Hey Baby, What’s the Rush?
A Student Perspective on the Dangerous Effects of Street Harassment and an Interview with Hollaback! Boston’s Brenda Hernandez
From catcalls to insults, propositions to groping, street harassment falls into the daily experiences of many people. At its core, street harassment functions as an instrument of intimidation often resulting in silence and fear. While catcalling is what comes to mind when most people think of street harassment, Stop Street Harassment (SSH), a national organization that combats harassment in public spaces, has a more holistic and apt definition. It includes not only catcalls but any “unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public places which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.”
This harassment is not unfamiliar. “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces,” a major study recently published by SSH, shows that not only do the majority of women experience street harassment but that it occurs often and in extreme ways. It reported that 65 percent of the women from the 2,000 people surveyed, experienced street harassment and 86 percent of these women reported being harassed more than once. Forty-one percent experienced physically aggressive forms of street harassment, including 9 percent of female respondents who were “forced to do something sexual.”
It is important to note that while a disproportionate number of women experience street harassment (according to the SSH study, 65 percent of women compared to only 25 percent of men), it does not occur solely along sexist lines. Street harassment can be ableist, classist, homophobic, racist, sizist, and transphobic as well. The SSH study found that this harassment not only affected women more than men, but that “persons of color, lower-income people, and persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender were disproportionately affected by street harassment overall.” All street harassment, regardless of its extremity, plays a part in a greater manifestation of the many intersecting oppressions people face. It is a widely experienced aggression with such universal effects that it is crucial for our society to start addressing and fighting against it.
Meet the Hollaback! Movement, founded in 2005 by a group of seven friends living in New York City. During a discussion they realized that the men and women in the group had completely different lived experiences of New York City because of street harassment. The campaign was initially launched to start a citywide discussion about street harassment, but from there it spread quickly to become an international movement, with 71 chapters around the world. Their mission is to end street harassment by working as a network of local activists in areas around the world. These activists try to better understand the problem, ignite public conversations, and develop innovative strategies to ensure equal and safe access to public spaces.
Each chapter is unique and combats harassment in different and creative ways. They all offer support by providing a place to share stories both on their website and through their mobile app. Hollaback! also offers workshops on bystander intervention and hosts community events such as Chalk Walks and Take Back The Bar. Beyond this, Hollaback! is working with policy makers in education to ensure that the younger generation has a deeper understanding of street harassment and it’s ramifications.
Having grown up in the area, I know that Boston is a city that continues to struggle with many problems regarding street harassment. Thankfully, Hollaback! Boston was founded by Britni de la Cretaz & Kate Ziegler in 2011 and has spent the past three years making a name for itself in the city and beyond. I contacted Hollaback! Boston’s Outreach Coordinator, Brenda Hernandez, to find out more about Hollaback! Boston and what makes it unique to this city. Below is our email interview:
(Change-Magazine) Why were you, personally, inspired to become involved in this organization?
(Brenda Hernandez) I had heard about Hollaback! while living in New York years ago, and never had the opportunity to volunteer with them. About a year ago I attended a Boston workshop, and remembered why I had wanted to be involved. I love the idea of community based solutions and encouraging people to change the culture. There’s also something really special about an international movement relying on its local activists to decide what solutions work best for their own communities.
(C-M) How does Hollaback! Boston measure success?
(BH) I think if we can give even one person the tools necessary to combat street harassment or be an active bystander, then we have been successful.
(C-M) How does Hollaback! Boston fit into the bigger picture?
(BH) Street harassment exists on a continuum of gender-based violence. When we allow lines and boundaries to be crossed in public, when we allow street harassment to go unchecked, we unconsciously give permission for larger boundaries to be crossed behind closed doors. We see ending street harassment as one piece in the larger puzzle of ending all forms of gender-based violence.
(C-M) Looking at it the other way, in what way is Hollaback! Boston unique to this city?
