Interview with Stop Street Founder Holly Kearl

1)      Can you tell us a bit about how your organization came to be and why you took up this particular mission?


Right now, Stop Street Harassment is primarily an online resource and blog. I have a full time day job, so I cannot undertake as much work with this issue as I’d like! I got involved with the topic in 2006 when I decided to write about it for my master’s thesis at George Washington University. I had recently heard about websites like Hollaback when I visited those sites, it was the first time I saw an issue I regularly experienced and hated given a name. My thesis focused on how people were using these kinds of websites as a form of consciousness-raising and as a way to share tactics for dealing with the issue.


Some of the websites I liked the best went away after I turned in my thesis in 2007, so in 2008, I launched my website to serve as a resource on all things related to street harassment. At the time, it was also the only site where people anywhere in the world could share their stories and on it I covered (and continue to cover) relevant street harassment news and interviews with activists.


In 2010 I wrote one of the only books on the topic and since then, I have given more than 50 talks and presentations and tons of media interviews. I’ve testified on the topic before UN Women, the New York City Council and the DC City Council.


Last month I organized International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Thousands of people in at least 21 countries took some form of action that week to collectively bring attention to the issue. Here’s a report on the activities.


The more I work on this issue, the more committed I am to continue to work on it. I am still outraged at each new story I hear or read and I am encouraged by each new campaign I learn about aimed at making communities safer.


2)      What do you define specifically as street harassment?

Street harassment is unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way. While of course people are harassed for all kinds of reasons, I focus specifically on harassment motivated by gender.

3)      I read selections of your book, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, and I have to say that I was taken aback by some of the stats in the studies you’d researched from the leaders in the field. There was one by Gardner in Indiana that had only nine women out of a large sample size who experienced this type of harassment weren’t bothered by it. Why do you think it’s so wide spread?

Sexual harassment in general is pretty widespread in our society. We still live in a patriarchy and sexual harassment is often an effective way to humiliate, silence, and push people out of spaces, be that the basketball courts, a science lab, a board room, or a political office. In the case of street harassment, it’s used to keep most public spaces male-dominated.

In our societies, street harassment and sexual harassment in general is seen as inevitable somehow and yet is not given serious attention. It’s often dismissed as a minor annoyance, a joke, a compliment, or the fault of the harassed person. Since it’s rarely challenged – and often those who do challenge it are retaliated against – it continues, it thrives, and it spreads from generation to generation and does so at a very high cost. Most women do not feel safe in most places after dark or many places in daylight if they’re alone. I’ve heard from so many women who quit classes, hobbies, won’t attend evening events, drive short distances instead of walk or take a bus, and moved neighborhoods because of harassers.

4)      Also, why do you think that street harassment can escalate so quickly from something like catcalls to being chased, groped, or in some cases rapes and assaults? Do you think that it starts with an initial mindset that women are property that grows into more dangerous aggression?


Yes, the idea that women are public property that anyone can touch, comment on, or follow plays into all types of street harassment. Since harassers tend to get away with “lesser” forms, like catcalling, it can be easy for them to escalate into worse forms because they aren’t challenged and they rarely face any penalty, even when it’s sexual assault! The harassment is often an effective way to exert power over someone and get away with it. Also, men are trained from a young age to defend their manhood at all costs, and so if someone does challenge them or ignores them, especially in front of their friends, they may escalate as a way to try to save face and show they’re a man (since violence = manhood in our society).


5)      Moreover, why do you think it stays something that people don’t speak up about? I think your book makes an excellent point that it’s not just that it happens or people try and ignore it in general but that it’s sometimes called a compliment as if that’s supposed to make it better.


Street harassment is often seen as a rite of passage and also inevitable. It’s how girls know they’re women and it’s a way boys can become men. It’s something so engrained in our society that most people don’t think to question it, unless it happens all the time or unless physical violence is involved.


From a young age women are trained that the highest compliment they can receive is male attention – be it positive or negative (e.g. in elementary school girls are told that if boys are mean it’s because they like them and they should be flattered). Speaking out about street harassment is sometimes seen as bragging about all the men that are paying you attention and thus complimenting you. So that’s another reason why many people stay silent.


Victim-blaming is another big cause of silence. It’s all too common for people to turn around and ask what was the person wearing or why was she out alone or why was she out late at night. Hear that once or twice and most people shut up, especially if they’ve heard those comments from people they trust and respect.


6)      Do you think that the type of street harassment varies across races or across gender identification and sexual orientation? If so, how?


