By the time they’ve hit their late teens, most females are well-versed in street harassment. Vile and intrusive catcalls like “you got some big titties,” “I’d love to wax that ass,” and “shake it like a salt shaker,” are an unavoidable part of their daily journey to and from school, work or even a quick trip to the corner store.
As the most ubiquitous and unlegislated form of gender-based assault, street harassment has become the most widely accepted. “Right now, street harassment is just boys will be boys, this is just a part of life, walk on by, be a good girl,” says 26-year-old Rochelle Keyhan, founder of Hollaback Philly, the local off-shoot of Hollaback!—an international movement raising awareness about street harassment by encouraging victims to speak up after being verbally or physically accosted on the street. “That might work for some people, but that should not be our blanket response.”
“If I send him the message that it’s acceptable to tell me all the vulgar things he wants to do to my body, then it sends him the message it might be acceptable for him to follow through and actually do those things,” continues Keyhan, relaying a recent complaint about a man who verbally assaulted a female clerk in a local clothing store. When the woman ignored his comments, he approached her and lifted up her skirt. “Sexual harassment is a gateway crime.”
Keyhan says she’s endured her share of hoots and hollers growing up in suburban California, but admits she wasn’t quite prepared for what she’s experienced since moving to Philly in 2007. “These two men had been harassing me the entire subway ride home,” she says. “I got off at City Hall and one followed me off the train, up both flights of steps and three and a half blocks shouting at me, ‘Hey baby, come on, talk to me!’”
Formed by a group of friends in New York City in 2005, the main weapon of Hollaback is: Put your harasser on blast . Victims are invited to share their stories (along with photos and video of their harasser) either via email, a smartphone app or directly on Hollaback’s website. Once received, their “holla” takes the form of a pink marker on the interactive online map.
Hollaback Philly is still in its infancy stage, but Keyhan, a criminal lawyer by day, spends at least 20 hours a week pushing it off the ground. The group officially launched its blog in April and Keyhan says, so far, it’s averaging more than 900 page views a month. She’s also in the process of organizing a free self-defense workshop for women and LGBT folks and hopes to reach out to local colleges starting this fall.
In the meantime, Hollaback Philly is taking its message to the scene of the crime—the streets.
“I am your sister, not a hoe, slut, bitch,” read one of the many messages chalked on the pavement outside of Rittenhouse Square and the 52nd Street El station on March 20 as a group of local activists gathered in recognition of Anti-Street Harassment Day. The diverse group of young women (and some men) shouted, waved signs and invited pedestrians to join them in chalking sidewalks with personal messages, all leading to one point: “I want to feel safe … enuf is enuf.”
Two women performed an impromptu skit of street harassment. “You should be happy that I’m even noticing you!” one shouted in the deepest male voice she could muster. “When I say ‘hey yo shorty’ and you don’t respond, that’s disrespectful to me because I’m a man and I’m complimenting you.”
“No, the best way to compliment you is by respecting you,” the other shouted back.
“Girls are being conditioned to be silent, to tolerate [harassment] because it’s part of our everyday experience,” says activist and filmmaker Nuala Cabral, 30. “Navigating street harassment becomes like an art.” This art, Cabral notes, is also a matter of safety. “Ignoring somebody in one place might be fine, but in another … it might provoke someone to respond violently.”
In the summer of 2008, Cabral, an adjunct faculty member at Temple, sought to “question and disrupt the acceptance around these normalized, everyday interactions” through a short experimental film titled Walking Home.
Shot in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Philly, the flick follows several women walking home, nothing more than floating body parts to the men they pass. Venting their frustration through a voiceover, their inner monologue is read as a poem (“You don’t even know me, but I know you and I know what’s next. You grab my arm. You turn around and stare. You say ‘pssst, hey shorty! … damn sexy, you got a fat ass!’ Leave me alone!”).
Although she didn’t consider herself an activist before then, the overwhelming response to the film inspired Cabral to take her efforts further. In addition to organizing the anti-street harassment rally, Cabral is the co-founder of FAAN Mail (Fostering Activism and Alternatives Now!), a local media literacy/activism project in which she and a group of about 15 to 20 other women of color discuss current depictions of women in the media and creative alternatives as consumers and producers.
Both Cabral and Keyhan agree that getting people to engage in a meaningful discourse about street harassment is the only way to really fight it. They also stress that all men need to be included in the conversation—the sooner, the better. “We need to hold each other accountable and speak out,” Cabral says. In her video, Cabral talks to a group of teenage boys who willingly admit that they don’t intervene when they see a woman being harassed unless they know her.
If nothing else, Hollaback finally places the blame (and shame) of street harassment where it lies: with the harasser. Recalling a recent incident in which she had to fend off a man making creepy gestures toward her at a Cosi, Keyhan explains the immediate impact of the movement. “He leaned really close, stared and was rapidly moving his knees all the way together and all the way apart,” she says. “Once I got my phone out, he leaned as far away as possible and faced the wall obviously knowing on some level he had been caught.”
She adds: “The peace of mind Hollaback has given me is like straight out of that Ani Difranco song, ‘Talk To Me Now,’” she says. “I really recommend women and LGBT folks holla back next time they’re harassed, if only to try out how it feels to have that power wash over them.”
It also gives women the opportunity to say in no uncertain terms that they’re not playing the blame-the-victim game. “Blaming women for what they wear is another excuse, its another way to dismiss violence against women,” Cabral asserts. “We need to help women … recognize this as street harassment.” And as Cabral has learned from personal experience, even the most conservative attire won’t deter a man from grabbing your ass. No invitation required.
The lies that enable sexual assault to be practically a rite of passage while growing up—1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are molested—are already everywhere, so deeply rooted in our culture you have to dig deep to yank them out. Staying silent has never helped a situation of sexual assault, ever. We say no. We say there is no better time to learn more and write more reality checks.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom