Holla Back DC! How to fight street harassment

Aug 12, 2011

Holla Back DC! is a blog where victims of public harassment in DC can go to post their stories, including where it happened and pictures of the offenders.

Chai Shenoy and Shannon Lynberg of Holla Back DC! chatted about their mission to help Washingtonians "speak out against gender based public sexual harassment."

"Hey Sexy! Thanks for coming into my life. Can I get your number?" or "Mama, mama, look over here. Keep smiling for us." Ah, the joys of walking to work or running in the park or coming home after a day of volunteering at the local animal shelter, all being interrupted by sexual harassment. And if you don't respond, the escalation can happen and lead to some potential harmful outcomes. Thanks for joining us, Holla Back DC!, for this online chat on public sexual harassment and assault in the DC metro area. Send us your thoughts, comments, and questions!

Why do you think men publicly engage in street sexual harassment? Have you ever heard from a perpetrator who wanted to defend his actions? 

Well, first, men aren't the only ones engaging in public sexual harassment, although they predominantly are. We have posted experiences were the harasser(s) identified as female. These actions of public sexual harassment, we think, come down to power and control. As the harasser, I can say what I want to you and control your smile, the way you walk, and the way you feel. At the same time, some men don't know that they are engaging in something that detrimentally affecting the harasee. We have heard from perpetrators. They often times say that they are just trying to be nice and give a girl a compliment. We follow it up with, "What happens if the girl doesn't receive the compliment well? Do you call her derrogatory names?" And, with laughter, they say no. Hmmm.

Where do you find the most incidents of this behavior?

Great question. Public sexual harassment happens everywhere in the DC Metro area. We have a google map where you can see the incidents we get on the blog. However, take it with a grain of salt. Not everyone who is harassed posts on our blog. But, we know from the trainings and meetings we've had that this behaviour is happening everywhere. 

What do you say to people who think harassment is not a big deal. I know plenty of people, guys especially, who think it would be flattering to have females commenting on their body in public spaces.

We get a lot of critism, especially from men who say some women like the attention or that this is just part of evolution and they way men pick up women. Yes, there may be some women who enjoy the attention. We've even heard from a few women who have said, they only feel beautiful if they get catcalls. When we hear this, we urge people to think about this in new terms.  Like, what is it about our culture that makes women feel like they beauty is something that needs to be validated by catcalls.

We also know that overall, street harassment is not a sucessful way to pick up women and RARELY works! Marty Langelan says it best in her book, Back Off:


On Page 39 she says:


"If harassment really is just a sexual “courtship” behavior, it is a spectacularly unsuccessful one. as a means of generating sexual interest on the recipient’s part, it is not only ineffective, but consistently counterproductive: women react with disgust, not desire, with fear, not fascination."


she goes on to say:


"there are infinite varieties of courtship behavior among human beings, mammals, and other animals, but none has a failure rate remotely approaching the failure of harassment as a sexual attractant."


Where and how do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior? Can a man approach and ask a woman for her number on the street or compliment her in a way that wouldn't be classified creepy or harasssment? What would suggest for men who just think that they're being flirty?

The line is hard because it is individual dependent. That is why we created this blog because in each community the line of acceptable and unacceptable changes. In the youth community, the line is very different than from the lesbian community. We think you can compliment a woman on her way to work. There is a difference between saying "You're hot" with "I really think that outfit is nice." Don't expect anything back from the person. And, don't call the person who doesn't respond a derrogatory name. 

Ignore? React? Confront?

Sorry if this is going to sound repetitive, but you should do what you feel safest in that moment. Sometimes you will ignore. Sometimes you will address the harasser(s) in-person, sometimes you'll shout back with anger. It's all dependent on the situation. The main focus is on your safety.  

Any tips on what I should do if I encounter harassment while on my bike? I don't want to turn around or really engage them, but I also don't want to let them think it's acceptable because I don't respond. Thanks!

We hear this a lot. In 2009, a Holla Back site in Asheville came up with a great solution for dealing drivers who harass bikers. They created magnets that said something along the line of "you just harassed me".  They then stuck the magnets on cars whenever they were harassed.  We've thrown around developing similar methods here in DC. If you have any specific ideas, we'd love to hear from you!

