Thao Nguyen was riding the New York City subway in 2005 when a man sat down across from her and began to masturbate. She snapped a photo that would wind up on the cover of the New York Daily News under the screaming headline “EXPOSED!”
Nguyen told the paper that she tried to file a police report to no avail. So she uploaded the picture to various Web sites in hopes of identifying the perpetrator. The photo went viral (at least by 2005 standards) and police later arrested Dan Hoyt. The following year, New York magazine profiled Hoyt in an article taglined “the story of a raw-food guru turned ‘subway perv.'” Hoyt was eventually sentenced to two years probation.
As noted in the New York article, Nguyen’s harassment served as inspiration for the anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback, which at the time was a small N.Y.-based organization. A decade later, Hollaback is an international organization that bills itself as “a movement to end street harassment.”
In October, Hollaback made headlines with a video called “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.” That video, produced by Rob Bliss, who owns a viral video marketing agency, has received more than 38 million views on YouTube. The video was criticized as unfairly depicting men of color and Hollaback later apologized.
But the video, which rounds out Google’s list of the top globally trending YouTube videos of 2014, was also part of what activists have called increased awareness of street harassment and related issues such as sexual assault.
After the “10 Hours of Walking” video went viral, Hollaback’s executive director and co-founder, Emily May, said in a phone interview that it was “pleasantly surprising” to see how interested people were in the topic.
“For so long this issue has been sidelined as something that nobody cared about it. It wasn’t important,” May said. “People didn’t even see this as part of a critical feminist agenda, much less a national conversation that needed to be had.”
The video offered many insights into the complex conversations around street harassment. What exactly constitutes street harassment? Who is affected by it? Who perpetuates it? What does it look like in different communities? Amid those questions, there was a sense that the video — and the varied reactions to it — took an existing and ongoing conversation very public.
May said she started experiencing street harassment on a regular basis when she moved to New York City.
“I had a lot of shame about it,” May said. “I really saw myself as a strong woman and I was raised by a single mom and I thought that the fact that street harassment impacted me so much meant that I wasn’t strong.”
May said she tried several approaches from yelling back to “being a one-woman street harassment education machine” to ignoring it completely.
“Nothing really worked and so I just kind of accepted that this was a way of life,” May said. Then in 2005, she and her co-founders — four men and three other women — read Nguyen’s story. “We were just like ‘this woman is our hero — she’s amazing.'”
The site they launched encouraged victims of street harassment to channel Nguyen, now a member of Hollaback’s advisory board, and send in photos of their harassers. “Our whole idea was just to document this at first,” May said, adding “we thought we were just launching a little blog.”
Hollaback — and other organizations like it — has definitely become more than a blog. “This is a social movement,” says Laura S. Logan, a sociologist and activist who has long studied gender-based violence. Logan said she started researching street harassment in 2008. “I saw it as part of a continuum of violence against women,” she said in a phone interview.
Other people are starting to see it that way too, said Logan, who teaches sociology and criminology at Hastings College in Nebraska and is on the Board of Directors for Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization that, like Hollaback, started as a blog.
She said she sees a connection between the anti-street harassment movement and activism on college campuses around the handling of sexual assault. “That movement is also helping to spotlight the ways in which women are victimized,” Logan said.
“I think that from multiple directions, street harassment is getting some attention — street harassment as it’s experienced by different communities, which just really serves to highlight how common it is and how many people are experiencing it and some of the disastrous things that can happen as a consequence,” Logan said. “And I think that people see it as connected to other kinds of crimes against women.”
Stop Street Harassment founder Holly Kearl wrote her master’s thesis on street harassment while a student at George Washington University. She said she experienced it personally as a student, but hadn’t defined it as street harassment until she came across the term while doing research.
“2006 is the first time that I heard the term and I had two degrees — a history degree and also women’s studies,” Kearl said in a phone interview. “I was an activist around rape on campus and a volunteer at a domestic violence shelter, but street harassment was never identified or mentioned and I was dealing with it daily as a college student.”
Kearl has since written two books about street harassment. Earlier this year, Stop Street Harassment commissioned a national study, which found that 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men in the United States have experienced some form of street harassment.
In a two-part blog post on Stop Street Harassment’s Web site, Kearl identified some of the activism, research and events that made 2014 what she calls “the year of the tipping point” in terms of global awareness about street harassment.
