t you think your shorts are a little short?” and “You’re the exactly the kind of girl this guy is targeting.” Not only this, but faith has not been restored by ongoing police brutality and harassment, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. Victims of street harassment are not alone in thinking this; studies show only 10-25 percent of rape cases are reported.

But even without these barriers, the legal system is a blunt tool. Prosecuting street harassment is a deterrent, but it cannot make street harassment stop altogether. Punishment will fail to deracinate the culture from which street harassment is born, a culture that deems women as objects and neglects to provide them with equal access to public spaces. To eradicate street harassment, we need to chip away at that culture. We need to build a world where the concept of street harassment looks just as absurd to us in the public domain as workplace harassment does on the hit show “Mad Men” today.

Street harassment is poised to be the next big gender issue of the decade, in the same way that workplace harassment was in the 1980s. However to achieve this, we need to tell our stories. Social movements have a long history of being ignited and advanced by people breaking their silence and sharing their stories e.g., Anita Hill’s impact on workplace harassment, Rodney King’s impact on police brutality, or Rosa Parks’s impact on the civil right movement to name a few.

We are at an unprecedented time in history where we do not have to wait for the media to pay attention to our stories. We all have a platform; we all have followers. Each story told on ihollaback.org is catapulted into the public domain to be viewed by thousands of people, but it reaches beyond that. We are using the stories submitted through our website, iPhone and Droid app to conduct research, analyze the emotional impact of street harassment and pin point it on the map. And this research and analysis translates into policy change.

Legislators are provided with a clear picture of how street harassment affects their district and are then transformed into champions for increased education and awareness. And as we seek to push street harassment into the broader cultural consciousness, our ability to elevate the voices of everyday victims on the Internet has added an unprecedented amount of traditional media attention to the issue in recent years. Through the power of mobile technology, social media, and the Internet we are able to move street harassment from something that is isolating to something that is sharable.

The Internet is a promising tool in these efforts, but it does not mean that the authorities are off the hook. From San Francisco to New York and Mumbai, police officers needs to be trained and ready to deal with street harassment and assault. They need to know how to intervene when they witness it happening, and how to support victims and connect them with the resources they need. Once officers are trained, a public service announcement campaign is needed to educate the public that reports of harassment and assault will be taken seriously by the police and transit authorities. Reports need to be made public annually by police departments, so that the public and legislators can track our collective progress on this issue and allocate resources toward the issue effectively.

Movements may start with people telling their stories, but they only become successful when power structures shift. Women and LGBTQ individuals around the world are coming forward in unprecedented numbers to share their stories. The trick in the coming years will be to get authorities, legislators, and eventually, street harassers, to listen.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Emily May on twitter: @ihollaback