Women Take a Stand Against Street Harassment

By Nicole Finkbiner
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 24 | Posted Jun. 22, 2011

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Photo by Joshua Stewart

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.

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Comments 1 - 24 of 24
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1. Anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 08:37AM

“This article cites what seems to be extreme examples of street hasrrasment, assuming being followed is not an everyday occurance. I wonder if any comments on the street are regarded as harassment. Apart from lewd comments, is it harassment to let someone know you find them attractive? I'm genuinely confused by this. Is this article condemning all comments about appearance on the street, or just those of a sexual nature? What if there is no persistance after an initial comment?”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 09:34AM

“Is it verboten to address the racial undercurrent here? "Hey yo shorty"?, "you got a fat ass"? These aren't typical locutions for every sector of the population, and could it be the case that different "courting rituals" among different communities can sometimes be viewed as harassment? Is it possible that the standards of comportment in a Penn classroom, for example, simply aren't the same as the standards of comportment on Girard Avenue? That certain acts of harassment are actually welcome, even expected overtures in the right context? Rather than being silent and feeling unsafe, or vilifying men who think they are paying a woman a harmless compliment, wouldn't it be easier and more effective to just tell them sternly, "I'm not interested, please leave me alone?"”

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3. shut up Anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 10:20AM

“Anon, methinks you are a male. And no, I don't need everyone complimenting me on the size of my ass or breasts. I am more than a sexual object, which catcalling promotes. I am a human being. Please don't justify the behavior of others that makes countless women feel uncomfortable on a daily basis.”

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4. Fina118 said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 11:02AM

“Actually, these are NOT isolated incidents and extreme cases; this type of behavior has indeed become the norm. Further, it is up to the individual to define what constitutes harassment. If it makes a woman feel uncomfortable, violated, and not safe, then it is clearly harassment. It is attitudes like these that make this type of behavior acceptable in our society. IT IS NOT A COMPLIMENT TO MAKE SEXUALLY EXPLICIT COMMENTS TO A RANDOM FEMALE. EVER. Plain and simple.

And to suggest that its "cultural", and a "courting ritual" makes me want to vomit. Disrespect of women and misogyny knows no income limits or racial bounds. Trust me, just because they aren't using slang does not mean those frat boys at Penn are not notorious harassers and rapists.”

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5. not really anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 02:55PM

“I know that as a woman, I don't leave my house wanting to be complimented by strange men that I pass. And more often than not, when a guy says something even as simple as "That dress is pretty on you," if you smile and thank them, they assume you want to continue talking to them.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 03:53PM

“Hi. Anonymous poster #1 here, not #2. Are these comments offensive only if they are of a sexual nature?”

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7. not really anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 05:54PM

“"Offensive" maybe not. "Annoying" and "unwanted" yes. Plus, any comment about your appearance from a guy on the street is 99 percent of the time simply code for "I want to fuck you." So whether its a compliment or a lewd remark, I don't care and I don't want to hear it.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jun 24, 2011 at 10:49AM

“Hey, I know! Let's just stop commenting on what other people look like! No more "Wow" when a bigger person walks by. No more "eat a sandwich" when a small person walks by. No one needs to hear your opinion while walking down the street. Your play-by-play is not necessary. Unless you want me to start commenting; and trust me, you don't.”

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9. Oxana said... on Jun 24, 2011 at 11:09AM

“I keep my mouth shot sometimes, because i am afraid if I stand up for myself, I'll be attack not only verbally... its sad, but its true... sometimes its much safer to just let them to say those humiliating comments, smile and go away...”

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10. HS said... on Jun 27, 2011 at 10:51AM

“I think what #2 is suggesting it's more of a black/hood thing. It is. What's bad, however, is that it makes women defensive towards all men.

And #7 may be a little high in the estimation. Many times I will talk to a female OR a male with no subtext or "code." I think it's funny how people think that what used to be normal social interaction is now construed as being hit on. I wish my ego were that strong to presume that meaning...”

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11. Anonymous said... on Jun 27, 2011 at 08:15PM

“fyi...similar to what #4 was suggesting, street harassment happens everywhere, though its face and its vocabulary (among other things) may change place to place. re: the old 80's and 90's construction worker chants before people starting filing lawsuits (oh, there's an idea).

i don't think the "girard avenue" standards are different than university city's, but it might be possible that the expectations are different. more than that, i don't think that it should go unsaid that not every "girard avenue"-seeming neighborhood engages in the same behaviors, and the questions that lead us to why those differences exist are just as important to our understanding as all of the others we've been asking.

also...harassment speaks more to approach than it does content, although with street harassment this often becomes conflated. is there a working definition anywhere?

great article! i'm glad this is generating so much attention AND conversation.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jun 28, 2011 at 01:36PM

“You think the fact that over 80% of black males come from homes with NO stable, working, male roll model of any type, who rely on what their culture & music, the mindless assholes hanging on the corner, tell them is 'acceptable', has any bearing on this disgusting, threatening behavior, seen in every urban area in this country?
Has anyone anywhere heard any of the esteemed talking heads of the Ivy Afro-American Studies depts make any attempt whatsoever to OPINE on this matter?
For the past ~ 20 yrs, whenever one of these clowns mounts the soapbox at NPR and the like, it is to talk about the 'endemic racism inherent in the oppressor's prison-industrial complex'.
And these people are the 'thought-leaders' in their 'communities'.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 11:05AM

