When Did You Know You Were a Woman?

Taken from the November/December 2013 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!'’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars.1

How many of us have similar experiences? It’s practically universal. Studies show that between 70-99% of women experience street harassment at some point during their lives, and with each separate identity — being young, being queer, or being a person of color — there is an exponentially greater likelihood of experiencing street harassment.

Street harassment started happening to me at the age of 18, when I moved from suburban Richmond, Virginia, to New York City for college. On the first day of class I was cruising through Greenwich Village when I heard a man say: “Hello, baby.” Hmmm, I thought, maybe this is the New York way of saying ‘hello.’ Eager to fit in, I replied, “Hello.” His response? “I want to fuck the shit out of you.”

I thought it must be a fluke. Who says that? So I pretended it didn’t happen. But two, three, sometimes four times a day, a range of lewd, sexual comments were directed at me. “Hey baby, I want to hit that.” Or, “Girl, I want to be your pony.” Or, “Smile.” I ignored them, kept going, pretended like it didn’t hurt; I thought that if I let myself feel the hurt, it meant I wasn’t strong.

Slowly, street harassment started chipping away at my right to be me. I felt like if I wore what I wanted to wear, walked where I wanted to walk, when I wanted to walk there, then it meant I was “asking for it.” And, with every degrading comment, I felt more and more put in my place. Like Tina Fey, I felt like a woman. And not in the cute new dress kind of way.

In 2005 I started, Hollaback! – a movement to end street harassment using mobile technology. Hollaback! imagines a world free from street harassment, one where everyone feels safe in public spaces. The advent of new technologies and social media gives us the opportunity to take on one of the final new frontiers for women’s rights around the world. By collecting people’s self-reported stories of street harassment in a safe and share-able way, we are giving voice to an issue that has been silenced for too long. Over the past three years Hollaback! has collected over 5,000 digital stories of street harassment from around the world. These stories are mapped and recorded on ihollaback.org.

Movements start because people tell their stories. At Hollaback!, we map these stories along political district lines to show state and federal legislators what the experience is of over 50 percent of their constituents and ask them what they are going to do about it. And, we’re using these stories for research, employing content analysis to identify the role of bystanders and harassment’s long-term impacts, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These stories are transforming sexual violence from something that was isolating and unspoken to something that is share-able and a community responsibility to stop.

But stories alone cannot build a movement. That’s why we’ve trained over 300 young people to launch Hollaback! sites in 65 cities and 22 countries. Our site leaders are young and diverse: 82% under the age of 30, 57% under the age of 25, 47% LGBTQ, and 31% people of color. We pair digital storytelling with on-the-ground action that leads to sustainable change. The demand is staggering, our waiting list has people from over 60 cities eager to bring Hollaback! to their communities.

Street harassment has defined our communities for too long. The babies being pushed around in strollers today only have about eight or nine years before what’s happening to you and your friends starts happening to them, too. We all deserve better. We deserve to be who we are.

Join the movement by downloading our free apps and visiting www.ihollaback.org.

Emily May is the co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!

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1. Fey T, Bossypants, New York: Reagan Arthur Books, 2011.