I wrote a post for Ta-Nehisi earlier this week that got a lot of discussion and was even picked up by Andrew Sullivan. I’m excited about it not just because my name was all over the innanets for a day, but because it drew attention to something that people don’t talk about widely enough: street harassment. I highlighted Holla Back DC, a blog I’ve been reading a lot lately:

Taken objectively, [Holla Back DC is] an amazing collection of often very short accounts of street harassment, written by harassees who are mainly women. They can be as simple as a few sentences describing a man saying things like, “Damn, baby. I thought you were coming to see me. Mmm, mmm.” They are sometimes longer tales of harassers saying they want to rape the harassee. And there are stories of men groping and assaulting women.

But HBDC is more than just a place to tell stories. Each post includes the location and the time of the incident. (They also have a pretty interesting anti-racism policy that says contributors should leave out race as a factor unless it’s a constructive contribution to the story.) And the blog has increased awareness of perps, like one post where a woman took a photograph of the man who took an upskirt photograph of her the day before. Eventually he was taken into custody by the Arlington police.

One thing that nearly all of the posts have in common is an acknowledgement of the effects that street harassment have on women. Most write that they felt shaken, angry, helpless, or tearful after an incident. They write that it took time for them to pull themselves together. That’s the thing I think many men don’t understand about the harassment: it completely strips a woman of autonomy and it forces a reaction that lasts long after the incident is over. Many times, harassers are seeking a positive reaction, and when they don’t get that, they turn to calling the woman they complimented moments earlier a “bitch.” And either way, the woman has been forcibly dragged out of her own thoughts. That’s why so many women studiously ignore all strangers on the street, I think. It’s a form of insulation from getting shook.

To add a bit more, it amazes me that so many men are oblivious to the kind of thing that happens to most city-dwelling women several times a day. And one thing a few people highlighted in the comments is that women will frequently alter routes to avoid it. I’ve done that, and just accepted it as the price I had to pay. But I don’t accept that any more.

Image by Michelle Brea // Flickr // CC

Latest posts by Shani (see all)

  • Thank you for writing about us. We hope you heard us on the Kojo Nnamdi show yesterday, not necessarily to listen to HBDC!, but to listen to the callers: http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2010-06-17/holla-back-dc

    Thank you again for highlighting the HBDC! community, street harassment, and making very strong points.

  • l.

    loved your post, love hollaback, and I am so so pleased that more attention is being paid to street harassment.

    I recently read this article: http://pages.nyu.edu/~stc215/BowmanHLR.pdf via http://newmodelminority.com, and am amazed at how NOT dated it is. the article is nearly 20 years old, but the issue remains unchanged.

  • Yeah, since I read your thing I was remember just how horribly much it bothers me. The constant harassment makes otherwise benign statements annoying.

  • zac

    I started to pose this question in the comments at the original post, but unfortunately I was late to the party and I think my post went pretty much ignored. I want to bring it up again though.

    I posed that it is necessary that we define what constitutes “harassment”, as opposed to just flirtation, especially because that behavior that is deemed threatening is often influenced by racial bias. I raise this based on personal experience, not these posts, which usually leave race out (due in large part to HollaBack’s anti-racist policy). There have been plenty of times when my friends will have a very strong reaction to catcalling, describe the men as “creepy” or “gross”, and I don’t really care.

    Here’s another example. In the past few months, two of my friends have started relationships with people who have approached them on the subway. Their first encounters pretty much amounted to “hollering”, but they obviously were receptive to their advances, and now are in a relationship. It’s safe to assume that this was because these people displayed markers that put them in a similar social group–one was reading a book, they dressed a certain way, yes, in both cases, the people approaching them were of the same race. It’s disheartening to think, but they probably would have dismissed these people if they didn’t carry these markers; if they were different in some way. Further, would they have categorized this behavior as threatening?

