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Interview with Hollaback

Hollaback! is a global movement dedicated to ending street harassment, most recently through mobile technology. Hollaback!’s website states: “we believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK. There exists a clear legal framework to reproach sexual harassment and abuse in the home and at work, but when it comes to the streets—all bets are off. This gap isn’t because street harassment hurts any less, it’s because there hasn’t been a solution. Until now. The explosion of mobile technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassmentand with it, the opportunity to take on one of the final new frontiers for women’s rights around the world.”

Hollaback published an interview with me on February 1st. Read the full text here or on their website:

Tell us about the first time you were street harassed. How old were you, and how did you respond?

I don’t remember the first time I was harassed on the street, but I think I must have been 13 or 14. It’s hard to pinpoint the first time because as young girls we aren’t aware enough to realize that men telling us to smile or pressing us for conversation isn’t okay. Encounters like that just left me with bad feelings in my gut.

Your post has received tons of attention on Jezebel and throughout the blogsphere. Why do you think that is?

I believe my post created a stir for a couple reasons. First, it struck a chord with women and queers who are harassed on a regular basis and showed that we can break the silence about these experiences. Secondly, a lot of people got worked up in the controversy of the punch. We’re taught that violence is never okay, period. But pacifism is a privileged position for people to be able to take, and in many cases I think it’s because they have not been the target of abuse. It’s interesting because many people believe that my act was violent, but don’t see repeated, menacing, degrading behavior as violent, when that behavior can be so damaging to our mental and emotional wellbeing.

On Jezebel and your blog, many commenters seem to think Allston, Mass. is a breeding ground for street harassers. Do you think women and LGBTQ individuals are more prone to harassment in Allston than in other areas?

Allston has a disproportionate amount of street harassment compared to other neighborhoods, partially because of the BU [Boston University] bros who act like the town is their playground. People seem to think I’m exaggerating about experiencing street harassment every day here, but truly, not a day in Allston goes by that I don’t receive unwanted sexual attention. It happens everywhere though; it’s just very blatant here.

What would you say to those who say we should “just ignore or walk away” from street harassers?

Sometimes ignoring or walking away is the safest thing to do in that moment. However, doing so just proves to harassers that they are free to keep bullying. Standing up for yourself, whether that is verbal or physical, can be very empowering. It’s not up to other people to decide what will be empowering for you, so I urge targets of harassment to do whatever will make you feel safest and strongest. As for men’s role in stopping street harassment, I believe it is absolutely necessary for men to call out their friends on their actions. Only with allies of all genders and sexualities do we have a shot at smashing rape culture.

Did you feel more safe punching this guy because your girlfriend was with you?

I didn’t feel safe punching the guy and half-expected to be hit back. I probably wouldn’t have hit him if I weren’t both with my girlfriend and on a populated street. It had just gotten to the point where I was willing to physically put my body on the line to confront the verbal abuse I experience every day.

You mentioned that after years of being harassed by strangers daily, you “snapped” and that the guy “got the brunt of my rage of him and hundreds of other men’s blatant sexual harassment.  The punch I threw carried the pain and solidarity of thousands of other women, queers and other non-normative people who are targeted by hate and ignorance every day.” Now that the punch has been thrown — how are you going to target your anger and pain? Do you think you’ll ever punch a street harasser again?

I target my anger and pain into consciousness raising and activist work. Hearteningly enough, some amazing feminist work has been blossoming in the Boston area lately. An advocacy group called Knockout Barstool just formed at Northeastern University to call out a blog that promotes rape culture through its “Blackout Tour”. The Boston branch of Permanent Wave (NY-based feminist group) has its first meeting this Sunday. I’m involved with the Women’s Caucus of Occupy Boston, and Occupy Allston-Brighton has a feminist/anti-oppression working group I want to get involved with. Basically I want to be part of a greater effort to raise consciousness in our society and destroy rape culture. I don’t have plans to hit anyone again, but I will stand up for myself and my loved ones in whatever way is necessary.

“The Punch Heard Round The World”

I am reeling a bit from the response to my post about my experience of and reaction to street harassment. I intentionally published the post to break the silence in my community of Allston, but I certainly did not expect 60K people to see it. (Thanks Jezebel.) In spite of being a bit overwhelmed by the buzz, I am glad it is out there.

I stand by my actions.

To immediately subdue some concerns of assault, I was wearing plush heavy bike gloves, punched him in the chest and stand 5’3″ tall. I’m certain the strike was scores more shocking than painful. To address some very valid concerns of my safety, I completely acknowledge that I put myself and my girlfriend at risk. I am sorry for this element of the situation. I probably would not have done that without the presence of the crowd on the sidewalk. It may have been foolish — which is not mutually exclusive from courageous.

I probably won’t do something like this again. It was a jarring experience and somewhat emotionally traumatic. However I take responsibility for my actions and my reasons behind them. I understand why some people have been saying there is no excuse for violence; in fact, before being an out queer woman living in Allston, I think I might have said the same thing. I have verbally responded to street harassment as much as I’ve been strong enough to in the past couple years. I have ‘turned the other cheek’ in silence a countless many more times than that. The guy I hit got the brunt of my rage of him and hundreds of other men’s blatant sexual harassment.  The punch I threw carried the pain and solidarity of thousands of other women, queers and other non-normative people who are targeted by hate and ignorance every day.

