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Fighting back against sexual harassment on the street

Find out how two organizations are combating catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment in New York.

Photograph: Elizabeth Rappaport/Ms. Foundation for Women

If there’s one thing that cops and activists can both agree on, it’s that the amount of street-based sexual harassment in New York is on the rise, big time. Though no formal number of reported incidents in the city exists at this point, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has named “non-contact sexual experiences”—such as street harassment—as the number-one form of sexual violence against both young men and women in America. And though street harassment is an unfortunate given of life in large, densely populated urban areas, several groups in the city are trying to treat the cause of the disease as well as the symptoms.

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Why is street harassment so prevalent in New York? Emily May, the executive director of the activist group Hollaback (ihollaback.org), theorizes that density is one factor. “If 1 out of 100 people who pass you on the street will harass you, it takes a lot longer for that to happen in a Walmart parking lot than it does in Times Square,” she explains. Hollaback’s website and phone app help victims fight back by posting pictures of their harassers and relating their experiences. The project launched in 2005, inspired by a New York City woman who uploaded a photo of a man who masturbated in front of her on the subway to the image-sharing website Flickr. Although police were initially unresponsive to her claims, the image wound up on the cover of the Daily News and started a public conversation about the issue. Hollaback’s network has expanded to 54 cities in 19 countries, and is in the process of partnering with New York’s city council to make it easier for authorities to access information from the group’s iPhone and Android apps (which will be updated by next spring). “In addition to providing legitimacy to the issue, the revised apps will provide immediate resources and referrals to victims of street harassment,” says May.

Another group working with victims of street harassment is RightRides (rightrides.org), a free late-night car service for women, LGBTQGNC individuals and anyone who feels unsafe on his or her way home.

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The organization was founded in 2004 after a series of attacks on women in North Brooklyn and became a 501c3 nonprofit in 2006. Since then, RightRides has been able to expand their services to additional neighborhoods (they cover every borough except Staten Island) thanks to help from Zipcar and other donors. In addition to providing a free volunteer-operated taxi service on Friday and Saturday nights (between midnight and 3am), the organization is part of the New Yorkers for Safe Transit Coalition which holds community forums about street harassment, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods. “People stereotype [street harassment] as a women’s issue, but it’s not only that,” says codirector Jan Bindas-Tenney. She notes that people of color, LGBTQGNC individuals and immigrants have come forward with stories of victimization. “In Jackson Heights, our forum was mostly attended by trans women of color, and their experiences are appalling,” she explains. “Street harassment cuts across social class. It affects everyone in New York City.”

Both May and Bindas-Tenney think it’s just as important to educate bystanders as it is the victims themselves, since support from the people around you is one of the best ways to combat street harassment. May gave a couple of examples of how to intervene when you see street harassment happening: If you’re not comfortable confronting the harasser, you can create a distraction in order to defuse the situation. You can also approach the victim and offer to walk home with them or take them somewhere, like a police station, where they can report the incident. There’s also the public shame approach: If multiple people publicly support the victim, it will intimidate the harasser and make sure they don’t get away with their behavior. This works after the fact, too—which is why Hollaback gives people the option to post pictures of harassers.

Ultimately, though, the best long-term ways to eliminate the problem in New York are prevention and education. Hollaback has created How-To guides which help people organize education and advocacy events in their own communities. RightRides is partnering with groups like the Audre Lorde Foundation and the Transport Workers Union to make the streets and subway tunnels of New York safer for all the city’s citizens. “Street harassment is a symptom of a society where things like sexism, homophobia and racism are far too commonplace,” says May. “By tackling street harassment, we’re tackling head-on the hate that inspires it.”

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