    Some behavior is clearly wrong. But I read some of these posts, and I honestly don’t see a problem. I can be a little naive, but I often respond to people who talk to me on the street, at least to be polite, and oftentimes when I say in a friendly way that I’m not interested, they leave me alone. I think I’m getting into some legal stuff that I can’t pretend to understand, but taken to its logical end, harassment is in the eye of the harassee.
    I think there should be a line where, after which, you can call the cops and these people will be arrested, no questions asked, and it probably shouldn’t have to get as far as when someone touches you. But I think it’s necessary to discuss this line, given the racial implications that often effect where it’s drawn.

    • shani-o

      But I read some of these posts, and I honestly don’t see a problem.

      The problem is that the line is not clear. And different people react in different ways. Some people may be fine with a strange man speaking to them, and may brush him off and not give it another thought. My general policy is that if someone says “hello” or “hey sis” or what have you, I say “hello” and keep it moving. But for a woman who had a really bad street harassment incident that started that way and escalated, just hearing a strange man say “hello” can be really troubling for her.

      I don’t think any of us can say what is or isn’t a problem for another person. So the best policy is to encourage strange men to keep comments to themselves as much as they can. I don’t see anything outright wrong with a man approaching me to express interest or attraction, but I do personally get bothered by men who comment loudly on my body as though I’m an object, not a person. For me, that’s the line. But it may not be the line for other women.

    • The “line” is easy, if one has basic manners.

      1. Don’t make personal remarks.

      2. Don’t address strangers unless and until you have both made it clear that you are willing to engage in small talk–eye contact and a smile is the bare minimum. If the other person immediately averts his or her gaze, then they don’t want to chat.

      3. If you do talk to strangers, it should be small talk of the sort that isn’t specific to anything personal. If you wouldn’t say it to a man, don’t say it to a woman. If you wouldn’t say it to an off-duty cop, don’t say it. If you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, don’t say it. Books, the weather, the lateness of the bus, etc. are okay. Again, personal remarks aren’t.

      4. If at any point, the other person gives signs of wanting to end the conversation (vague responses, moving away, averting his/her gaze), stfu, avert your gaze, and move away if you can.

      • shani-o

        I meant to say, this is good advice, B.

      • Ms_Divatude

        B-Phd: Well-stated . . . and I agree, the ‘line’ is indeed clear.

  • Kavita

    Since reading your posts and looking at Holla Back’s site, I am amazed, and dismayed, to realize how much I alter my behavior to avoid street harrassment. I’m sure most men who do it don’t realize it, because I never consciously thought about it much before, but it really is an effective way of limiting women’s access to public space.

  • Val

    Nice post, shani-o. And thanks for writing it.

    I think society promotes a just boys being boys sort of lightness to street harassment. I mean we see it portrayed in the media constantly as harmless. I’m glad this is getting attention. Maybe things will change a bit. Unfortunately though I have an idea that most street harassers don’t spend too much time reading stuff like this.


    I have been altering my behavior because of street harassment since I was about 12 years-old. I think most women do.

  • thewayoftheid

    Followed the convo over on TNC’s blog and it was great. Thank you for writing this.

    @Kavita & Val

    I, too, have been altering my behavior since my pre-teen years. Haven’t left the crib without headphones since 1987.

    • Kavita

      I think what surprised me was that on the surface, comments on the street never bothered me that much. I get a lot of “Hey sis, how are you” type of remarks, and I just reply “Hi, I’m fine” and go on about my business. I kind of wondered why some women make such a big deal about it. But then, digging deeper, I realized that while those types of remarks are fine, in the daytime, said to my face, those same remarks at night, or said to my behind, not my face, aggravate me. And more lewd remarks make me feel threatened. So I just avoid walking by myself at night, period. I get less of the remarks that bother me–but at the expense of my personal freedom. And that is just not ok.

  • sasha

    This is an definitely an issue, and I do think their is a racial element, though I don’t know what the implications are based on that. Maybe some people here have more insight.

    Any woman who has been to a predominantly black club vs a predominantly white one can tell you there is a difference in the way you get approached by men.

