Emily May moved to New York City at age 18, and for six years she put up with harassment as she walked down the street. When men hollered crude remarks, she sometimes yelled back, “Would you say that to your mother?”
It didn’t do any good. “I accepted it as part of being a woman in New York City,” she says.
In 2005, a woman took a picture of a man masturbating on the subway. She showed the picture to the police, and they didn’t care. But when she posted the photo online, it went viral. It landed on the cover of a daily newspaper, ignited a conversation, inspired a blog and struck a nerve. The message was clear: women were fed up with street harassment.
That woman is now on the advisory board of Hollaback, the organization May founded to address harassment in public places using mobile technology. “We’re using visual storytelling to impact change,” she says. “By telling stories online, we are able to ignite a bigger conversation.”
Witnesses and victims of harassment take the harasser’s power away by documenting, mapping and sharing the incident with the world. Mapping enables the organization to identify hotspots where street harassment occurs most frequently.
Hollaback has inspired a network of activists around the world. These local leaders identify the scope and nature of problems in their area and come up with solutions with the support of the Hollaback community. For example, anecdotes compiled on the site can be used to raise awareness, make reports to police and convince policy-makers to take the problem seriously.
Hollaback has a presence in more than 70 cities in 24 countries, including India, Mexico and Germany.
Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in a public place. It can be sexist, racist or homophobic.
“We believe that what specifically counts as street harassment is determined by those who experience it,” May says.
Technology made it possible for victims of street harassment to report their experiences and have their concerns taken seriously. Technology also allowed Hollaback to build a global movement on a shoestring budget and with a small paid staff.
“At Hollaback, we coordinate the resistance,” May says. “We build on each other and learn from each other.”
Though the organization’s activists are spread out all over the world, they connect via Skype and other digital platforms, bonded by a shared desire to end and understand harassment.
Through her work, May has had conversations with street harassers.
“I’ve developed empathy toward street harassers,” she says, noting that 52 percent of men in college admit to sexually harassing someone. “We have an epidemic on our hands – it’s part of our culture.”
Technology is spurring Hollaback’s rapid growth as word spreads via social media. May wants more activists in more cities. “What I would like to see,” she says, “is for Hollaback to become as prolific as Starbucks.”