Emily May is the co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!, a global movement dedicated to stopping street harassment. She has a roster of awards and acclamations that will make your mouth water and her devotion to empowering women and LGTBQ folks on the street is downright inspiring.
Read on, y’all.
Hollaback! began as a project between 7 youths, including yourself. Can you talk about the organization’s journey from project to international-force-to-be reckoned-with?
Yes! The conversation started on a Brooklyn roof deck. As the women told story after story of harassment, the men became increasingly concerned. Samuel Carter, who is now Hollaback!’s board chair, said quite simply, “you live in a different city than we do.” Collectively, they resolved to change that. Around the same time, a woman named Thao Nygen bravely stood up to her harasser – an older, upper middle class raw-foods restaurant owner – who terrified her by masturbating across from her on the subway. She took his photo with her camera, and when the police ignored it, she posted it on flikr. The picture eventually made it to the front page of the New York Daily News, where it incited a city-wide conversation about street harassment. The youth were inspired by Thao’s story, and decided apply her model to all forms of harassment and to document these experiences on a public blog. Over the ensuing five years, interest in Hollaback! grew. What began as a simple idea: a blog to collect women’s and LGBTQ individuals’ stories of street harassment, began to grow into an international movement. In May 2010 I became the organization’s first executive director. The movement is now in 71 cities and 24 countries globally. It’s an incredible thing to be a part of.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about street harassment?
There are a ton — so many we have a whole page on our site dedicated to smashing them.
The one that drives me the craziest is the idea that street harassment is a “cultural thing.” Simply put, street harassment happens in every country in the world. So no, it’s isn’t cultural. But there is something deeper to this question. In our experience what people really mean by this question is: “is this a men of color thing?”
This question is a dangerous one, because it perpetuates the myth that men of color are sexual predators which simply isn’t true. In New York City, where we have the longest history of posts with pictures, the racial breakdown of harassers perfectly mirrors the racial breakdown of the city itself. This is consistent with all forms of gender-based violence. Harassers, like rapists, come from all racial and class backgrounds. And this is because harassment is deeper than the color of our skin or the income brackets of our neighborhoods. It’s about an international culture when gender-based violence is simply seen as OK. So yeah, I guess it is a “cultural” thing. It just happens to be everyone’s culture.
How can we, both on an individual level as well as collectively, reverse the desensitization of street harassment and help people connect the dots between this phenomenon and sexual violence?
I think it starts with people’s stories. When you read the stories on our site it becomes shockingly clear that street harassment isn’t a “compliment,” victims aren’t “hypersensitive females,” and it won’t be solved by eradicating mini skirts. This is a form of sexual violence, and until we give it the weight that it deserves we can’t end it.
Considering that girls and women are most often at the receiving end of street harassment, how does Hollaback! engage men in the fight against it? Is it difficult?
Hollaback! was co-founded by men, half our board is men, and half our donors are men. There are a ton of male supporters out there, because let’s face it: street harassment isn’t just a “women’s issue.” It impacts all of us, and therefore, there are solutions within all of us. For the men who experience street harassment — especially those who are gay, bisexual, trans, or people of color: we encourage you to share your story. For the men who don’t — we encourage you to talk to those in your life who do experience it, and learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Our “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign teaches folks how to intervene when they see harassment happening, and encourages them to report their bystander intervention on ihollaback.org, where it will be mapped by a green dot.
Who is your number one feminist role model?
Our site leaders. I know I’m cheating here, because there are over 350 of them. But for me, it’s not about the singular feminist all-star. It’s about the millions of people doing this work everyday, without whom, we would never know freedom.