    And I don’t think this is an issue of people just saying hello. That I think most women are ok with. It is the far more aggressive methods – grabbing a hand – making very graphic comments back body type of sexuality. It’s a problem.

    If you have ever been around Atlanta during freaknik (or even just read about it) you know what can happen when this goes unchecked and gets out of control.

    Why do some men think it is ok to be so aggressive with women? And again, this isn’t about a man trying to pick you up on the subway while coming at you in a respectful manner.

    (BTW – there is some some bias here – better looking woman have totally different realities. Two of my girlfriends were talking about this – one is very good looking and dresses to show off her curves, the other is very overweight and couldn’t relate at all to being approached like this on the street).

    • thewayoftheid

      I see where you’re going with this. Don’t think I like the destination, though. There may be a racial element to it, but if you’re implying what I think you are [that this is more of an issue with Black men], I’d have to disagree. Violently disagree. I’ve been approached incorrectly by ALL colors of the rainbow. Trust that no one group has the market cornered on douchebaggery.

      Also, I’m not sure about the “pretty privilege” thing you’re hinting at, either, as I know women of size who have dealt with their fair share of unwanted advances as well.

      • shani-o

        You’re right. Also, “dressing to show curves” is immaterial. I’ve been verbally accosted by men while wearing baggy sweats and a t-shirt. It doesn’t matter.

        • Not only is that immaterial it is one of the classic excuse for the harrasing behavior in the first place (and many rapes for that matter)and it allows a male dominant society to blame the woman for their own harrassment.

      • zac

        I’m really sorry to harp on this again, but seriously, I’ve been shocked by how devoid this conversation has been of race. Shani, props for bringing it to peoples’ attention, but I think the conversation has so far ended there. Sasha’s perspective is flawed, but I don’t think it deserves to be shut down. We hear shit like this all the time, why can’t we tease it out? Race is a huge part of this conversation. Look at the topic of this post. Holla. Tell me that isn’t coded. Come on.

        • shani-o

          No. Because it’s not about race.

          That the majority of people discussing it in this thread right now are presumably black doesn’t mean it only happens to black women or that black men are the only perpetrators. And saying that “holla” is coded is like saying the Black Eyed Peas are coded. It may have started out a “black” phrase but it’s totally mainstream at this point.

        • sasha

          Is it fair to raise this as a socio-economic issue as well? I mean, we all know there are plenty of male-pigs who may still work on wall street, but you are also far more likely to get cat calls working down the street in some neighborhoods then you are in others. Lets not deny the obvious

          • shani-o

            Read the blog, which provides locations for the incidents. It happens all over DC, not just in economically depressed areas. It happens in Georgetown, and downtown, and by the White House.

            • sasha

              True, but is there a socio-economic consistency amongst the cat callers? We’ve all seen the cliche on TV – woman walks past a bunch of construction workers (of all races) – cat calls ensure. Does the same happen when one, for example, walks past a law firm or hospital?

              • thewayoftheid

                “Does the same happen when one, for example, walks past a law firm or hospital?”

                Yes. Don’t forget the Financial District, too.

            • zac

              Ok, let’s go down the blog.

              “Hey, Baby Girl.”
              “I like them boots”
              “SNOW WHITE”
              “I can hook you up. I can hook that shit up.”

              Does this suggest a certain race to you? Of course I’m reading something into it, but…tell me that you aren’t. This will require you to turn off your PC meter, and for that I apologize.

              I’m not arguing that this kind of behavior isn’t perpetrated by all people, and experienced by all type of people (the absolute worst reports I’ve heard of have come from a gay male friend of mine). What I’m conjecturing is that people are reporting it, and reporting it as negative, based on the race of the harassers.

              • shani-o

                DC is still a majority black city, so it stands to reason that most street harassers there will be black. This is not the case in all cities (check out HBNYC, HB Toronto, HB London, etc). And even if it were, your conjecture isn’t particularly useful because it seems to assume that women of color aren’t reporting.

