Web Site Takes Swipe at Creepy Catcallers

Women (and men) who are fed up with catcalls on the street have a new weapon in New York City. The harassed are fighting back by taking a picture of the catcaller and posting it on a Web site called Hollaback. Hollaback sites have spread to about a dozen U.S. cities, a few states, and Canada.

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Imagine you're a young woman walking down the street, and a man calls out rude comments about your body or even exposes himself. It happens all the time. But some women and a few men have decided they're not going to put up with it anymore. They're using their cell phone cameras and sending pictures of their harassers to the Web. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: When Emily May was a student at NYU, she and her friends would often talk about street harassment. But she says a little over a year ago, when a woman took a picture of a man masturbating on the subway and it ended up on the front page of the New York Daily News, that was life-changing.

EMILY MAY: It was this huge media phenomenon, and we thought, hey, like there's something interesting there. And so we just sort of conceived of the idea to post pictures of all kinds of street harassment and post the pictures up on the Internet.

ADLER: When you go the HollaBackNYC Web site, which says its purpose is to empower women to hollaback at street harassers, it's filled with stories and pictures. The harassers aren't named. Some photos just show a bunch of guys standing around. But a few snapshots are fairly graphic. You might ask how often do young women in New York City get harassed. If you talk to these women, they say over and over again.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: Today I counted five times already.

ADLER: Five times...

TAYLOR: Of course.

ADLER: ...today?

TAYLOR: Of course.

ADLER: Elizabeth Taylor is 25. A graduate of New York University in theater, she's now working as a plus size model. She remembers coming to New York City, her excitement as she walked around Rockefeller Center, until a man in a business suit walked up to her and made a sexual comment that can't be said on the radio.

TAYLOR: I couldn't believe it. I was devastated. I went right across the street to the Gap and I bought a sweatshirt and I covered myself up.

ADLER: Emily May says women who get harassed on the street often blame themselves.

MAY: Well, I was wearing the wrong thing. I was in the wrong part of town. If it just happened once, you might blow it off. But when it happens on a day to day basis you start making decisions about what you're going to do with your day based on this fear of being street harassed. And one of the main reasons that we started this site is because we don't think street harassment is okay.

ADLER: And these women say New York City is worse than a lot of places because people aren't in cars, they're right close up. Again, Elizabeth Taylor.

TAYLOR: I mean yesterday on the subway, on the 2 train, you have someone's crotch in your face. Your butt is here and you're pushing into someone and so when...

ADLER: So you're closer to people, basically.

TAYLOR: Oh my God. So I feel the sheer on-top-of-each-otherness. The opportunity is to just pop in, make a comment, keep walking. And you know, that man, it cost nothing to him. But I remembered when that guy told me - that was like seven years ago. It's never left my mind.

ADLER: Anica Boris(ph) works in a bar at night. She spent five years in England and says harassment there exists but its not as blatant. She says street harassment in New York City went down abruptly after 9/11, but now it's back in force.

ANICA BORIS: I feel like I'm walking on the set of a porno scene or something. It's just New York City.

ADLER: She says when she finally snapped a picture, it wasn't as bad as some situations she's been in. A musician somewhat drunk said he wanted to sleep with her. And when she said no, he grabbed her arm. His friends laughed at her. When she took the picture, she says, everything changed.

BORIS: His face was stoic. Everybody stopped laughing. Everyone was still. I was so thrilled that I had just, like, made them feel more uncomfortable than I felt.

ADLER: Have you gotten complaints from some of the men whose pictures have been taken?

SAM CARTER: Not even once.

ADLER: Sam Carter is another founder of Hollaback NYC, and he says as a man he used to think street harassment was not a big deal, but now he sees it as an issue of public space and living in a community. He says a number of men wrote angry letters when they saw press reports on TV about the Hollaback site, saying, come on, these are just lonely men who want to meet people.

CARTER: But it's not about that; it's about power. It's fundamentally about power. And if you have a man on the street calling out to every woman that walks by, he's not trying to find a date. And nine times out of ten he's married.

ADLER: Elizabeth Taylor describes the day she snapped a picture. She was walking down the street...

TAYLOR: Suddenly I hear, oh you so gorgeous, you so beautiful, oh look at your body. I mean it takes you out of what you're thinking about, you know, and it reminds you that women are never safe on the street. You're up for display all the time. So I was like, you know what, today is the day. And I took out my cell phone and I took a picture of him.

ADLER: Were you scared to take the picture or...

TAYLOR: I was, of course. For one brief second I imagined myself being attacked. But it was noon, in the middle of day, millions of people around.

ADLER: And how do you feel about it when you see the picture now on the Web site?

TAYLOR: I feel wonderful. And I can only - I mean we should have cards we can pass out like, please look for yourself on the Hollaback NYC Web site in a couple of hours because you deserve it.

ADLER: Emily May says taking a picture of a street harasser takes something very personal and makes it political. When I asked if it isn't a form of vigilantism, May and Carter say this is a group fighting back. It's not an abuse of power by the powerful. There are Hollaback web sites in Texas, Pennsylvania, several major cities like Boston and Seattle and there's even one for Canada. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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