Confused? Curious? Inquisitive? We’ve got answers for your mountains of questions. And don’t miss our mythbusting info below!
Our Perspective on Harassment in Public Spaces
What Is Street Harassment?
Street harassment is sexual, gender-based, and bias-motivated harassment that takes place in public spaces like the street, the supermarket, and the social media we use every day. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups of our vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Street harassment punishes women, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized groups for being themselves in the world.
Street harassment is not about sexual gratification. It’s about power. If street harassment were about getting dates, it would be what author Marty Langelan calls a “spectacularly unsuccessful strategy.” Instead, street harassment is about “putting people in their place.” Sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes it’s racist, sometimes it’s homophobic, and sometimes it’s all of the above and more. Whatever form it takes, it tells us that we’re not safe in the physical or online spaces we share with friends, relatives, acquaintances, and strangers.
At Hollaback!, we believe that what specifically counts as street harassment is determined by those who experience it. If you feel like you have been harassed, we believe you, we support you, and we invite you to share your story.
Should Street Harassment Be Criminalized?
Does Hollaback! think street harassment should be made a criminal offense? No.
Criminal law and punishment are disproportionately applied to people of color, low-income individuals, and trans and gender-nonconforming people. We believe that it is our role as advocates to steer policy makers away from measures that would increase criminalization that predominantly affects these groups, and toward measures that engage communities in prevention. Our deputy director Debjani Roy explained in a 2013 Huffington Post article:
Criminalizing verbal harassment and unwanted gestures is neither the final goal nor the ultimate solution to this problem and can, in fact, inadvertently work against the growth of an inclusive anti-harassment movement. The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and affects low-income communities and communities of color, as evidenced by policies such as New York City’s Stop and Frisk program and other degrading forms of racial profiling. Our objective is to address and shift cultural and social dialogues and attitudes of patriarchy that purport street harassment as simply the price you pay for being a woman or being LGBTQ. It is not to re-victimize men already discriminated against by the system.
Replacing sexist oppression with racist oppression is not a proper hollaback.
What Is Online Harassment?
Online harassment includes a wide range of targeted behaviors including: threats, continued hateful messages, doxxing, DDoS attacks, swatting, defamation, and more. Online harassment can target (or come from) a group or individual and often has the expressed purpose of having the individual or group leave the internet, take down their content, or to dissuade them from publicly having a point of view.
While there is space for debate and discussion online (as well as conflicting ideas!), what separates online harassment from healthy discourse is the focus on harm: including publishing personal information, sending threats with the intention to scare or harm, using discriminatory language against an individual, and even directly promoting harm against a person or organization. We believe in a free internet where individuals feel safe to connect and speak freely, regardless of their religion, identity, or political ideology.
Responding to Harassment
How Should I Respond to Street Harassment?
Remember that it’s not your fault. You have as much right to be yourself in public space as anyone else. You’re not alone.
While everyone is vulnerable to street harassment and sexual assault, research suggests that people who are aware of their surroundings, walk with confidence, and respond assertively to harassment are less vulnerable. Nevertheless, direct confrontations with street harassers can escalate, particularly if you are alone or in an unpopulated space. While it is each individual’s right to decide when, how, and whether to respond to street harassment, do keep issues of safety in mind. We’ve got more about this question here.
If you want support, we’ve got your back. Read on to find out how to report harassment on Hollaback!’s website or via the app. If you’re thinking bigger picture, you can take action here and even start a Hollaback! site in your community.
How Should I Respond to Online Harassment?
Remember that it’s not your fault. You have as much right to use the internet and social media as anyone else. You’re not alone.
One option you have is to use HeartMob, a program and platform by Hollaback! that specifically addresses online harassment. Consider signing up to receive support from compassionate bystanders. Look over HeartMob’s self-care guide and other resources for more ideas and information on staying safe.
Some of our users have tagged HeartMob (@theheartmob) on twitter to thank us and support us, only to find harassers responding to their tweets. While it’s important to us (and many of our users) that people know about HeartMob so they can get the support they need – it’s even more important to us that you’re safe.
Unfortunately, we can’t control what happens on social media. Harassers may be monitoring our social media feeds and there is a potential risk in tagging us, or engaging with HeartMob outside the platform itself. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder why our work is so important. If interacting with HeartMob on social media does not feel safe to you, we encourage you to follow your instincts. We are still happy to have you on the platform whether or not interacting with us on social media is right for you.
See below for more HeartMob FAQs.
Reporting and Reacting to Street Harassment on Hollaback!
How do I share My Story?
First, make sure you’ve read our policies on comments and anti-discrimination.
Then, tell your story. Here are three simple ways to do it:
- Download our free apps for iPhone and Android.
- Text your story to [email protected] (put the email address where the numbers usually go) and we’ll receive it via email. You can even send a picture or the location of your harassment so we can map it.
- Submit your story right here, right now. (Please check to see if there’s a Hollaback in your city, and if so, submit your story through their website.)
Do I really need to take a picture of my harasser?
