Blog gives women power over harassment

A blog encouraging women to use their mobile-phone cameras to take photos of wolf whistlers and then post those photos online

Most women have probably experienced the following scenario at one time or another: You're walking down the street minding your own business. Perhaps the weather is nice, and you're in a good mood because you're wearing a fun new outfit. Suddenly, your reverie is interrupted by a whistle and a "Hey, baby, lookin' gooood!" from a male stranger who, unbeknownst to you, has been admiring your female form from afar.

Most women will ignore the comments or merely grumble under their breath, knowing that even if they want to retaliate there is nothing they can really do, and it won't prevent the same experience from happening again because usually the men are not committing an actual crime.

Some women have more drastic reactions, but find that law-enforcement officials still are not sympathetic to their plight. A female tourist in New Zealand was so frustrated by the wolf whistles she received from a group of men repairing a road in a small town that she stripped off her clothes in an attempt to shut them up. The woman was apprehended by police and told her actions were "inappropriate in New Zealand," according to a Reuters report about the incident.

Fed up with this kind of unsolicited male attention, and the fact that there is little done by law enforcement to stop so-called "street harassment," Brooklyn, New York, resident Emily May and six friends -- three women and three men -- decided several years ago to use the Web to help women fight back.

In September 2005, they created HollaBack New York City, a blog encouraging women to use their mobile-phone cameras to take photos of wolf whistlers and then post those photos, as well as written accounts, of harassing incidents online.

The site caught on, and women from all over the country and even overseas began posting photos and stories of street harassment, either personal accounts or incidents they witnessed.

"He still couldn't take his eyes off a woman's rear even as my phone was in his face," wrote one woman who identified herself as Susan in a post dated October 16, 2006. "He and his friend eyed her and he said, 'Have a nice day, gorgeous.' But in the way that makes you feel anything but nice."

New York, a city full of pedestrians with a vibrant street culture, is especially infamous for the catcalls and salacious comments men on the street aim at its millions of women. However, not all of those comments -- depending on their nature and how a woman perceives them -- are necessarily considered harassment, May said.

"Some women like those compliments," she said.

Many don't, so the idea of HollaBackNYC is to give women the power to identify when they feel they've been unjustly harassed and make men answer for it, May said.

In these cases, victims of street harassment experience similar personal trauma to victims of more obvious and prosecutable crimes such as sexual harassment in the workplace, domestic violence, sexual assault and even rape, even if the crime itself is not as severe, she said.

Case in point: The other day I was walking in the Bronx on my way to the New York Botanical Gardens. For some reason, I received more attention than normal from some of the men in the neighborhood. When I finally made it to my destination, I wondered if perhaps it wasn't the best decision to wear a figure-hugging dress on my eight-block walk from the subway, though the day was warm and sunny and my skirt fell to midcalf.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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