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Women Interviews-Emily, Founder of HollabackNYC, online forum encouraging women to call out their harassers

When it comes to sexual harassment, Emily May’s motto has always been “If you can’t slap ‘em, snap ‘em!” The twenty-eight year-old co-founder of HollabackNYC explains why a cell phone is a women’s best weapon.

Age? 28

Where have you lived? Richmond, VA and London, England.  And of course NYC.

Where do you want to live? I have fallen in love with Brooklyn. I’m pretty sure Brooklyn and I are in it for the long haul.

What do you do? I work at a nonprofit helping to develop creative programming that helps untappedyouth obtain jobs and GEDs.

For those who don’t know your site, can you please explain it and why it is an important cause?

Comments like ”Hey Baby, mmm…,” unwanted attention like groping, public lewdness, and assault are a demeaning and demoralizing everyday occurrence for women and LGBT individuals. Most of these behaviors are illegal, yet they are often socially accepted and the laws that protect against them often go unenforced. Women and LGBT individuals frequently choose to internalize the violence rather than report it and risk stigma. Hollaback! targets harassment at its source, not with brawn but with brains: we encourage women to submit cell phones pictures of their harassers and stories to our site.  Each story is read by over 1, 000 people and this ultimately leads to breaking the silence.

Was there a specific event or situation that inspired you to create this site?

HollabackNYC started in 2005 the way a lot of good revolutions must begin – as conversations with friends over a couple of drinks. The seven of us were commiserating over being whistled at, cat-called, and propositioned, with each story earning a chorus of “uggg” “ewww” and “gross!”  The trouble was that we felt there was nothing we could do. If we walked on, we felt victimized. If we yelled, we further endangered ourselves. Witty comebacks had their charm, but they always came late, and street harassment was more or less protected under laws of free speech. Then we realized – why not take pictures of these street harassers and post them on a blog? And so, with the clink of our cocktail glasses, we launched HollabackNYC, a blog dedicated to giving women an empowered response to street harassment.  The blog has since expanded to over 20 cities worldwide.

Can you share a story from your site that is particularly heart breaking?

There are so many.  One young woman who was only 15 was masturbated on, in a crowded train.  We had another young women who was assaulted, and when she reported it to the police they told her there is nothing they can do – and to “get a gun.”

Why is it that women rarely heckle people on the street?

Street harassment is about power.  During street harassment, men oftentimes have the physical advantage.  What makes it so scary is that you never know if a comment is just a comment, or if it is going to escalate into stalking, groping, or even rape.  If a woman harassed a man, the only person’s safety she might be jeopardizing would be her own.

I noticed that there are no straight men’s harassment stories posted on your site, can you explain why this is the case?

Like I said, street harassment is about power and straight, white, men are the top dogs when it comes to power.  I would post a story of a straight, minority male who was harassed by a straight white male however.

Do you get a lot of backlash for your site?

When we first started we got some funny hate mail like “hey Carpetmunchers!” which was funny because three of

the cofounders were straight men and they were like, “Yep! That’s us!”  Now we rarely get hate mail.  What we do get are thoughtful letters from fathers around the world who are horrified that street harassment happens to such a severe extent.

How much discretion do you use when posting stories?

An editorial board reviews the story – but in the five years we’ve been operational, we’ve never had someone contact us and say, “hey, that’s not me.”  I doubt street harassers spend a lot of time on feminist blogs though.

How do you get the word out about your cause?

The media has been a huge asset to us.  We’ve been on ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN – the whole gamut.  As a result, twenty other Hollabacks have launched worldwide.

Has there ever been a case when taking a picture of a harasser made the situation much worse?

Not that we know of – but we always encourage women to prioritize their own safety.

What do you say to men or women who say that women who wear provocative clothing “deserve” to be heckled or harassed?

I’ve holla’ed back a lot over the years, and I’ve had a lot of time to talk to street harassers. They tend to come from the perspective that they are nice guy just making nice comments. What they don’t understand is that those comments are scary. When men harass I know two things: they are stronger than me and they are making lewd comments about my body.  It’s not illogical – especially considering that 25% of women have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18 – to believe that street harassers are dangerous.  It’s a rape culture, but it doesn’t have to be.

Your program is definitely a step up from the old sexual harassment commercials such as the all too famous ”that’s sexual harassment and I don’t have to take it“  video. It seems like you have taken it much further than just a “say no” message and involved an entire community in the process.

Like most forms of violence against women, women and LGBT rarely report harassment or assault. So it’s going to take a grassroots movement, like Hollaback, to bring enough attention to street harassment so that we can end it.

What do you think women should carry with them when they are out alone?

Their cell phones, of course.  If you can’t slap ‘em, snap ‘em.

Do you think that discussions about sex should start at an early age?

Yes, we’ve gotten posts from girls as young as 10.  It’s heartbreaking that girls have to deal with harassment so young.

Living in NYC, you can’t ignore the huge and overtly sexual American Apparel billboard ads. You might also know that the company’s CEO is notorious for things like parading around the office in his underwear, calling his employees sluts, and welcoming–not to mention participating in, inter-office relationships. In 2006, 3 female employees filed sexual harassment lawsuits against him and all of them eventually settled their case. Why do you believe these women decided to settle; do you think it is solely for the money?

I think women choose settlement because they want it to end.  The justice system can deepen the harassment by calling a women’s integrity into question.  Being called a “slut” isn’t helpful to the healing process.

When you are out on a date getting to know the person what do you focus on?

Whether they are smart, happy, engaged. I don’t think most men are street harassers, I just think the ones that are tend to be particularly vocal.

Do you think online dating is a good and safe way to meet people in a city like NYC?

Sure, but like anything else, be careful.  Meet in a public place and make sure someone knows where you are.

Can you recommend a bar where women won’t be heckled or is there no such a place?

There is a cute little bar down the street from me in Brooklyn called Quarter. That’s about as safe and heckle-free as it gets!

Do you like living in NYC? What draws you to the city?

I’ve lived in NYC for ten years now – and I’m addicted.  My favorite thing about it is that everyone you meet is so passionate about what they do, and everyone believes in their ability to leave a mark on the world.  This energy is contagious, and Hollaback is a product of it.

Where would you like to see this site and program be in 10 years?

In ten years HollabackNYC will be part of a larger organization called Hollaback!, which will be the pre-eminent anti-street harassment organization worldwide.  The number of Hollaback affiliates will have grown from 20 to 50, and instead of blogs and cell phone cameras, we will be using smart phone applications and GPS mapping to track street harassment and break the silence.  By 2020, there will be a notable decrease in the amount of street harassment worldwide, and I will take a much-deserved vacation. Until then, Hollaback!

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