No, you don’t. The picture is about telling the story. We live in a world where the first public reaction to most reports of violence against women and LGBTQ+ folks is doubt. A picture can help people see the world from your eyes. Over the years we’ve gotten pictures of harassers, of nearby street signs, or of the skyline. For most folks, it’s not about catching your harasser—it’s about taking a stand. Speaking out in itself is a revolutionary act.
That said, taking a photo is not right for every situation. If you don’t feel safe, don’t do it. If you decide to photograph a harasser, you might want to wait until after the initial encounter and take the picture from a distance.
What should I do if I recognize a person or business in one of the photographs?
We definitely appreciate your enthusiasm, but we’re on potentially shaky ground here. Hollaback!ers aren’t police officers and we are no court of law. Our site is premised on the idea that women and LGBTQ+ people tell the truth, and in over ten years we’ve never had anyone contact us and say “that’s not me.” We want to keep this site a safe, empowering space. If you think you know someone, you can email us at [email protected] and we’ll reach out to the person who sent in the submission and see what they would like to do with your information. After all, it’s their experience with street harassment. Shouldn’t they be the one who gets to make the call?
We will not fight street harassment at the expense of oppressed people, and part of that is omitting irrelevant details about harassers’ race. We will not accept submissions that play up stereotypes based in racism. Same for classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and the usage of any other identity signifier. Harassment comes from people in every facet of our cultures and every stratum of society.
We ask that you refrain from referencing the attributes of your harasser, because this movement is about changing societal values, not pointing fingers. If you feel those details are important to your story, please make sure their relevance is explained clearly and constructively in your post.
We think that speaking up about your experiences with harassment is an incredibly bold act. We admire the people who take this brave step, and we want their experience to be 100% empowering. Too often survivors of sexual and gender-based violence do not get the respect they deserve. That culture stops here, with our short and sweet comments policy.
- No “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” Keep any advice you have for what the person should have done in the situation to yourself. We know you’re just trying to help, but harassment has a way of filling folks with self-doubt, and they don’t need your encouragement.
- No hater language. If you leave a comment along the lines of “you deserve it” or cuss someone out or call them names, you’re wasting your time. We’re not listening to that nonsense, let alone posting it.
- Debate ideas, not people’s lives. If we post an idea or a concept on the site that you don’t like, tell us about it. If we post someone’s personal experience on the site that you don’t like, too bad. We think they’re awesome.
How Does HeartMob Work?
For too long, many of us have sat back and watched, unsure how to ask for help or how to provide support and resources. With HeartMob, you’ll have a system of supporters beside you, and a user-driven set of actions you can take right now to lend a helping hand. HeartMob allows users to easily document their harassment and maintain complete control over their story. Once documented, users will have the option of keeping their report private and cataloguing it in case it escalates, or they can make the report public. If they choose to make it public, they will be able to choose from a menu of options on how they want bystanders to support them, take action, or intervene. They are also given extensive resources including: safety planning, materials on how to differentiate an empty threat from a real threat, online harassment laws and details on how to report their harassment to authorities (if requested), and referrals to other organizations that can provide counseling and legal services.
Bystanders looking to provide support will receive public requests, along with chosen actions of support. You can “have someone’s back” and know that you’re helping them out in a time of need while directly contributing to safer spaces online. HeartMob staff will review all messages and reports to ensure the platform remains safe and supportive.
Is HeartMob Secure?
We take the security and privacy of HeartMobbers very seriously. The last thing we want is for someone to be harassed as a result of using HeartMob. As a result, HeartMob will implement social and technical security best practices. These practices include:
- Moderated accounts and trusted invitation system
- Regular technical safety audits
- Moderated messaging
- Privacy options for reporting
How Is HeartMob Moderated?
All activity on the platform is reviewed by trained staff on the HeartMob team. This includes harassment cases, supportive messages, help requests, documentation, and HeartMobber accounts.
All HeartMobber accounts are reviewed prior to being accepted through the social media account linked to the request to determine if a person has a stable online identity, as well as no history of hate. Some well-intentioned HeartMobber accounts may be rejected if their linked social media platforms do not meet our predetermined criteria. We hope that you understand that this is a safety precaution, and you are free to reapply for an account at any time.
Who Can See My Report?
Once online harassment is documented on HeartMob, users will have the option of keeping their report private and cataloguing it in case it escalates, or they can make the report public. If they choose to make it public, they will be able to choose from a menu of options on how they want bystanders to support them, take action, or intervene. HeartMob will review all messages and reports to ensure the platform remains safe and supportive.
Do I Really Need to Document My Harassment?
Documentation is about telling the story, whether with a screenshot or a hyperlink. We live in a world where the first public reaction to most reports of violence against women and LGBTQIA+ folks is doubt. Documenting can help people see the world from your eyes. Speaking out and sharing your story is a revolutionary act. That being said, documentation is not right for every situation. If you don’t feel safe, don’t do it. Feel free to check out our Know Your Rights guide for more information situations where documentation is important.
What About Freedom of Speech?
Free speech doesn’t mean anything if individuals do not feel safe and are not free from abuse and harassment. Although the line between hate speech and free speech is a difficult one to draw, people should be held accountable for what they say on the internet.