At its core, street harassment is about power and control and that’s the same no matter who is the target and who is being harassed. But yes, there are many ways that the harassment can vary by other identities and that was a focus of one of the chapters of my book. For example, of course with race there can be racial slurs mixed in with the gender-based harassment. Many openly LGBQ individuals face gender bashing and violence. Some lesbians have talked about being asked if men can watch or join in when they’re out with their girlfriends or female partners. Transgender individuals face so much vicious harassment and assault, especially transwomen and especially transwomen of color. Lately it seems like I’m reading about a murder a week of a young transwoman of color somewhere in the US. It’s heartbreaking.


7)      Besides raising awareness via your book and the site itself, what other methods do you use in order to help educate people about and help to prevent this problem?


I regularly give talks, media interviews, and write articles on the topic, as well as engage with people through social media. I engaged thousands of people around this issue during the end of March when I organized International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Locally in Washington, DC, I serve on the board of Collective Action for Safe Spaces and have undertaken numerous initiatives with them to bring attention to the issue in DC. Last year, we conducted community safety audits and organized a march against street harassment. Since February of this year, I’ve been part of a taskforce working with the DC transportation authority to address sexual harassment on the metro trains and buses and we’ve met with great success.


8)      I’ve noticed on your site that you have male allies and work on educating boys and men. How important is it to work with growing boys and also with men active and interested in stopping harassment?


Street harassment will never end if only women and girls are involved in ending it. Most men and boys are not harassers and they can and should be part of the solution. They can call out their friends and other men who are harassers. Many men harass to show off for their friends so if their friends show that they are not impressed by the harassment, fewer men will harass women. Some young men may not realize how offensive or scary their behavior is because they’ve received messaging that it’s okay to harass women and seen male role models doing it, so educating them how and why it’s not okay is important in order to break the cycle of harassment.


9)      As far as how to respond to harassment, there’s reporting personally and also bystander reporting. I’ve also heard of more creative responses like HollaBackNYC where people have actually posted pictures of harassers on a site, used camera phones to let people know it’s not okay. Does your organization have creative suggestions or ideas like that?


I have a section on the website where people can find various responses they can have to street harassment. These include assertive responses, reporting harassers, engaging as bystanders, and having creative responses. I want people to know there is a range of ways to respond and also that however they choose to respond to each instance is the right way. Only they understand the circumstances and themselves to know how best to respond. But I also know that the harassed individuals alone cannot stop street harassment and so I offer an array of ways that people can engage in community activism on this topic.


10)  What can individuals who fear street harassment/live in areas that are common, do to feel more protected besides reporting incidents?


I’d recommend they undertake one of the community initiatives listed on my website. For example, to start, they could hold a speak out or conduct a survey or do a community safety audit to gather more information about the harassment in their area. This can help prove it’s a problem to policy makers and it can also help determine if there are certain areas or times of day or night when the harassment happens the most. With this data, they can then do a focused campaign to address the problems their survey or audit uncover. One great example of this happened in Chicago when a group of teenage girls surveyed their peers on this issue. With their results, they were able to successfully lobby local politicians to have more lamps installed along two major roads where the girls faced a lot of harassment after dark. They also were able to get over 100 businesses on board with a RESPECT campaign once they were able to show that a lot of harassers were men loitering outside businesses.


11)  How can people help join and support your mission?


People can share their street harassment stories for the blog, they can write guest blog posts about the topic, and they can participate in the conversation on social media. They can also order my book for their local library, bring me to speak to their campus or community group, and participate in International Anti-Street Harassment Week 2013. Also, on my site I list a range of ideas for community action people can get involved in and so of course undertaking any of those initiatives will help stop street harassment and support the mission of my work.


12)  Finally, is there anything else you’d like the public to know about street harassment? Maybe some misconceptions or anything else you’d like to dispel?


Street harassment is a global problem. Studies conducted in Canada, Israel, China, Pakistan, and the USA each found that more than 80 percent of women had experienced street harassment. These high statistics hold true in countries like Egypt, Yemen, and India, where women are modestly dressed if not completely covered when they are in public. Street harassment is not about what women wear or how they look. Instead, street harassment is a symptom of worldwide gender inequality. Indeed, no country has achieved gender equality and no country ever will until girls and women have the freedom to move through public places without experiencing sexual harassment or sexual assault.

It’s time for this issue to be taken seriously and for us all to decide what we can do to make our communities safer.