Activist looks to stop street harassment


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Photo by Nelson Morales |

Emily May, the executive director of “Hollaback,” an online forum for women to raise concerns about gender bias, shares her experience with street harassment in New York City yesterday at the Art History Lecture Hall on Douglass campus.


Emily May was walking down the street after one of her yoga classes in New York City. As May recalled, she was in her “zen” mode — until a man shouted out to her, “I want to f— the s— out of you.”

Catcalling, usually lewd language shouted out at women by men, was an everyday occurrence in the city and became a norm to May, she said to a crowd of more than 100 students yesterday at the Art History Lecture Hall on Douglass campus.

But in September 2005, when May was 24 years old, she was with a group of her friends, who were starting to talk about being harassed on the way to their friend’s house.

May said when hearing their stories, the males in the group were taken aback and asked whether women had to deal with these lewd remarks often.

“This is not okay. This shouldn’t be a part of living in the city. This shouldn’t have to be something to worry about,” she said. “If this happened in the workplace … then we would have someone to talk to. … People tell you to keep walking, but we thought we should address this issue.”

Around the same time, Thao Nguyen saw a middle-aged man in the subway masturbating in front of her. She snapped a picture on her cellphone and took it to the police, she said.

The police said they were uninterested, and she posted it online to Flickr along with her story and a warning to other women to watch out for the man. The New York Daily News published the photograph, and the perpetrator was detained and charged for public lewdness, May said.

May knew of Nguyen’s story and experienced similar lewd posts and stories on her online forum website.

 May said the idea behind the forum is to create an online community where women could share their stories on the “Hollaback” website and raise awareness for this particular type of violence in a revolutionary web-based platform.

She said revolutions start when people develop systems that elevate the voices of others — and then get out of their way.

“You have a platform to share your message because you see it in the media. You see the super celebrities rise up and … down,” May said.

She said when “Hollaback” first launched, it aimed to serve five cities around the world. Now the website branches across 44 cities, 16 countries and nine languages all over the world.

“As women we don’t put up with it in the workplace. We don’t have to put up with this in the streets. … We had a site in Columbia, Miss., where they did mud stenciling — really cool street art, [that said] ‘Street harassment is back — holla back,’” May said.

With the decentralized leadership platform, the movement has been able to expand and branch out both online and in the streets, she said.

“I don’t think we are going to see another Martin Luther King … in this generation,” May said. “I think we are going to see millions of them.”

She said Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream” but did not say, “I have a list of compelling facts and figures.”

Answering the what, how and why of a movement or idea is important to marketing an idea, she said.

“What would a world be like without street harassment? … It was something I couldn’t picture,” May said.

“Hollaback” uses apps, maps and blogs to get their message across, she said. That message is the right for people to be who they want to be without discrimination or harassment.

Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people should be able to do what they want without discrimination, May said.

“I want you to imagine that everyone in this room has cancer right now, and you imagine that you might have the cure,” she said. “Would you speak up?”

May said people should not be discouraged from speaking up because they fear they will not be taken seriously.

She said leadership will look dramatically different than it did in the past with the creation of the Internet platforms and revolutions through technology.

“[People try to] limit the quality of our ideas. This is similar in all forms of harassment — when people tell me I’m not good enough or an idea that we have should be kept in our heads. We should boldly move our world,” May said.

She said “Hollaback” is trying to expand their connections into the college realm by creating sites for people not only mark sidewalks where the incidences occurred but also residence halls and dining halls.

Yujin Hong, an Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy first-year student, said May’s speech was really inspiring and a motivation to start a similar movement in her hometown in South Korea.

Hong said she thinks street harassment is a widespread issue, and a lot of women — including herself — have experienced street harassment.

“I was young when I lived there, but this harassment is affecting all of us — not just women who were harassed,” she said.


By Anastasia Millicker

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