Elayne Clift


» Back to the Elayne Clift page

‘Holla Back’ to End Street Harassment

Elayne Clift, a former New Yorker, now lives in Saxtons River, Vt., where she writes about women and social issues.

Last summer a young woman in New York decided she’d had enough.  When a man in the subway masturbated in front of Thao Nguyen, she snapped his picture on her cell phone and took it to the police.  They weren’t interested.  So she posted the picture on the web with a message to watch out for the guy.  The New York Daily News ran the photograph on their front page, more women identified the perpetrator, and he was subsequently arraigned in court on four counts of public lewdness.

 “Street harassment happens to all women on a daily basis,” says Emily May, one of seven founders of Holla Back, a group that encourages women to take pictures of their harassers and then posts them online in a forum called Holla Back NYC.  “Men don’t understand the extent or effect of the harassment, and women are in denial like other women who are coping with violence against women.  That’s why we wanted to give them a safe space to talk about it.  We thought it would be therapeutic.”

She is talking about the four women and three men, all in their twenties, who founded Holla Back in September of 2005.  “We were having a conversation about street harassment and the lack of legal response to it.  We felt angry and depressed and wondered how to respond.” That’s when they came up with the idea of a website that would post the pictures of harassing men and allow women to tell their stories. 

According to Emily May, Holla Back is not trying to demonize street harassers or to create a catalogue of them.  Often, she says, it’s difficult to identify many of the perpetrators in pictures because of lighting or blurriness.  They do it, she says, for the empowerment of women.  (In the U.S. it is legal to photograph people in public places and to share those photographs.) And to date, no one has threatened Holla Back with a lawsuit nor has anyone denied a posted story.

Since October 2005 when their website was launched, Holla Back has received about 100 postings.  In addition, they now get 1,500 hits a day internationally from people wanting to tell their stories or to ask for information. 

Similar Holla Back websites have started in cities like Boston and Washington, D.C., states like Texas and Arkansas, and regions like Cape Ann, MA.   A group in India calls itself The Blank Noise Project.  Operating now in five cities, the project has launched a campaign in which they ask women to “stop blaming yourself, your body, your clothes.”  To this end, they have asked women to send them the clothes they were wearing when they were subjected to “Eve-teasing,” as street harassment is known in India.  The clothes, along with women’s stories, constitute an exhibit called “Did You Ask For It?” which will soon be shown in New York in collaboration with Holla Back to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter what women wear, street harassment occurs and it is a sexual crime.

The young adults who started Holla Back plan more events to raise awareness of this particular form of violence against women.  They are also stepping up lobbying for cultural and legal change and will soon launch speaking tours. They may even publish a book.  I applaud their efforts and their energy.  Street harassment has been accepted and ignored far too long.  Just ask any woman who’s been accosted with catcalls and lewd remarks about her body, or groped.

As Thao Nguyen put it in a New York Daily News interview, “[street harassment] is not something mutual.  You’re not consenting to it.  I don’t think women should take that and I’m glad women are doing something about it.”

So, too, it seems is the New York City Police Department.  Recently they launched “Operation Exposure.” Over a two-week period, four undercover women police officers arrested more than a dozen men for “rubbing, grabbing, and flashing women.”  The police department’s Transit Bureau chief finally conceded that street harassment “is a heavy quality of life crime.”