“I feel strongly that 2014 has been a turning point year when it comes to raising awareness about street harassment,” Kearl wrote. “No longer is it an obscure term describing something that most people see as normal. Now, many more people have some familiarity with it, and a lot of them find it violating and wrong.”
Logan agrees and points to some of the high-profile cases in which street harassment has escalated to violence. She cited the story of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian who in 2003 was stabbed to death in Newark after rejecting advances from a man. Gunn had told the man that she was gay — the case was later prosecuted as a hate crime.
Logan also thinks that groups like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback have a lot to do with increasing awareness of street harassment. When it comes to activism, the idea of documenting street harassment — through photos, stories or videos — is a common thread.
In sharing their stories,”women can not only say ‘hey this is happening,’ but they can see that they’re not the only one it’s happening to. So it becomes a shared grievance,” Logan said.
Social media has also made it easier for women to share their street harassment stories, whether casually or as part of a collection of anecdotes.
One example is #YouOkSis, a campaign started by writer and activist Feminista Jones.
Jones, who writes (and tweets) under a pseudonym, lives in New York and has written for years about her own experiences with street harassment. In June, Jones tweeted about witnessing a man following a young woman despite her clear attempts to stop the conversation. Jones walked by and asked her simply, “You ok, sis?”
Women replied with stories of similar harassment or their own efforts to intervene when they saw someone getting harassed. “soooooo many times i wished somebody, ANYBODY, had come to my aid while being harrassed on the street,” one woman tweeted. “IT MATTERS.”
#YouOkSis is particularly resonant for women of color, who experts say are disproportionately affected by street harassment (along with those in the LGBT community).
“There’s this perception that black women are strong,” Jones said in a phone interview. “They don’t need to be saved. They don’t need empathy. They can take care of it. They probably want it.”
#YouOkSis challenges that notion. It’s become more than a hashtag, but it’s still active on Twitter and offers a wide-ranging look at how people experience and perceive street harassment. There’s a fair amount of vitriol from some who argue that street harassment isn’t a problem or assert that victims of street harassment are somehow responsible.
Jones said that despite such ridicule, social media has been helpful in putting a spotlight on the issue of street harassment.
“You can’t ignore that street harassment is something that people are tired of and that they’re taking a stand against,” Jones said.
Street harassment has also been looked at with humor — a plethora of videos spoofed the “10 Hours of Walking in NYC” video (here’s Funny or Die’s take).
In October, Jessica Williams took “The Daily Show” viewers along on her catcall-filled commute through New York City in a delightfully sarcastic segment called “Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere.”
“For most guys, it’s just a calm, boring commute, but for me it’s like I’m competing in a beauty pageant every day!” Williams said cheerfully.
In 2012, comedian W. Kamau Bell took a look at the topic on his FX show, “Totally Biased.” Bell interviewed both men and women to get their opinions on street harassment.
In a phone interview, Bell said that he hadn’t thought much about street harassment until one of his writers suggested a segment on the topic. At one point, Bell asks a woman how often she experiences street harassment. She responds every day and Bell looks flabbergasted.
“My reaction to the women talking is my actual reaction. When one woman says “every day,” I’m like ‘every day?!,'” Bell recalled.
At the end of the segment, Bell takes to the streets with a megaphone. “If you think catcalling and street harassment build up a woman’s confidence, you’re right. It makes them confident that you’re a creep!”
Bell, who is currently on tour, often incorporates social justice issues into his comedy. He said that he doesn’t specifically mention street harassment during his show, but that it can come up. “There’s a point in my show when I talk about sexism and to me it’s all related,” he said.
And when it comes to talking to men about street harassment (as one of the women he interviewed advised him to do), Bell — who now sits on Hollaback’s advisory board — says he encourages them to just listen.
“The problem with the street harassment discussion is that so many men will go — when a woman says ‘this happened to me and it was bad’ — they sort of go, ‘no, it sounds like the guy was complimenting you,'” Bell said. “And dude it’s like, you’re starting the whole conversation in the wrong place if you’re going to disagree with somebody about their personal experience.”
Logan said she believes that the growing awareness of street harassment will eventually lead to changes.
“Because men are learning what street harassment does, why it is so important to stop harassing women, that we have a better chance of men saying ‘Hey, I’m not going to do that. I didn’t realize it,'” Logan said.