I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I don't really understand how a blog is a solution to the problem? I was so fed up and frazzled by daily harassment that I felt the only solution I had was to move out of my neighborhood.

Good point. A blog is definitely NOT the ONLY solution. What the blog does is allow folks to share their experiences/reactions of their harassment to the community and get validation, tips, etc. But, online activism is just that, online. 

We are working on trying to bring RightRides to DC, along with Safe Walk, a biking volunteer program, and others to create alternative ways to prevent and reduce harassment and assault. We are also doing trainings with youth groups, community organizations, etc. What are your ideas?

Thanks for taking the time to answer questions. I wondered when Holla Back DC! was started and if it was in any way affiliated with HarassMap, an Egyptian website that has become popular in the last year or so for publicly reporting harassment using social networking. In addition, do you think websites like these are seen by enough people to act as a deterrent?

HarassMap is a great site! We didn't know about it when we started in 2009 with our Google map. Not sure how long it's been in existence, but we sought out social media tools to address street harassment in DC. We've received some creative ideas on how to expand the map and make it more useful for individuals.

To the second question--not sure. We hope that it does act as a deterrent. 

I love that idea! I'd totally do it.

I patially blame the media. Not that this stuff did not happen before, and not that this stuff wouldn't happen without the media. Yet, when guys listen to radio shows and watch TV programs where people openly ask others about intimate details, I fear some guys feel it is OK to go out there and say similar things in public. Just a thought.

 I would like to know more about the techniques you suggest to deal with street harassment. Sometimes I get comments from creepy men and always just pretend I didn't hear anything and keep walking. That is usually fine, but makes me feel bad anyways, and sometimes I carry the unpleasant feeling with me for hours. Is there a way to respond that will make them realize how they make me feel, without putting myself at any risk? I like your Socratic method response but wonder if I could really pull it off. 

Even after we started HBDC! and begin giving trainings on how to respond to street harassment, I still didn't always feel comfortable respoding. Even today, I don't ALWAYS respond. The number one thing to remeber is to do what you feel most comfortable with. You never know when a situation will escalte so be aware of your own saftey and what's around you. That being said, here are some other techniques we teach:

a.     Name the behavior.  Describe exactly what the harasser is doing, stating behavior (“You are exposing yourself”), principle (“This is about respect”), and a direct command (“Put that penis back in your pants right now”).

b.     Interrupt the harasser with this all-purpose statement.  “Stop harassing. I don’t like it—no one likes it.  Show some respect.”

c.     Put up a “stop sign.”  Put your hands in front of your chest, palm out, look the harasser in the eye and say, “Stop right there.”

d.    Make an A-B-C statement.  When you do A, the effect is B, and I want C.  “When you say, ‘Hey sexy,’ it makes me uncomfortable.  From now on, just say, ‘hello.’”


Also, it's OK to pretend you didn't hear anything.

There's no such thing as the perfect response!

How would you recommend dealing with harassment from someone who is obviously mentally ill/disturbed, but still threatening?

This is a tough question to answer on multiple levels. First things first--address your safety first. If you feel threatened, then get to a place where you physically feel safe. We did have a serial harasser who would spit and attempt to kick women in Dupont and Columbia Heights. The targets of his harassment took pictures of him, reported the incidents to us and Prince of Petworth blogs, and also called MPD.  

What have you done?

I know a guy who essentially says he does it because there are a few, a small minority, who respond positively to these things. He searches for the few, while insulting great numbers in this search.

How did you become interested in public sexual harassment?

I grew up in Atlanta and experienced street harassment for as long as I can remember but I never put a name to it. When I moved to DC it became an everyday occurence. I decided to become an advocate at the DC Rape Crisis Center. It was there that I met Chai. Marty Langelan came to our class one night to talk to about street harassment. That was the first time I felt like I truly understood the problem, even though I had been working on sexual assault issues since college! Leaving the training, I knew I wanted to do something about street harassment in DC. Little did I know Chai felt the same way. Three months later, we met up at Teasim and the rest is history!

