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‘Hollaback!’ and help fight street harassment through an online community

Posted by Alex Pearlman  January 2, 2012 08:40 AM

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hollaback boston.jpgBy Vanessa Formato

As I got off the subway at Quincy Center, I felt confident: I was on my way to an important job interview for a position I felt supremely honored just to be considered for. I had bought a sharp blazer and a conservative-but-young blue dress just for the occasion, and I carried my resume in a folder under my arm. I felt like an adult -- like I was on my way to something good.

“Oh my God!” I heard a scruffy, middle-aged man say loudly as I walked by. He pointed -- “Look at the rack on that one!” My cheeks burned, and I walked faster and tried to imagine it wasn’t happening.

But then I was being followed. I can’t describe the terror of trying to find somewhere to hide in a place you’ve never been. Luckily, I saw a bookstore and darted to the very back, making myself small behind a shelf. I spent the next 15 minutes waiting until I felt safe enough to go outside (fortunately, I’d arrived early for my interview).

In only a few minutes, I had gone from feeling like a young professional to feeling like a humiliated child. I will never know what that man would have done if he had caught up with me -- maybe nothing. All I know is what he made me feel, and that isn’t okay.

I think I speak for many of the nearly 100 percent of women who have experienced street harassment when I say that I’m sick of feeling frightened when I leave home alone. I’m sick of the queasy feeling I get when I’m walking home from the grocery store and see a man, not knowing if he’ll ignore me -- please, just ignore me -- or make a comment about my appearance. I’m sick of knowing that, when that man on the way home does harass me, it will happen again. I’m sick of it happening again.

Hollaback! is an international movement dedicated to creating a world without street harassment. The organization uses the power of the web to provide harassment victims with a soapbox to tell their stories and overcome the feelings of shame or helplessness that often come with being harassed. According to their main website, there are Hollaback! chapters in “45 cities, 16 countries, and in nine different languages around the world,” and thanks to the efforts of Boston- and Worcester-based activists Devon Audie, Jane Carper, Britni Clark, Angela Della Porta, and Kate Ziegler, Boston has joined those ranks.

Street harassment isn’t about compliments, beauty, clothing, or respect. As Lesley Kinzel wrote for xoJane, street harassment can be about trying to make women feel bad about their bodies -- and as many women know, the refusal to act grateful for any attention can turn violent. Catcalling is about entitlement and intimidation.

“[Getting harassed] is not about being the most beautiful girl on the T today,” said Ziegler, 26, who first learned about Hollaback! after documenting her experiences with harassment as a runner on her personal blog. “Through Hollaback!, we want to shift the conversation: Instead of people treating harassment as part of everyday life for women, we want people to show that it’s not okay and that we don’t have to accept it.”

In the moment, it can be unsafe to literally “hollaback;” you never know if telling the guy who yelled, “Hey, beautiful!” to shove it will result in assault. But Hollaback! is a great way to take back the power and shirk shame without endangering yourself. The Boston site hopes to offer opportunities to learn self-defense, among other activities.

“The power in Hollaback! is the way it acts as a forum,” Ziegler said. “You can go there and talk about what happened and all the things you wish you’d said. It’s cathartic.” Many women feel that they are in some way to blame for harassment, but Hollaback! aims to debunk that myth by sharing real and varied experiences, all while fostering a supportive community.

One of the major goals with the Boston site, according to Ziegler, is to create a space that bridges gaps. The site is meant to be inclusive, to teach women who never framed catcalling as a problem that they have the right to feel comfortable in public while also thoughtfully engaging with dedicated feminists who have put plenty of time into examining the problems -- like rape culture -- that are central to street harassment. Bridging those gaps to create a greater sense of community and empathy can help women combat everyday misogyny.

That all-inclusive atmosphere extends to the other gender as well; reaching men is another goal for the Hollaback! movement. Fighting street harassment is not about being anti-man -- the harassment of LGBTQ individuals by both men and women is also an issue -- but anti-violence, said Ziegler.

“I’m always surprised by how some guys just aren’t aware of street harassment” said Ziegler, “but it’s important for men to know it’s out there and how they can help.” Not all men catcall, but many of them are somewhat unaware of its implications, including that it can reflect attitudes that endanger women in the home as well as the street.

“If someone is willing to be violent and disrespectful toward women in public, what does that mean they’re doing at home?” Ziegler said. By publicizing the feelings of fear and discomfort caused by street harassment, Hollaback! may be able to show men why it’s necessary for them to join women in taking a stand.

Hollaback! Boston is planning a launch party for early this year. Details on the party -- which will likely include free food -- will be available on Hollaback! Boston’s Facebook or website. In the meantime, you can contribute to the movement by sharing your stories. By refusing to accept catcalling, we can stop it from happening again.

About Vanessa -- Vanessa Formato is a 22-year-old Clark University graduate, freelance journalist, vegan cupcake enthusiast and video game aficionado. She blogs about body image and tweets about puppies. So awesome, even John Stamos is impressed.

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