Jessica is the founder of Hollaback! Hamilton, a group of Hamilton activists fighting against street harassment and using of social media to challenge sexual violence.
Jen: Before we really get started, can you share with the readers a few things about yourself? A little bio as it were…
Jess: Formally, I am the founder of Hollaback! Hamilton which launched in April 2013. I work at a shelter for women and children experiencing violence and homelessness, do diversity education for an organization of hospitals, and am a Masters student in Equity Studies. Informally, I’m involved in organizing for Slutwalk Hamilton and really value grassroots, local activism particularly when inclusive of young people. I’m on the vegetarian-vegan spectrum, mostly vegetarian as I really like cheese, an adoptive momma to a one year old bichon frise, Georgie, and lover of citrus fruits and libraries.
Jen: Some folks may have never heard about Hollaback! before and might be scratching their heads a bit. How about a brief snapshot of what ‘Hollaback!’ is all about?
Jess: Basically, Hollaback! is badass. It’s a super supportive, feminist, women and trans people centred, international movement to address cat-calls, wolf whistles, comments perceived as “compliments” but are really shitty ones, and other forms of harassment and sexual assault. As an international organization, it raises awareness about harassment in public spaces and street harassment. It began in New York City in 2005 and has grown to 62 cities in 22 countries and is running in 10 different languages. There are over 60 sites internationally waiting to launch Hollaback! in their city, which is amazing. Hollaback! consists of online education like blogs, videos and status posts via social media, events like chalk-walks and film screenings, solidarity marches with other groups of people demonstrating against oppression. The biggest and most important part of Hollaback! is the supportive and empowering environment of story-sharing – all of the sites have websites and an iPhone or android phone app which allows people to share their stories of street harassment on the go. Ultimately the goal of Hollaback! is to give people confidence and empowerment to HOLLA-back at street harassers, keep it real and tell them what they did isn’t cool – or to interrupt street harassment when it’s happening and support the person being harassed. Keeping in mind, this can’t always happen if people aren’t safe to respond to street harassment, but making people aware that they have a right to tell someone “no”, or to “fuck off”, or that they will call the police, or to laugh, or to yell and cause a scene, or to run after the person, or to ignore them and all of those responses are fine to either empower themselves or to stop the harassment.
Jen: What was involved in starting a new chapter in Hamilton? Have things been taking off like you’d hoped?
Jess: Hollaback! is a lot of work. It’s so far been about connecting with women’s and LGBTQI organizations, raising awareness about street harassment and asking people to share their stories. In 3 months, we’ve had over 100 people like or follow Hollaback! Hamilton, and have had over 12 stories, which is amazing considering the little amount of time we’ve been launched. As an activist, I have high hopes for Hollaback! in our city but I’m celebrating the small things, because they are worth celebrating!
Jen: Why was it important to you that Hamilton have its own Hollaback chapter?
Jess: We have tons of organizations working to improve women’s lives and experiences through activism and empowerment and safety, but it’s difficult for women’s organizations to take on street harassment education as they are already under-funded and staff are over-worked and have so many other pieces on the violence spectrum to consider. SACHA, the Women’s Centre and shelters are doing great things to address violence against women, but not street harassment explicitly. Hamilton has unique spaces in which street harassment and violence often are perpetrated against women and LGBTQI people – Hess village, Augusta St, and HSR, along Barton street.
Jen: How do you think hand held technologies like cellphones/smartphones and the internet have changed the face of feminist organizing? In what ways has this had an impact on women’s perceived sense of safety in public spaces?
Jess: The great thing about Hollaback!’s app for iPhone and android, the website, twitter and Facebook, all make it possible for people with phones or mobile technology to share their story with others, safety plan with a friend, take a photo of a harasser or record street harassment on the go without being noticed. These forms of technology help people feel safe and empowered daily, when experiencing street harassment, or after violence has occurred. This is feminist – creating a safe space for people to discuss their experiences in detailed ways and be part of a community that supports them and really has their back. Mobile technology like smartphones, tablets, laptops, social media, allow anyone wanting to raise awareness or document what they are seeing, to do that as it happens.
Jen: Complaints of street harassment are often not taken seriously, particularly by the police—why do you think we as a society don’t offer the same protections for the targets of this kind of harassment/violence?
Jess: We live in a world in which people think women fabricate sexual violence for attention (which is a completely absurd lie told in our society), in which survivors of sexual violence are exposed to videos of themselves posted on the internet by attackers (sad reality), pushed to thoughts or actions towards suicide (huge reality) and in which we blame survivors of violence (domestic and sexual) for the violence they experience (ridiculous, but reality). In Canadian colleges and universities, administrators threaten to sue anti-violence activists for talking about sexual violence on campus, and in the states, college administrators tell women they did not experience rape because their attacker did not orgasm or ejaculate. Women are raised to believe they exist for the viewing and sexual pleasure of men, are way underrepresented in positions of power and authority, and are expected to conform to really intensely harmful ways of changing their bodies to be “attractive”. I could go on, but the point is that this is our world. So it’s not really a surprise that women and LGBTQI people aren’t taken seriously when they report or disclose sexual violence, including sexual and street harassment.