                At any rate, HollaBack has an anti-racism policy that I’m choosing to adopt for this discussion. If you want to make conjectures (which by definition are not provable) about race and street harassment, do it elsewhere.

                • zac

                  All I’m trying to do is fill in a weird silence that’s been set up by HollaBack’s founders–to not report the race of the harassers–but that comes clearly through in the language of people’s reports. I guess I think that, instead of barring it from the debate, it should be part of the discussion. But, no, I guess that that might lead to questioning the victim in this case, which–OH MY GOSH COULD NEVER HAPPEN. I can understand the pain that comes from some stranger making fun of your goofy ass cowboy boots. In that case, yes, having someone possibly call you a racist down in the comments is just too much to bear.

                  As for my conjecture not being useful, you’re right, what is the use of discussing racial insensitivity just for the sake of analysis? Maybe I should start a blog, so that I can air all my unuseful racial stuff on the internet, that way it’s out of the way of important people who do real, useful things.

                  • April

                    Yeah, because only black men say “Baby Girl” or use the term “Snow White.” I agree that there is often a racial element in harassment against women of color, but I don’t like the insinuation that we can “guess” the race based on the description of the events given by posters on Holla Back.

                    I agree wholeheartedly with the HBDC policy–that race should be mentioned only if its relevance is clearly explained. (Note: that’s a lot different than saying race is not to be mentioned EVER.) Mentioning race shouldn’t be used merely as a means to suggest that somehow black men are prone to this behavior than other men. That’s the issue I had with the comments at Racialicious. They tended to feed into that suggestion, and I do think the end result is exactly what HBDC condemns: replacing sexism with racism. Heck, there was even a Racialicious commentator who said she was scared of black and Latino men. I’m all for safe spaces for women, but not for disparaging whole groups of people…especially not on a site that purports to be anti-racist. I mean, seriously?

                  • Scipio Africanus

                    Here’s a good, old post from Feministe about exactly what you’re bringing up here.


                    • shani-o

                      Good link.

                • zac

                  Ok, I’ve taken three breaths and cooled off. Sorry for the flippancy, but, well, that’s just how I do it. I bite back.

                  All I”m saying is that this anti-racism policy isn’t really that at all. It forces race out of the discussion, but race is still there, obviously–you admitted as much–you’re just not allowed to talk about it.

                  It reminds me of the incident at Newsweek where women sued the magazine for sexual discrimination, and then prohibited any discussion of race on their blog about the case. Racialicious did a great job dissecting:


                  Anyway, I think you’re pretty much perpetuating the same shit here, trying to keep race separate from a sexist issue, when in reality–on the street–these situations couldn’t be more loaded with issues of race (and class, as Sasha noted). That it was done on THIS BLOG and on TNC’s blog was surprising and disappointing to me, and at first I couldn’t articulate it, but you brought it out of me. Didn’t think I’d say this, but thank you.

              • I don’t post on HollaBack NYC or HollaBack DC. But I am Black and I am constantly ducking and dodging what I feel are uncomfortable situations caused by hollas on the street.
                I don’t think it’s fair to say these women are only posting this as harassment because of the race issue. Most women who deal with this on a daily basis, with no racial bias at all, just don’t post about it on blogs.

                • zac

                  Agreed, I’m thinking cowboy boots in particular.

            • R.A.B.

              Yeah, I really think this reply, along with “DC is still a majority black city, so it stands to reason that most street harassers there will be black”, misses the point. Does Georgetown have catcallers? Yes. I used to live there and I’ll attest to that. The phenomenon is geographically diverse, but it’s not like strata of people that I think we’re talking about here is so diverse. (And it’s not like there are no poor/black people/catcallers in Georgetown or by the Chinatown metro.) I’ve never really noticed the preppy law firm boys shouting and whistling in the way that I think we’re talking about here.

              I think that this, first of all, has to do with how societies tolerate/foster male behavior that makes women feel uncomfortable in public spaces. But after that, I think the spectrum of reactions has a lot to do with race. That isn’t to “blame” women for anything generally, it’s simply to point out that some women are particularly more likely to cry foul if they think the dude is gross/other.