After hearing me vent about street harassment, my boyfriend asked a female friend of his if she had ever experienced street harassment. Of course her answer was affirmative. I realized that my boyfriend had no idea how pervasive it is. I started the habit of calling him every time I experienced it and telling him exactly what the harasser said and did. After a couple of weeks, he understood. Given that street harassers don't target women who are accompanied by men, how can we raise mens' awareness of how pervasive (and awful) street harassment is?

You're idea is brilliant. Glad that he understood.

This past Spring, over 40 volunteers canvassed most of DC to document the safety in our neighborhoods. Modeled after METRAC's community safety audit, we partnered with Holly Kearl of Stop Street Harassment to start collecting data. We asked residents and the auditors what would make our neighborhood safer. It's a larger project of addressing the safety needs of women and LGBTQ individuals in our nation's capital. We're hoping to do something similar to your idea in September. Sign up to volunteer through our volunteer form

I hope you're not friends with him--he sounds like a jerk. After living in DC for a few years, when I moved to San Francisco, I resolved the problem by choosing to live in the Castro. No one cared what I was wearing or how I looked.

Sure, it's bothersome, but isn't the best thing to do to ignore it? I feel like making a big deal out of it could be dangerous. Plus, I'm not one to make a scene.

What is the typical age of a harasser? Are most people that are harassed young adults?

There is no typical age! People of all ages can be the harasser and the victim. We recieve experiences from people of all ages who have been harassed. We also hear about people of all ages doing the harassing. I have been harassed by teens, young men, and older men. We see the same thing across the experiences we have received.

A lot of harassment happens on the metros and buses in DC. The same is true in cities like Chicago, Boston, NYC, and the CA Bay Area, but in those cities, unlike DC, transportation authorities are tackling sexual harassment through PSA campaigns, training transit workers, and encouraging people to report harassment. What would you advise residents and commuters to do to get WMATA to pay attention to harassment on our transit system?

We would LOVE for WMATA to listen to our concerns of harassment AND assault that are taking place on the platforms and in the trains. We really don't want a tragedy to occur for them to take our concerns seriously. We are would love for residents and commuters to keep sending emails and comments to WMATA through their online portal (including Twitter). We are hoping to talk to CM Muriel Bowser about this issue, as she is now chairing the DC committee on public transportation. And, if you feel like you can, report incidents to the station manager, note the manger's name and badge, and send it along to us. The more experiences we have, the better place we will be in telling them that we, Holla Back DC!, aren't making up these stories.  

I've definitely been harassed a number of times, and submitted a number of anecdotes to your blog. Other than engage (safely) with harassers, what else can I do? How can I be more involved in the fight against harassment?

Thanks for sending us your experiences. We hope that it helps.

Volunteer for us and let us know what you're interested in doing. Promote the blog and the work. And, of course, you can always donate so we can make some of these programs come to life. 

What do you recommend doing about behavior that looks uncomfortable but doesn't seem threatening? Like, I'm walking and see a couple across the street who seem hostile to each other, but not violent. I don't know if they know each other or not, but what should I do? Keep walking, or stop to make sure it's ok?

Great question. This is one thing we are really trying to do more of in DC - teaching bystander intervention.  If we all took an active role as bystanders, street harassment would become less of a problem. Imagine the impact it would have on our community if everyone spoke up when they saw any form of street harassment happening.

First, if you do feel threated I would suggest yelling and drawing attention to the situation if there are others around or calling the police.  Here are just three of the methods that we teach:

a.     Speak up  If someone says something offensive, derogatory or abusive, let them know that behavior is wrong and you don’t want to be around it.  Don’t laugh at racist, sexist or homophobic jokes.  Challenge your peers to be respectful.

b.     Distraction  This snaps people out of their "sexist comfort zone."  It allows the target of harassment to escape.  For example, If a man is harassing women on the street, ask him for directions or the time.

c.     Intervene   When someone else is being harassed, intervene and help him/her out of the situation, and let the harasser know that the action he or she is taking is not right.   