Jen: Who would you say are the primary targets of street harassment?
Jess: Street harassment impacts people differently depending on their social location. Generally, women and trans people, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer people (or those that may be perceived as identifying this way) experience harassment. More specifically, age, race, body size matter. Young women and girls, sex workers, women of colour, aboriginal women, women living with disabilities, women that are too thin or too big experience extremely high levels of sexual violence, which includes street harassment. Trans people who do not appear to be completely male or completely female, or are known to be trans, or are gender ambiguous, also experience extremely high levels of sexual violence.
Jen: What is it about people getting together to share stories—even electronically—that you believe may be so powerful?
Jess: I love story-sharing! Hollaback! has a button that people can click to say “I’ve got your back”. So when someone submits a story, the Facebook likes and twitter re-tweets and clicks of the I’ve got your back button on the website, means people can hear that other people agree. Comments like “yeah that’s so shitty”, or “yeah fuck them”, or “wow that’s scary” or “hahaha, that’s a good response”, are helpful for people to validate their experiences, because we don’t usually get that from our communities. Story-sharing can also help people come up with creative responses to respond to street harassment.
Jen: What do you think are other important ways to tackle the pervasive and persistent problem of street harassment?
Jess: So legislation doesn’t always work. But educating people that they have a right to intervene when they see someone street harassing someone else, whether or not that takes the form of just standing beside the person, or whether that means verbally calling street harassers out for their illogical and disrespectful behaviour is really effective. Sometimes, taking pictures of harassment while happening can provide proof, for example, in cases of public masturbation, to be taken to the police and have someone arrested for indecent and appalling behaviour. Stalking can be documented on the app and on people’s phones and can be used to show a pattern to the police. Sometimes, responding in really creative ways stops the harassment. If someone says, “hey sexy chick, where you at”, and you respond “oh shit, you can see me?” and jump into a bush, you take back the power. If someone says, “hey baby nice tits” and you say, “who’s baby? That’s not my name”, it can make them take a step back cause they look stupid. If someone stares and gawks at you, and you give them the finger, they may be embarrassed by a group of people. Ignoring people can help too – if people don’t get a response, sometimes they stop the comments.
Jen: Like me, you are probably tired of being repeatedly told or encouraged to believe that you are the one responsible to keep yourself safe. What strategies do you think might be effective to shift the responsibility back onto the ones who are perpetrating the harassment?
Jess: Just raising awareness that people need to be asking for consent – anywhere from saying “hey can I give you a compliment?” to “would you like to x, y, z, sex acts tonight?” Telling people experiencing street harassment that it’s not about something they did – it’s about a choice someone else made. Telling people they have a right to respond in whatever way they feel like they can and should when experiencing street harassment means validating that people aren’t at fault.
Jen: What would you say to someone who told you that you should take street harassment as a form of compliment or who complains that you just can’t “take a joke”?
Jess: So, most of the street harassment I hear, sounds ridiculous. Like my friend standing at the bus stop and someone saying “hey girl, where you at?”, while standing literally 3 feet away. Or someone saying “come get in my car and suck my dick” and thinking that will actually happen right at that moment. That some girl will just hop into a random stranger’s car and perform a blow job at that exact second. So I really do get why people would think it is a joke. These things are absolutely absurd. In all seriousness though, street harassment can be really scary, it can include groups of people harassing a single person alone. It can include people stalking others, or assaulting others – physically and sexually. It can include online harassment via social media or gaming sites. It can include really derogatory graphic descriptions or threats of rape. It’s real. And people have real responses of fear when being street harassed.
Jen: To wrap up, would you like to share a personal story of when you “holla-ed back”?
Jess: So just recently I was, ironically, coming home from an anti-street harassment conference and retreat with global Hollaback! site leaders in NYC. I was flying, looking through some items in the store inside the airport and this guy comes up to me and says “so many options eh”, I say “yeah too many” and walk to another part of the store. He proceeds to continue following me around the store, and then says, “you have such beautiful eyes, what do you do? you could be an actress in Hollywood”. I say, “thank you, now I need to inform you that you commenting on a part of my body despite me trying to ditch you for the last 10 minutes walking around this store and answering with one word answers is totally inappropriate and not okay with me. I also need to let you know that you have no right to comment on any part of my body, and you should probably avoid doing this in the future.” I ensured it was loud enough for the rest of the people around to hear. He puts his head down, mutters “bitch” and walks away. I yell, “you have a wonderful day too, sir” after him. Everyone in the store and surrounding gate claps. Someone comes up to me later and says thank you.
This isn’t my favourite story, I have way too many – scary but the responses are my favourite part and I like them to be funny and as ridiculous as the propositions I get from men. But this is a recent funny example of the reality of public harassment.
Share your story on Hollaback! Hamilton’s website or the iphone/android app.