When did you know you were a woman?

For our Feminist Issue we wanted to shine a light on some of the #everydaysexism experienced by millions of women all the world over every single day. Street harassment is one of the most pernicious aspects of patriarchy, and has traditionally been widely accepted as another part of life; thanks to the efforts of lots of brave women (and more and more men), it is becoming less and less acceptable.

One of those brave women is Emily May, the founder of Hollaback! In this article she tells us why she set up Hollaback and what you can do to fight back against street harassment and sexism…


Illustration: Grace WIlson

When did you know you were a Woman? by Emily May.

That’s the question a workshop facilitator posed to a group that included Tina Fey, who then related the following in her book, Bossypants: “The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!'” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.'” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars.”

Sound familiar? If you’re like 70-99% of women, it probably does.

When I was 18 I moved from suburban Richmond, Virginia to New York City. The first time someone greeted me on the street, he said: “hello, baby.” Hmmm, I thought, maybe this is the New York way of saying hello. Eager to fit in, I said “hello.”  His response? “I want to fuck the shit out of you.”

I thought it must be a fluke.  Who says that? So I pretended it didn’t happen. But two, three, sometimes four times a day a range of lewd, sexual comments were directed at me.

“Hey baby, I want to hit that.” Or  “Girl, I want to be your pony.” Or “Smile.”

I ignored them, kept going, pretended like it didn’t hurt; thinking that if I let myself cry and feel the hurt, it meant I wasn’t strong.

What I, and countless others experienced was street harassment, and it started slowly chipping away at my right to be me. I felt like if I wore what I wanted to wear, walked how I wanted to walk, when I wanted to walk there, that it meant that I was “asking for it,” and with every degrading comment I felt more and more put it my place.

Like Tina Fey, I felt like a woman.  And not in the cute new dress kind of way.

Since co-founding Hollaback, a global movement to end street harassment, I have learned that with each identity: being young, being queer, or being a person of color, comes an exponentially greater likelihood of experiencing street harassment. And, the more you experience it, the more it chips away you.

It’s a vicious cycle, further complicated by the fact that street harassment is really tricky to build a movement around.  First off, when it came to addressing workplace harassment they sued the corporations. But with street harassment, you can’t sue the sidewalks. The larger system that you need to change is called culture, and it’s big.   And secondly, street harassment is totally unpredictable. In the civil rights era, African American organizers had a pretty good idea what was going to happen when they sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter. But with street harassment, you never know when it will happen, you never know where’s it’s going to happen, and you’re almost always alone.

The explosion of technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassment—and with it, the opportunity to take on one of the final new frontiers for women’s rights around the world.  By collecting stories from women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals stories in a safe and share-able way, platforms like Hollaback!, Blank Noise Project in India, or Harassmap in Egypt are thriving.

As organizers, we’re mapping these stories along district lines so that we can show legislators: “Here is what is happening in your district. Here is the experience of over 50% of your constituents. What are you going to do about it?”  And we’re using these stories for research — employing content analysis to identify the role of bystanders and the long term impacts of street harassment including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Digital storytelling is good for movements, but it’s also good for you. Activist researcher Jill Dimond studied Hollaback and critically asked, “does online storytelling matter?”  What she found is that it does because it does this really cool thing called “reframing” that is key to social movement-building. Reframing is when your understanding of an experience shifts as you reexamine it in a different context.

For example, in the world we live in now, most people experience street harassment and think to themselves, “well that was CRAPPY!”  But once someone has been through a reframing process they think:
“Street harassment is a societal issue. This isn’t about me, even though it’s directed at me right now and that feels crappy.  This is about the messed up world we live in!”  That’s a gamechanger.

But stories alone cannot build a movement. That’s why we’ve trained over 300 young people to launch Hollaback! sites in 71 cities and 24 countries. We pair digital storytelling with on-the-ground action that leads to sustainable change. The demand is staggering, our waiting list has people from over 60 cities eager to bring Hollaback! to their communities.

The power of this movement rests in the global network of leaders championing this movement day in and day out. There are those that think eventually we’ll come to accept street harassment as a fact of life — they’re wrong. There are others who think they can silence us with threats on our lives and to our safety — they can’t. The power of decentralized leadership is that the harder they attack, the stronger we become.

Each of us can only represent our own experiences of being harassed, but together, we tell the story of a global epidemic.  We’re fierce. We’re loving. And we’re coming to a town near you. Here’s what what we want you to know:

You deserve to walk home, alone, without being told that you’re “asking for it.”
You deserve to have short hair without being asked if you are a girl or a boy.
You deserve to ride the train without fear of being groped.

Because none of us are as simple as a list of physical attributes.  We have a right to be who we are, not who we are told to be.  We have a right to define ourselves on our terms when we walk out the door, Whatever that means that day. That hour. That minute.

I want to be able to walk out my front door and strike up a conversation with the guy down the block about his flower beds without thinking twice about it. I want to tell the guy I see running every morning that he’s gotten a lot faster lately without worrying he’ll “get the wrong message” and see it as an opening for a conversation about my body. I want to live in a world where street harassment is so rare, that when it does happen people are shocked because everyone knows it’s not OK and they have my back, they know how to respond.

But to get from here to there — we need to change the narrative. We need make visible every foul and unfathomable detail of our harassment to the cynics who say  “street harassment doesn’t matter” or that it will “never be changed.” We need to put into high relief what is wrong, if we want people to see what is possible.

So what are we waiting for? It’s time to go big, go public and reclaim the spaces that have been owned for too long by street harassment. It’s time to tell your story.

Emily May is an international leader in the anti-street-harrassment movement. In 2005, at the age of 24, she co-founded Hollaback! in New York City. Hollaback!’s mission is to give women and LGBTQ folks an empowered response to street harassment and, ultimately, to end it.

Join the movement by downloading our free apps and visiting ihollaback.org.