While I agree that some of the crazier stories on your blog are sexual harassment (i.e. the touching, groping, photographing), I don't know that I necessarily agree the verbal ones rise to the level of *sexual* harassment. To me that either cheapens true sexual harassment or is trying to criminalize rude behavior. After all, one can be rude without being guilty of a criminal offense.

Some of the things that people submit as street harassment wouldn't be a criminal offense. That doesn't necessarily make it right. Street harassment is a subjective term, as well as an objective term. What Holla Back DC! does through the online portal is create a shifting definition based on the community standards. 

I had no idea about your work but keep it up! I'm a woman and I support you.

Yeah! Thanks!

Hope I'm not too late. WAY, way back in the late '80s I was in my late 20s and lived in Arlington and walked to the Courthouse Metro every day. One morning I was walking and noticed two construction workers leaning against their truck and harrassing every woman that walked past. I could visibly see three women tense up as they walked by. When it was my turn, they let me pass, then made a few comments as I was walking away. I stopped, turned around and walked toward them. I never saw two men who looked so frightened as these guys as I walked up to them. (Now to be clear, this was happening across the street from the Police station in broad daylight, so I felt pretty safe.) I looked them in the eye and asked if they knew that they pretty much ruined each woman's day with their remarks. I asked why they would want to hurt people and make them feel bad, when they didn't even know them. I asked how would you feel if you found out someone was doing that to your wife/mother/sister. They were both very sheepish, apologized profusely, said they were just blowing off some steam. One even offered his hand for me to shake saying he really meant no harm. I honestly can't remember if I shook his hand or not, but I do remember feeling incredibly empowered for weeks after!!

I'm a woman. Is it harassment if I tell another women that I really like her shoes or purse, and ask her where she got it? I don't feel like that's harassment, and I certainty don't mean it to be, but you'd got me thinking about how I engage in the public sphere, and I'd love to get your thoughts.

We're not saying don't compliment people. Come on! That would be a not cool world. :)

Of course compliments are fine. But, regardless of your gender, don't make a compliment or statement as a give and take. For example, don't expect anything in return, like a phone number or a smile. And if you don't get that reaction, don't then think it's okay to call that person a derrogatory name, follow her, or continue to harasser her. If you are concerned, you can always preface a compliment, with "I hope this doesn't make you feel uncomfortable, but I really like your shoes. Where did you get them?"

What kind of support have you seen from the government agencies for your effort?

We've received kudos from individual law enforcement agents and some government workers. As of right now, we don't receive any government funding. We hope to get more support from the city and the surrounding counties.

As long as "harassment" goes no farther than looks and words, how do you define it? A lot of men think harassment means "Attention that's not welcome becuase you're not Tom Cruise."

Defining harassment is tricky and we gave it a lot thought when we first started HBDC!

This what we came up with:

Street harassment is any sexual harassment that occurs in a public space when one or more individuals (man or woman) accost another individual, based on their preceived gender as they go about their daily life. This includes a whole spectrum of behaviors including leering, groping, assault.  


Would you please provide a link to your blog?


Well that's it! Thanks so much for joining us today. If you are interested in getting invloved we have tons of volunteer opportunities. Vist us at http://hollabackdc.wordpress.com to submit your experience or sign up to volunteer. If you are interested in donating and to help us launch Right Rides DC go here.

In This Chat
Chai Shenoy
Chai Shenoy is the co-founder and co-director of Holla Back DC!, a grassroots organization whose aim is to educate and address public sexual harassment and assault in the DC Metro area. She works closely with community activists, survivors and organizations in determining how to create more dialogue on ending street harassment. Chai hails from California, but considers the nation's capital as her home.
Shannon Lynberg
Shannon Lynberg is the co-founder of Holla Back DC! and the Program Manager at Empowered Women International. As a dedicated activist for women’s issues and women’s empowerment, both domestically and internationally, Shannon is committed to working towards ending all forms gender-based violence through education, awareness, and community building. Shannon is originally from Georgia but has called DC her home for the last five years.
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