              • shani-o

                The spectrum of reactions has to do with race, sure. But so does the spectrum of harassment. No one is denying that racism intersects with sexism. But there are too many variables here to make it worthwhile speculating on the motivations of the women reporting. And I see that going wrong too easily. The reason that policy at HBDC exists is because it’s entirely likely that without it, some women may make racist remarks about the men who harassed them. I acknowledge that.

                But what else is there to say? White women ‘other’ black men and tolerate harassment from white men better? Black women tolerate harassement from black men better than white women do? All women dislike being harassed by men they don’t find attractive or socioeconomically viable? I see too much potential for this to become a trainwreck and turn into victim-blaming.

                • zac

                  White women ‘other’ black men and tolerate harassment from white men better? Black women tolerate harassement from black men better than white women do? All women dislike being harassed by men they don’t find attractive or socioeconomically viable?

                  Yes. And women’s reports are distorted by these reactions. And these reactions are more likely to perpetuate when we’re prohibited from calling them out and discussing them. Ok, yes, victim-blaming is a legitimate fear, but deal with it when it comes up. The race stuff is there, glaring, so let us talk about it.

                  • zac

                    Ugh, god. I do not get html. Second para is mine, first is quoted from Shani.

                • R.A.B.

                  My only gripe here is that, rhetorically, you can dead the point of any given argument by flying that flag. “what’s the point of calling out men for street harassment. To say that street harassment is bad? To tell them to stop it?” The conversation, problematic or not, is the point.

                  But I also think Shani is right, and maybe this is one of those lines of convo where we’ll all just end up resenting each other.

    • No. just…no.

  • Scipio Africanus

    I’ve known about this for a while. I think alot of these guys won’t do it in the presence of another man, for the most part, because I only occasionally see it happen (and I’m super observant when I’m out in the street – I peep alot of what is going on.)

    But just about all the women I know talk about it happening, so I know it does happen.

    As a result I don’t say a mumbling word to any woman in the street unless she’s blatantly eyeballing me or perhaps we were both witness to something that just happened right in front of us and it occasions the type of chit-chat that sometimes happens between strangers out in the street, e.g. “OMG, did you just see that king cobra snake inhale that gerbil in the cross-walk?” or “Oh schnapp, get a load of that accordionist busker playing Billie Jean while simultaneously mookwalking – that’d rad.”

    Otherwise? I mind my business and k.i.m. You’re not going to hear a word out of me, and I’m gonna try to do my best imitation of a peasant crossing paths with the Emperor in China’s Forbidden City – it’s better for everyone if we as men just look away (though I too frequently do violate this one and sneak peeks – some of y’all look good.)

  • Great post! Glad you cross posted, I was traveling when it hit TNCs.

    Where I grew up (Washington Heights) the “psss psss ven aqui mami” was almost always followed up with “stuck up bitch” if the passing lady didn’t fall all over herself to thank the spit flying stranger for his advances. I lived it with my single mother, younger sister and my wife and it infuriated me every single time someone dare pull that in my presence. Unfortunately I was really pissed that they would disrespect me; by doing it when I was there. I didn’t really care that they did it because I did it too; I was trained to do it. And it works a lot of the time because women feel obligated, they feel insecure making them more malleable to manipulation, and they feel less than their full worth because someone was able to degrade them in this way.

    In my childhood culture boy children needed to be sexual conquerors and girl children were expected to be the 2nd coming of the Virgin Mary (I still haven’t figured out who the boys were supposed to be sexin if all the girls were virgins but…) If active, the boys were studs and the girls were sluts. That was my culture, it still is. If a woman goes Uptown this very day and looks like she is breathing she is going to get 3 pss pss before she hits the corner.