(BH) Here in Boston, we have what we refer to as “the perfect storm” for street harassment—we know that street harassment is more likely to happen in high density areas and in neighborhoods where people walk or take public transport more often. Boston fits all of that criteria. So what we have is harassment that happens in a variety of spaces—on the streets, on the MBTA, on college campuses, and in nightlife establishments. Boston is also working to promote itself as a cycling city and we’re starting to recognize that the harassment that some people experience while riding their bike is a barrier to people using their bike as a mode of transport.
(C-M) What are some of the biggest problems and/or obstacles Hollaback! Boston encounters?
(BH) Hollaback! Boston’s biggest struggles are the fact that we’re entirely volunteer-run and completely unfunded! All of the work that we do is done by people who have committed their free time to this cause because they believe in it! We also find that sometimes people are not as willing to take the issue of street harassment seriously because catcalls don’t, on the surface, seem like a big deal, even though we know that they are.
(C-M) How have you seen Hollaback! Boston evolve since you first got involved? How do you continue to see it evolve?
(BH) I have only been involved for about a year, but in that year I have seen our calendar grow. The public has become more aware of who we are, and we’ve been able to take our message to many platforms from academic conferences, to street rallies and even City Hall. I think we will continue to be an active grassroots organization that is known for partnering with many organizations but also I see our work with local government and businesses expanding.
(C-M) What are the next steps for Hollaback! Boston in the next 5 years? 10 years?
(BH) It’s hard to say where we’ll be in 5 or 10 years, though hopefully we’ll have eradicated street harassment and have no more work to do! In the near future, though, we’d like to see an anti-street harassment PSA on the MBTA and to hold a city council hearing on street harassment in Boston.
(C-M) What does Hollaback! see as street harassment?
(BH) Street harassment is any unwanted action, perpetrated by a stranger in public space, that makes someone feel unsafe. The key is that the person who experiences it is experiencing it as unwanted, and it’s usually based on someone’s gender, gender identity, or gender presentation. Street harassment exists on a spectrum, with actions like catcalls and whistles at one end, and more serious sexual assaults like groping at the other end. In between are things like leering, stalking, verbal assault, etc.
(C-M) Do you believe there is a non-harmful kind of street harassment?
(BH) Hollaback! Boston does not define for others what constitutes harassment. Some find unsolicited comments like, “Hey sweetheart,” made in public to be downright annoying, intimidating or intrusive. Some do not. Keep in mind that women experience unsolicited comments, as well as violent verbal assault, from men in public spaces on a regular basis. Rather than deliberating the “grey areas” of street harassment, Hollaback! Boston encourages you to treat everyone you encounter with respect. It is up to each individual to determine what is harmful. However the persistent nature of street harassment in our culture makes it harmful to society as a whole in that it changes the way people move through public space.
(C-M) How does the LGBTQ sphere intersect with Hollaback!’s work?
(BH) According to our State of the Streets survey, a self-report survey of 550 Boston-residents, 90% of LGBTQIA folks reported experiencing street harassment, and 96% of LGBTQIA POC. We recognize the intersections of oppressions that affect LGBTQ folks when experiencing street harassment. We are working with LGBTQ organizations such as the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition with their youth and lead a workshop this year at the Five College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference. We will also be participating in Boston Pride for the second year in a row to demonstrate our commitment to the LGBTQ community, of which many of our team and volunteers belong.
(C-M) How can students get involved if they are interested?
(BH) Students can get involved in several ways. We currently have several intern opportunities available as well as many volunteer opportunities. Students can attend our events or even bring us to their campus. We also hope to roll out a Campus Ambassador program soon, so look out for that. To keep up to date on our events, you can check us out on Facebook or Twitter. To set up a workshop, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Ogemdi Ude
This article represents the sole opinion of the author. The included interview represents the sole opinion of Brenda Hernandez on behalf of Hollaback! Boston. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Change-Magazine.