New York Anti-Street Harassment Group Asks Women to Hollaback!

PHOTO: "Hollaback" co-founder Emily May rallies anti-street harassment activists at a fundraiser in New York City.
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The owner of three "raw food" outlets, Dan Hoyt was a minor celebrity in New York City restaurant circles when on an August day in 2005 he stepped inside a subway car, sat down, locked his eyes on a young woman across the aisle, opened his pants and began to masturbate.

Coming from a job interview, Thao Nguyen was alone and already anxious. She had no mace, only a mobile phone; one of the few on the market at the time with a camera. Nguyen, then 22, picked it out of her bag, hands trembling, and steadied as she turned the lens on Hoyt.

The resulting evidence was presented to the police, but when they proved less than helpful, Nguyen decided to post it online along with a written account. Local newspapers soon picked up the story and Hoyt, then 43, was quickly identified, charged, and convicted of public lewdness.

Six years later, Emily May, co-founder of Hollaback!, a women's rights organization dedicated to stamping out harassment in public spaces, is at an art gallery in Soho speaking about the group's new campaign, "I've Got Your Back," a push for bystanders to step in and stand up for potential victims.

"When we founded Hollaback, we didn't know if street harassment happened to anybody else," she says. "We didn't know if it was us, if it was a New York City thing, if it was a young woman thing; we had no idea. But we have found, through telling our stories, that this is an international epidemic."

From New York to Argentina and beyond, street harassment has become a recognized scourge of the modern city, with one study, conducted in Canada in 2000, finding that eight in 10 women have been targeted. Two-thirds of the female respondents to a 2007 questionnaire issued by New York City's Manhattan borough president said the same.

By 2008, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority had joined with the NYPD to launch a campaign to encourage victims of sexual harassment on the subway to report the offenses to cops or MTA employees. Additionally, the NYPD commisioned teams of plainclothes officers to patrol the subways, looking for known recidivists.

But there have been no new initiatives introduced in the past three years and there is no special program devoted to combating harassment above ground. For officers, whether it's an alleged assault or a stolen car, the protocol is about the same: Take down the facts, pass them along to a detective, and wait.

Unless there's a discernable pattern, says NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, the information will be entered into a database and the case effectively closed.

For the police, there has also been frustration in dealing with the courts.

"There was an instance where a woman was walking to school each day with her little kid and she was getting harassed verbally at a certain stoop she passed by, and the arrest was eventually thrown out on First Amendment grounds," Browne says.

"It was something we might find absurd, like 'the woman had the option of crossing the street.' But the courts might say that if she had the opportunity to move away and he didn't pursue her then it's not enough for arrest."

In Argentina, they might say the man on that stoop was "giving Piropos." It is "the most simpatico of flirtations; a kind of street poetry that a man whispers just when he's close enough to look a woman in the eye," Kaitlin Quistgaard wrote in a sympathetic dispatch for Slate in 1999.

"With refined machismo, it replaces public humiliation with a private fantasy of romance," she continued, before comparing "Los Piropos" to a Tango.

The Argentine debate, the question of where "humiliation" strangles "romance," has grown nastier with the years. Today, Hollaback counts Buenos Aires as one its most vocal outposts.

When Juan Terranova, an Argentine writer of some regard, used a vile metaphor in March -- some say open and vicious rape threat -- to top off his polemic against anti-street harassment activists, the organization moved.

With help from May and a colleague in New York, Argentine leaders collected more than 3,500 signatures from 75 countries as part of a campaign to have the writer sacked. Soon, two major advertisers, besieged by email and Facebook complaints, threatened to pull their ads from the magazine and so, after initially defending him, El Guardian fired Terranova in May.

"Whether on city streets, public transport or in their own neighborhoods, [women] are subject to abuse ranging from harassment to sexual assault and rape," U.N. Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet said recently, introducing a new, international action.

"This daily reality limits their freedom to participate in education, work, recreation, and in political and economic life, or to simply enjoy their neighborhoods."

A high-profile, high-stakes row such as the one in Argentina was a marked departure from Hollaback's early efforts. The group now stands on the frontline, working to expand its reach and attempting to weave an assortment of tactics -- raising awareness; influencing legislation; conducting rigorous scientific research; and providing victims an interative forum to post pictures and share their stories -- into a coherent social action.

The call to "holler back," as May explains, began simply as a way to "give voice and audience to this issue and it's also about starting to really get a sense of how it's happening and where it's happening."

To that end, the group introduced a smart phone application (for iPhone and Droid) that allows users to instantly upload pictures of those they capture targeting them for abuse. Other users simply type up their stories and submit them to the website.

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