Isn’t Online Harassment the Price You Pay for Using the Internet?
No, absolutely not. Everyone has the right to live a life free from any form of abuse and harassment and this concept does not suddenly fail to apply in the online world. Being online doesn’t make a threat less real or a racist comment less hurtful and they should be held to the same standards as those of offline harassment. It is not your responsibility to accept harassment for using the internet; it is the responsibility of harassers not to harass you.
Who Is Developing the HeartMob Platform?
HeartMob is a project of Hollaback!, a nonprofit organization that works to address harassment in public spaces. The project was conceptualized and co-founded by Emily May, Debjani Roy, Jill Dimond, Jae Cameron, and Courtney Young – in conversation with over 100 people who had been harassed online. Initial funding was provided from the Knight Foundation and Digital Trust Foundation. Sassafras Tech Collective developed the HeartMob platform and will provide any necessary updates. They are a worker-owned technology cooperative specializing in web/app design and development for nonprofits. The collective brings expertise from industry, academia, and social justice organizing, alongside extensive professional backgrounds in code and design.
Street Harassment Myths
This section is adapted from work by the smart and savvy leaders of Hollaback!HOUSTON.
It’s a Cultural/Racial Thing.
Street harassers occupy the full spectrum of class, race, and nationality. Sexual and gender-based harassment, and street harassment specifically, affects people around the globe. And across the world, there is resistance. Hollaback! has sites in over thirty countries and receives emails of support and solidarity from even more countries from every continent. And 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. Harassment happens in all social cultures and demographics.
In the U.S., as in other countries with long and continuing histories of racial oppression, there are racialized myths about perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence. Initiatives combating gender-based violence continually struggle against the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, in particular the presumption that men of color are more likely to be sexual predators.
Because of the complexity of institutional and socially ingrained prejudices, Hollaback! is devoted to resisting the reinforcement of social hierarchies, whether done directly, subconsciously, or unintentionally. We highlight the interrelations between sexism, racism, and other forms of bias and violence.
Catcalling Is a First Amendment Right.
Not so fast. Legally speaking, harassment falls under “sexual assault” in many U.S. states. Take a look at the Center for Disease Control’s definition of sexual violence. The CDC, along with a multitude of other government agencies and advocacy organizations, say that sexually charged language qualifies as assault when directed at an individual who doesn’t want it.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically outlaws sexual harassment in the workplace, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clearly states, “Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature… and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.” There are also protections against sexual harassment in educational settings. And that’s not even getting started on hate speech laws.
This myth coincides with the false idea that street harassment is just flirting or paying a compliment. But let’s reexamine that idea. If a man approaches a woman in public politely, strikes up a conversation with her, receives a clear rejection, and respects her wishes, that’s not harassment. Researcher Holly Kearl of Stop Street Harassment found that women take no issue with gender-neutral greetings, compliments, sentiments, and smiles. Once things start veering into discussions of physical attributes, however, many saw these comments as reductionist, if not outright threatening. Street harassment happens when words and actions are obviously unwanted and nonconsensual. For those who experience harassment often or who have histories of sexual assault, street harassment can feel like ripping a scab off.
If It’s Not Physically Violent, It’s Not Harmful.
Sexual violence exists on a spectrum. Mild verbal harassment sits on one end, and sexual assault and rape sit on the other. Although these experiences aren’t interchangeable, harassment carries many of the same traits as other forms of sexual violence, and can cause considerable mental and emotional damage.
Acts on the least severe side of the scale leave no physical scars, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt those on the receiving end in other ways. For survivors of previous molestation, sexual assault, rape, or other forms of sexual violence and exploitation, even a seemingly harmless sexual comment can trigger trauma responses ranging from flashbacks to panic attacks. Depending on the individual, such a disruption could require hours or days of recovery, or more.
You Can Prevent Street Harassment By Dressing Modestly.
Because street harassment occurs all over the world – including countries enforcing a strict dress code and climates where it’s simply too cold to show much skin – people’s outfits are not to blame. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a parka or a burqa, harassment still happens. That’s because harassment is not about sex, it’s about power. You should be able to feel safe, confident, and even sexy when you walk down the street, no matter what you’re wearing, and street harassment is never, ever, your fault.
Men Aren’t Going to Change. Resistance Is Futile.
“That’s just how men are. Deal with it.”
We’ve been hearing variations of this argument ever since we started Hollaback!: The problem is too big. There’s no way to change people. Men are hardwired to abuse. No one will take you seriously.
But we have seen change. Prominent figures from Aziz Ansari to Laverne Cox to Leslie Jones are speaking out against harassment in public spaces. From New York to New Delhi, women and LGBTQ+ people are standing their ground in opposition to the voices that try to silence and intimidate us. Men are stepping up to intervene as bystanders and fund anti-harassment work. Commentators and activists are finding that they have the language and the analysis they needed to describe the problem and talk about what needs to change.
In a world that sometimes seems to cycle back into oppression every time we take a step to overcome it, we have to recognize that the movements we build and the progress we make are not broken by these setbacks. We still have each other and we still have our ideas, and another world is possible.