I believe that people should always strive to be kind and peaceful towards others. That said, my day-to-day experience of street harassment is a day-to-day experience of a violent and oppressive culture. (And I emphasize that I face this degradation literally every day I’m in Allston.) My piece struck a nerve because I articulated a universal experience that happens every day, but is rarely confronted. We don’t hear about a woman lashing back at those who lash out at her, and this story is controversial because it challenges behavior that is usually just shrugged off, if acknowledged at all.

I consider this event a victory because of the waves of conversations its triggering. I wouldn’t advise others targeted by street harassment to lash out because it is endangering, but I do support those who feel compelled to do so. Those who zero in on ‘the punch’ as the key element to my story are missing the point. Wake up: this harassment is not an isolated incident, nor is it limited to the streets of Allston. I didn’t just lose my temper and succumb to uncontrollable female emotions. For once in my life, I made the decision to NOT turn the other cheek in the face of violent oppression. It caused a stir for good reason. If my story angers you and you believe I am in the wrong, turn your lens around on your day-to-day life for a moment and try taking notice of how women around you are treated on a mass scale.

We are called ‘hun’ and ‘sweetheart’ everywhere from the street to the grocery store to our schools and offices, and we are expected to smile sweetly in return. On crowded busses, at concerts and parties, men touch our waists and our shoulders as they pass, as though they have the right to touch us without even looking us in the eyes. On the street, we are hollered at, leered at, propositioned, attacked, and we are told that it’s in our best interest to just ignore it and keep walking.

This is me rejecting that and everything else that comes along with the rape culture we all live in. This is me breaking the silence. I am grateful for the attention this issue is receiving because it is universal and it is urgent. I do not condone violence. I condone doing what needs to be done to stand up for yourself and assert your right to walk down the street without feeling fear or intimidation.

Do whatever you can to raise awareness. Street harassment isn’t an issue exclusive to abusive drunk jerks in Allston, it’s an issue for the friends and passerbys who see this harassment and say nothing. This is your issue as much as it is mine. I urge you to join me in breaking the silence. Be aware, respond as needed, share your stories to your friends and family, post them online. Another world is possible if and only if we all participate in its evolution.

Thank you for paying attention.

xo

so much bullshit but we won’t give in.

I punched someone on the street last night, which is a first for me.

My girlfriend and I were walking along Harvard Avenue, a heavily trafficked main street in Allston. We were headed home from a party about a fifteen minutes from our place. In the one block between Commonwealth and Brighton, three separate men or groups of men verbally harassed us — a very typical female experience, practically guaranteed for lesbian couples. They said things like ‘hey baby’ and ‘you girls wanna sleep with me tonight?’ as well as the eloquent ‘OHHHH!’, an urgent effort to draw attention to two women holding hands.

At the next block, another dude said something. I don’t even remember what it was. I don’t think it makes a difference. I turned around, swung, and punched him. It took him by great surprise and his face immediately changed to one of anger and hate as he started yelling at me, ‘what the fuck, you fucking dyke! you fucking faggot!’ This happened to occur right outside of a bar with 15 or so people outside, who stared as Michelle pulled me close to her as we crossed the street. Peeling off onto a side street, we were followed by violent hollers until they faded out. ‘fucking faggot!’ I sobbed the rest of the way home.

I’m not exactly a placid person, but I’d never punched someone before and I believe in the merits of peace over violence. Whatever that guy said wasn’t the worst thing that’s been said to me by any means. I just snapped. After 23 years as a woman and ~2 years being ‘out’ in Allston, after having been forced to tolerate my relationships and humanity degraded on a regular basis with no option other than to keep walking, I wasn’t going to take it. It’s not okay how so many men behave as though they have the right to aggressively address strangers on the street because we’re women, and it’s not okay that we are expected to take it with a smile.

Isn’t it interesting that he first addressed me with interest because I was holding hands with my girlfriend, and when I turned on him I was suddenly a dyke and a faggot? This shows how these guys don’t see women and lesbians as people, they see as whatever they want to see us as — certainly, less than human. I can’t imagine how shocked that guy was when I hit him. I wonder if the effect will be that he is more wary of hollering at women on the street or if his urge to make women feel bad is strengthened. I wonder what made a deeper impression on the people outside the bar: a girl hitting a guy, or the subsequent sound of hate shouted down the street.

I’m sharing this story because I want to be an example for women: we don’t have to be silent when we are degraded. I’m sharing this story because I want my male friends and allies to be aware that street harassment is an everyday occurrence, it feels awful, and you can and should stand up to it. I’m sharing this story because even though the whole event shook me up and made me sad and angry, it’s empowering to use my voice to share that I physically challenged rape culture. (If you’re not sure what ‘rape culture’ means, read this.)

At the end of the night, I get to go home with an amazing person I’m head-over-heels in love with, and I have the strength of knowing I stood up for myself even though society frowns upon doing so. It was an ugly experience but I hope that sharing it opens some eyes and maybe even changes some hearts. Thank you for reading, and don’t forget that everyone you see is a person, like you.

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