    And then I had my first children. My first two are twins, one boy and one girl. I had to come to grips with my own cultural upbringing really fast. My first question was, O.K. how do I raise a stud and a nun in the same home without being a fucking hypocrite? The easy answer I found is that I don’t. The mold can be broken instead we work to empower all three of our children, but especially my daughter, to live her life as an equal to her brothers and other men in every single way we can imagine, one day to include the ability to control her own sex and personal life without incrimination. We work hard to teach our sons that women are not objects and a penis doesn’t entitle them to jack over what being responsible, outstanding and respectful human beings might afford them. It’s a never ending struggle though because my wife and I are two people against the fact that this behavior is common and acceptable.

    • Scipio Africanus

      “I still haven’t figured out who the boys were supposed to be sexin if all the girls were virgins but…) ”

      The way this thinking works is that the girls in *your house* are supposed to be virgins and the boys in *your house* are supposed to be sexin’.

      And the flipside of this same coin is worth mentioning because it’s totally relevant – the boys in *your house* better not have problems getting sex (bad news for dorks, nerds, and awkward teenage boys all) and the girls in *your house* better not be sluts. This back-side of the coin is probably more severe in its social penalty that the front-side of the coin is severe in its social “reward”.

      This thinking, where the expectations of conduct within any given household are counter to the expectations of conduct of everyone outside of the home is very internecine, as evidenced by what we’re talking about here. It’s all so imperialist, if you think about it.

      • Scipio Africanus

        I want to amend my last sentence and replace “imperialist” with “Family-ist”. Like Nationalsm pared down to just a single family.

      • “The way this thinking works is that the girls in *your house* are supposed to be virgins and the boys in *your house* are supposed to be sexin’.”

        Yes, so in their mind its *their* daugther who will be the only woman in the world who never has sex.

  • aisha

    I used to have a series “how not to holla” on my now defunct blog. Street harassment is a live and well.

  • Bosandi

    bitchphd’s advice is golden.

    I used to think that it was just the price I had to pay until this harassment found its way to my workplace. I work in a large conservative hospital. Well, there was a group of young men (much younger than me)that week in the hospital (I guess visiting someone). I received cat calls and hisses everytime I passed them – and this occurred in different parts of the hospital. I felt so disrespected, dirty, angry, and powerless.I ignored them but I really wanted to confront them and their vile behavior. I expect this behavior on the street which is why I was so upset b/c I was taken off guard. How do you report something like this? “Officer he made a noise when I walked by.”

    I am in no way equating this with rape, but there is a certain stripping of one’s dignity with this happens.

    This also happened to me in the grocery store by a much older man except instead of hissing he addressed me by one of my body parts.

    I’m just venting!

  • haiba

    A friend asked me a while ago how many men try to holla at me on a daily basis, and I couldn’t come up with a legit number for him, because I don’t count. He took this to mean arrogance – my numbers are so high I don’t even bother to keep track. What I meant is in the grand scheme of things, most of these guys who try to talk to me are so irrelevant, they don’t even register. I do tend to remember the extremes – the good, the bad, and the downright disgusting (and there is a slippery slope between the latter two categories). I find that most of the men I know have a limited understanding of street harassment because it is just not something they experience (at least not on a regular basis).

    My standard response to unwanted male attention is ‘No thank you’. I don’t care if you’re asking me for the time – no thank you means I don’t want conversation. I adopted this stance because when I snapped back, dudes would often lash back with explicit insults, and if I was polite, some would take it as an invitation to continue the conversation. To dismiss one woman’s reaction to an approach just because it wouldn’t bother YOU belittles her experience, and suggests that her reaction isn’t legitimate — to me, that’s bollocks. I, for example, have issues with people I don’t know getting too close to me (outside of the requisite situation, like crowded public transit) or God forbid, touching me, and I react more viscerally than some – and often feel harassed – when dudes I don’t know get too close for comfort.

    That being said, my female friends and I encounter some form of street harassment on a regular basis, and even if there appears to be a difference in terms of the approach racially (and sometimes, there is not), to bring race into this (particular) argument takes away from the central point.

    Thanks for this, Shani.