So I grew up on a pretty steady diet of Sesame Street. Sesame Street if you will remember is a section of worlds most diverse population and I mean there was big bird, things that lived in trash cans, yellow people, orange people, and real people and somehow they all kind of got along. I mean sure they had their challenges, but they always worked it out and they always, always, said good morning to each other.
When I was 18 years old, I moved from the suburbs of Richmond Virginia to big ‘ole New York city and I wondered why nobody said hello to each other? I mean this was real life Sesame Street right. It wasn’t that I grew up saying hello to everyone that I passed on the street – I didn’t. But I thought that surrounded by the worlds most diverse population, how are we all going to learn to get along if we can’t at least learn to say hello to each other? And then somebody said hello to me — well, hello baby were his exact words and I thought, I don’t know, maybe Sesame Street has grown up a little bit in the past 15 years, so I just said hello back and he said, “I want to fuck the shit out of you.” Whew, well a fluke, that must be a fluke, um yeah crazy New Yorkers. And as it turned out it wasn’t.
I was harassed 2, 3, sometimes 4 times a day for about 10 years straight and I’m still harassed today. It was a really intense experience for me and it was an incredibly scary experience for me, and I felt alone. I felt as if I was the only one and I felt that if I truly let myself feel the pain that it meant to be street harassed day in and day out, that it meant that I wasn’t strong. And so for five years, I walked on in silence. And then in 2005 I was on a roof deck with some friends and we started talking about this called street harassment and as the women in the group told story after story, I realized that I wasn’t the only one and I wasn’t the only one who felt silenced by this either. We walked down the street and we wouldn’t respond to the guys, we felt weak. When we would yell at them, we worried that the situation would escalate. The police didn’t care and so we kept our silence. And as the men in the group heard these stories they were so angered at the extent to which this was happening, right under their noses. And as (name unrecognizable) said who is the board chair, “you live in a different New York City than we do.” And we resolved to change that.
And we did it the same way that change has always happened – people coming forward and telling their story. But this was 2005 and two new technologies hit the mainstream at that point, the blog and the cell phone camera and so we launched Hollaback New York City. And within weeks New Yorkers were swapping their stories and sharing their photos and then something telling happened, we started to get posts from outside New York. We started to get posts from outside the United States even and that’s when we knew we had hit a nerve. Today we’re in 15 cities around the world including Mumbai, Buenos Aires and Toronto.
So what is this phenomenon that people are so eager to tell their stories about? Simply put, street harassment is sexual harassment in a public space and its probably existed since the advent of streets, but today it’s in epidemic proportions. Today recent work by Holly (name unrecognizable) shows that 99% of women have been harassed at some point throughout their lives. And on the hollaback blog we have heard stories of women who have left their jobs, changed their commutes because of a fear of being harassed. We’ve heard stories from girls as young as five, from women as old as seventy. We have heard so many stories and for women with a history of sexual assault of which twenty to twenty-five percent have street harassment can feel like ripping a scab off. But it gets worse, you see with street harassment isn’t just annoying, it’s scary. In the first four months of this year, 14 girls committed suicide in India, as a direct result of street harassment. And we never know when one comment will escalate and to often it does. In Washington D.C. a woman was shot in the foot after refusing to respond to her harasser. In New York City a pregnant woman was run over by a car and killed as a result of street harassment. Street harassment is the most persistent and pervasive form of gender based violence and like all forms of gender based violence, the people who experience it tend to blame themselves and they tend to be silent, just like I did.
Now the skeptics will tell you that street harassment is just another form of courtship behaviour, but if it is courtship behavoiur it is what (unrecognizable name) calls a spectacularly unsuccessful strategy and P.S. it’s the same strategy that they use to defend workplace harassment to. Harassment wasn’t helping men get dates in the workplace and it’s not helping them get dates on the streets either. But if it’s not just a bunch of nice guys trying to get dates, who is doing all of this harassment? Well we’ve been tracking it for five years, and so far the only consistent indicator that we’ve seen is population density – more people walking down the street, more people getting harassed. And just like there’s no single profile for rapists, there’s no single profile for street harassment either. Street harassment cross lines of race and class and that is because it runs deeper than the colour of our skin or the income brackets of our neighbourhoods. Street harassment is part of a broader culture and international culture where gender based violence is simply seen as okay.
You know, street harassment is incredibly scary and we know that it matters, but we don’t know and what is so hard to imagine is what the world would look like without it. Around the world, more people are living in cities today, than live outside of cities. Over 50% of the worlds population lives in cities, and more moving in everyday. And I live in Brooklyn and every morning on my walk to work two men say good morning to me and when I first moved in, I was will trained in my street wise ways and I learned to ignore them. I learned to walk on because I was so scared that it would escalate, just like it had when I was 18 years old, but they persisted, “good morning, good morning, good morning.” So finally after a couple of weeks, I timidly gave in and I said, “good morning.” They smiled and then the most incredible thing happened – nothing. So then, the next day I tried again a little more confidently, he said “good morning” and I responded, “morning.” Still I was safe. I tried it with the other guy and I was still safe and now I say good morning to them every morning and these guys are the nicest guys. They make me feel so safe in my own neighbourhood. But this story is the saddest story because I was trained to ignore them. I was trained to walk on. I was trained that the situation was escalating. I was trained that after 10 years of street harassment day in and day out and I’m not the only one.
On our blog they’re hundreds of women of for which good morning is just too much in the context of these violent streets. And I want to build a world in which good morning means nothing more than good morning and we can say it to people who do not look or think anything like us. I think that good morning has the power to change the world and the way people live in it. I think in this world where good morning never means anything more than good morning, the nice guys will come out of the woodwork. They’ll be able to say things like, you look nice today and it will be heard as a compliment. And I think as women, will be able to wipe that tough girl look off of our faces because we will know that no matter what we wear, no matter what we wear, no matter what we wear, that the days of “she was asking for it” will be over. And everyday will be like a pride parade because we will be able to be authentically who we are, because none of us are as simple as a list of physical attributes.
We have the right to say who we are, not wait for somebody to tell us who we are. We have the right to define ourselves on our terms, whatever that means that day, that hour, that minute. But we can’t have this world, we can’t have this world, until we end street harassment. We need to acknowledge that it’s simply not okay and I think that we can do it. I think that with the internet as our new campfire, we can change our culture by changing the narrative. We can conform street harassment from something that was isolating to something that was sharable. We can come forward and we can tell our stories. We have to show people what is wrong, so that they can see what is possible.
Street harassment exists because of a culture where gender based violence is simply seen as okay, but guess what – culture changes. In the past 60 years we have gone from a culture were people of colour drink from different water fountains to a culture where we have our first Black president and the winds of street harassment are starting to change to. In the mayoral election this year in London, street harassment was a campaign issue for the first time in history. New York City council held its first ever hearing on street harassment this year, Egypt released a pamphlet and in Ireland they released a public service announcement. These things have happened because bold people around the world have come forward and they have said no more. These things have happened because bold people have told their stories. So when I Hollaback, I do it for me, but I also do it for my city, for my street and the world. Let’s work together to build a world that we can all be proud to share. I know that big bird would approve. Thank you.