On a recent morning while riding the subway to work in Brooklyn, Stephanie Smith (name changed to protect the identity of the individual) felt a man with an erection press himself up against her. She said she felt unable and uncomfortable to take swift action on a crowded subway.
“He was clearly violating me,” said Smith. “And to him it just seemed to be OK.”
Smith works as an intern for Hollaback, a Brooklyn-based community organization that works to bring together activists across the city, and the world, to speak out and act against the harassment of women.
And Smith, along with the organization, and dozens of New Yorkers, gathered at a rally in Washington Square Park early Saturday morning to commemorate the end of the second International Anti-Street Harassment Week.
Messages written in purple yellow and pink chalk, that read, “Women Reclaim Our Streets,” “My name is not, “Hey Baby,”” and “”Hot Pussy,” is no way to say hello,” lined the pavement of the park. People gathered around the messages as women told stories of catcalls, whistles, jeers and other insults they’ve endured – and the fear they’ve experienced as a result.
The protest in New York was replicated in over 60 cities around the world, including Mumbai, Brussels and San Francisco.
“Today we have to confront the culture of harassment,” said Debjani Roy, the deputy director of Hollaback, which was also the chief sponsor of the rally in New York. “It is important to recognize that this is a gateway crime and leads to other violence.”
Stop Street Harassment, an international non-profit working to end gender-based street harassment, defines the issue as, “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.”
At the rally, Joan Abel, 69, argued that some of the most commonplace interactions she has had were instances of harassment. She recalled meeting her husband’s boss for the first time, and being greeted by words like, “honey,” and “young.”
She felt humiliated and intimidated by his words, she said. “Men don’t realize that women feel constantly threatened by such forms of attention,” she said.
Few studies have captured the pervasiveness of verbal harassment. According to a 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences,” are the most prevalent form of sexual violence against both men and women in the United States. A 2007 online questionnaire on sexual harassment in New York City conducted by the Manhattan Borough President’s office elicited 1,790 responses. About two-thirds identified as women. Sixty-three percent reported to have been harassed, and ten percent of the total responders said they had been sexually assaulted on a subway or at the station.
Last year, Hollaback conducted a study with the Worker Institute at Cornell University. They worked with social service, advocacy, and labor organizations in New York City to collect reports of street harassment. Of the 110 organizations surveyed, 86 percent of respondents had received complaints from their clients about harassment on the street, and 96 percent said they or a colleague of theirs had been a victim of such harassment as well.
In addition to Hollaback, several groups have been working to raise awareness about the issue. The Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organization representing Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, for example, has been canvassing the neighborhoods and encouraging women to blog and share their stories of harassment on the center’s website. In the past week the Brooklyn Movement Center held a rap session, where women were encouraged to share their experiences through music or poetry, and another gathering where participants wrote messages with chalk in a community park in Bed-Stuy. About 50 people from the neighborhood took part.
While acts of groping, public masturbation, and exposure are all punishable under New York Law, cat calling is not.
Patricia Valoy, host of the radio show, Let Your Voice be Heard, said she receives phone calls from women on a daily basis recounting stories of verbal harassment on the streets of New York.
“Cat calling and wolf whistling should definitely be a crime,” said Valoy. “Legislation will help change the way we view women right from the start of our education in schools.”
Others disagree about tackling the problem through criminalization. Marly Pierre-Louis, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Movement Center, said she gets yelled at and regularly sees cars slow down near her when she is walking around Bed-Stuy, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. But she prefers working to raise awareness to sending people to jail
Anthonine Pierre, the other founder of the Brooklyn Movement Center, agreed. “We don’t want to add to the criminalization of black men,” she said. “We are change workers, and we want this to be a continued social dialogue.”
Dialogue is one way groups try to raise awareness—and that means men taking responsibility and intervening when necessary.
“As men we have to be able to call out our peers when we see them acting inappropriately,” said David Beasley, the fiancée of Emily May, the director of Hollaback, “It is not always as effective when they hear it from an outside party.”
Hollaback is now using its blog, http://www.ihollaback.org/share/, to collect stories from people who have experienced street harassment, and is working to conduct a comprehensive study based on it. Hollaback said it receives requests from community organizers across the world to be trained in effectively combating street harassment, and currently holds three web-based seminars each year to provide assistance to international groups.
In July, it will host community leaders from across the world in New York to further raise awareness about the issue and to train people in being effective bystanders when they see violence happening in front of them.
“This is not just a women’s issue,” said Roy, “This is everyone’s issue, and such acts of harassment are not an acceptable way to build a healthy community.”
UPDATE: The article previously mentioned Stephanie Smith’s position at Hollaback as the communications director. She works at the organization as an intern.