Most women have probably experienced the following scenario at one time or another: You're walking down the street minding your own business. Perhaps the weather is nice, and you're in a good mood because you're wearing a fun new outfit. Suddenly, your reverie is interrupted by a whistle and a "Hey, baby, lookin' gooood!" from a male stranger who, unbeknownst to you, has been admiring your female form from afar.
Most women will ignore the comments or merely grumble under their breath, knowing that even if they want to retaliate there is nothing they can really do, and it won't prevent the same experience from happening again because usually the men are not committing an actual crime.
Some women have more drastic reactions, but find that law-enforcement officials still are not sympathetic to their plight. A female tourist in New Zealand was so frustrated by the wolf whistles she received from a group of men repairing a road in a small town that she stripped off her clothes in an attempt to shut them up. The woman was apprehended by police and told her actions were "inappropriate in New Zealand," according to a Reuters report about the incident.
Fed up with this kind of unsolicited male attention, and the fact that there is little done by law enforcement to stop so-called "street harassment," Brooklyn, New York, resident Emily May and six friends -- three women and three men -- decided several years ago to use the Web to help women fight back.
In September 2005, they created HollaBack New York City, a blog encouraging women to use their cell-phone cameras to take photos of wolf whistlers and then post those photos, as well as written accounts, of harassing incidents online.
The site caught on, and women from all over the country and even overseas began posting photos and stories of street harassment, either personal accounts or incidents they witnessed.
"He still couldn't take his eyes off a woman's rear even as my phone was in his face," wrote one woman who identified herself as Susan in a post dated Oct. 16, 2006. "He and his friend eyed her and he said, 'Have a nice day, gorgeous.' But in the way that makes you feel anything but nice."
New York, a city full of pedestrians with a vibrant street culture, is especially infamous for the catcalls and salacious comments men on the street aim at its millions of women. However, not all of those comments -- depending on their nature and how a woman perceives them -- are necessarily considered harassment, May said.
"Some women like those compliments," she said.
Many don't, so the idea of HollaBackNYC is to give women the power to identify when they feel they've been unjustly harassed and make men answer for it, May said.
In these cases, victims of street harassment experience similar personal trauma to victims of more obvious and prosecutable crimes such as sexual harassment in the workplace, domestic violence, sexual assault and even rape, even if the crime itself is not as severe, she said.
Case in point: The other day I was walking in the Bronx on my way to the New York Botanical Gardens. For some reason, I received more attention than normal from some of the men in the neighborhood. When I finally made it to my destination, I wondered if perhaps it wasn't the best decision to wear a figure-hugging dress on my eight-block walk from the subway, though the day was warm and sunny and my skirt fell to midcalf.
It's this effect of street harassment, that self-blame that women also experience when they are the victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and the like, that May said she hopes the blog helps women avoid.
"When women go, 'I shouldn't have been walking there,' or 'if I do this, I won't get harassed,' it's their way of wanting to control a situation that you can't control," she said. "It has nothing to do with it at all."
Rather, street harassment transcends class, race, socioeconomic status and ethnicity, May said, and it's "about power" more than it is about a man's physical attraction to a woman he sees on the street.
May also said that the common misconception that men of certain race or ethnicity engage more in street harassment is not true. A third-party Web site performed an independent analysis of the street harassment reported on HollaBackNYC, she said. The results showed that races and ethnicities of the men alleged to have harassed women mirrored demographic information for the racial and ethnic makeup of New York.
Though it's hard to quantify the positive effect HollaBackNYC has had on women, May said that studies have shown that women who are victims of rape and other sexual assault experience less depression or post-traumatic stress disorder afterward if they fought back against their perpetrator, even if they were unsuccessful in preventing the crime. She said that she hopes the blog gives victims of street harassment a similar way to vent their frustrations so they feel less guilty or maligned later.
Women can submit photos and reports of harassment to HollaBackNYC not only from their PCs, but also directly from their mobile phones. The site also takes video submissions.
The popularity of the New York City HollaBack blog has inspired spinoffs in other cities and states. Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, Washington, Boston and Charleston, South Carolina, all now have HollaBack blogs, as well as states such as Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Colorado.
HollaBackNYC also has had an indirect effect on law-enforcement activities against men engaging in public lewdness, one of the chief complaints of women posting on the blog, May said.
Two years ago, after a spate of press coverage about the blog, the New York Police Department embarked on a campaign called Operation Exposure that sent female police officers onto New York subways to arrest men who exposed themselves to women on the subway. They arrested 13 in a two-week period, May said.