Being a young woman in the world can be a precarious experience, and finding your footing is anything but simple. Being a young woman inhabiting public space, in particular, is an entirely idiosyncratic, distinctively terrifying experience. Being a person inhabiting public space should not automatically make you the unwitting victim of negative attention and harassment, particularly if you are being attacked because of any facet of your identity. Hollaback! is an organization working to change this norm and end harassment. I cannot recount some times I have been walking alone, or with female friends, and received whistles, crude, demeaning remarks and lewd exposure from random men. No one should ever feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods because of how they look or identify, and we will not achieve a welcoming, comfortable environment for everyone until we all recognize this fundamental truth. Hollaback!’s goal? To ensure that truth.
Hollaback! is an extraordinarily important movement to culturally and systemically denormalize, and ultimately end, harassment in all its forms. The organization was started by Emily May, a passionate advocate for social change and accomplished, inspirational disrupter of broken social norms. May sums up Hollaback!’s core beliefs, and the importance of ending the harassment, in one sentence: “We believe free speech is not truly free when it silences other people.” How does her organization work to meet its goals? She talks about public service announcements on public transportation, celebrities speaking out against harassment, but what is most valuable, it seems, is sharing individual stories. Her app, Hollaback! Helps to do exactly that- allowing people to share their stories of being harassed online at the specific places and times that it occurred, to help warn and communicate with other people experiencing the same thing. “Sharing info on Hollaback reduces trauma. People stop perceiving it as a crappy thing that happened to them personally, that it felt like it was directed at them, but it’s the whole messed up the world we live in.” What is so insidious about street harassment, in particular, is that however innocuous a small comment like “Hello there, beautiful,” may seem, for someone who has experienced sexual abuse, it is like “ripping a scab off,” May explains.
Hollaback! has recently launched campaigns to curb online harassment, which has been an increasingly pervasive problem, especially with current political disarray. May describes the disturbing trend of women leaders step back from their online leadership due to extreme online harassment. “The internet is just another form of public space,” May says, and “applying bystander intervention” to it is just as effective as in the offline world.
So what tangible steps can a young person take to become a member of this social movement against harassment? Sign up for bystander intervention classes, offered by Hollaback, educate yourself about what harassment looks like for different communities, denormalize the kind of behavior that makes harassment acceptable in our society.