“"Has anyone anywhere heard any of the esteemed talking heads of the Ivy Afro-American Studies depts make any attempt whatsoever to OPINE on this matter?
For the past ~ 20 yrs, whenever one of these clowns mounts the soapbox at NPR and the like, it is to talk about the 'endemic racism inherent in the oppressor's prison-industrial complex'. "

Man, listening to everything every Africana studies professor in the Ivy League has said on NPR for the past 20 years must have been exhausting. I mean, you're talking about scores of incredibly articulate, hardworking people who have dedicated their entire careers to the study, discussion, and analysis of race. The aggregate man-hours of research and comment must number in, conservatively, the hundreds of thousands. How do you keep abreast of such a broad field?”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 01:36PM

“What about women taking resposibility for the way they dress!! Some of these women leave their homes dressed specifically for the purpose of getting attention from that type of mentality of men. I'm not saying it's ok to be harassed but come on when you come out the house looking like you have your bedroom clothes on or every imprint of your physique is exposed
DUHHH! and I'm a woman ashamed to say.”

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15. Eric Hamell said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 06:38PM

“Why not holler back literally? A good "Fuck you!" should put off most harassers quite handily. Or, if you're feeling more pedagogical (since many men apparently really think these comments are flattering), something like, "Wrong approach, guy! Go ask your sister what women really like to hear."”

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16. Eric Hamell said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 06:47PM

“Without denying that African-American women can feel assaulted by some sexual comments, it's also true that standards differ significantly between the communities. One chapter is devoted to this point in Thomas Kochman's book Black and White Styles in Conflict. Kochman based it on what he was told by his Communications and Theater students, both black and white. It's been highly recommended by many activists, including Cornel West.”

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17. Girl in West Philly said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 08:30PM

“To all the Anonymous comments - this isn't about race, age or the way a woman is dressed. And saying "that dress looks nice" or "hi how are you" is a whole lot different than "can I get a piece of that" or "I like the way you bounce" (yes, I have heard these and much worse). I've gotten harassed wearing jeans and a sweatshirt just as much as a short dress. And believe it or not I heard comments just as bad on the Main Line as I ever have in West Philly. Young black men on the corner or middle aged white guys in business suits, it doesn't matter.

Here's a good guideline for anyone who's confused - if it's not a compliment you would pay your sister, mother or best friend's wife, it's probably not a compliment!”

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18. Anonymous said... on Jul 4, 2011 at 11:07PM

“Jesus, I'd sure like to know how the hell I'm supposed to approach a woman I'm interested in if every single thing I say is going to be "harassment"”

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19. Anonymous said... on Jul 5, 2011 at 03:48PM

“If you don't know how to make polite conversation with a woman I guess you're out of luck.”

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20. Anonymous said... on Jul 8, 2011 at 07:36PM

““Offensive" maybe not. "Annoying" and "unwanted" yes. Plus, any comment about your appearance from a guy on the street is 99 percent of the time simply code for "I want to fuck you." So whether its a compliment or a lewd remark, I don't care and I don't want to hear it.”

It probably is code for that. That doesn't make it wrong.”

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21. Awareness said... on Jul 12, 2011 at 07:05PM

“Your awareness articles are very much needed, and you should publish one every week. How about one on just looks? I've seen men almost get beaten up by a woman's BF just because of the way they looked at their GF's.

Polite conversation is one thing, and harrasement is another thing entirely. Verbal, physical or ...just a look.”

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22. Angela said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 08:46PM

“In response to comment #18...

Please use your head man. You pick up women when and where it's appropriate: at the bar, at a nightclub, at other social events, through online dating or friends.

DO NOT try to hit on me while I'm shopping at the supermarket, running errands in my sweats, studying, on the bus, simply walking down the street. For god's sake, leave me the f@$%* alone. PLEASE. If I am not looking your way or ignoring your comments, GO AWAY.

Wanna know what it feels like to be a youngish, attractive woman? Watch Millionaire Matchmaker and see how uncomfortable those male millionaires feel in a room full of women trying to court them.

And please keep in mind, if you're an older man (above 35) or overweight or unattractive, do not even expect to pick up attractive, 20-something girls on the street. Get a clue. You're just pathetic. We're usually disgusted.”

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23. Anonymous said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 09:32PM

“Comment #17 is right on the money...

She wrote, "Here's a good guideline for anyone who's confused - if it's not a compliment you would pay your sister, mother or best friend's wife, it's probably not a compliment!””

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24. Anonymous said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 10:08PM

“In response to comment #14, I agree with comment #17.

A youngish, decent-looking woman will get harassed no matter what she wears, whether it's sweats, jeans, baggy clothing, or glasses. Even if we're in "uglified" mode and seriously not seeking attention.

This is what I'm thinking every time I go grocery shopping..."Stop looking at me! What else could I possibly do, so that you get a clue! Wear a paper bag over my head? I'm not here because I want to meet men. I'm buying my friggin' groceries."

Leave me alone. If I want to meet men, I'll dress up, go to a bar, party or some social event.”


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