Hollaback, ladies.

Posted on
Nov 17, 2009

Cat-calling, I’ve found, is somewhat universal. At least, from my experiences it is (whether or not the Amhara of Djibouti experience this phenomenon is unknown to me). It varies a bit across countries, like sit-coms: the Italian ones are cheesy, the Americans are a bit vulgar, the English ones are kinda lame, and the German ones are non-existent.

At home, I kind of don’t have a problem with it. Or, rather, if I have a problem with cat-calling, I know how to deal. Once, while walking through Westlake Center (a mall and courtyard in downtown Seattle), a huge, imposing man (he must have been at least 6’2″ and pushing 300 pounds) leaned in and said, well …

Let’s just say he complimented my reproductive organs.

And I might have freaked out. While I can’t precisely remember what I said (or I can, but don’t want to repeat it), it was something about how he should be fruitful and multiply (with himself), and that I doubted his opinion on female reproductive organs, because he probably hadn’t seen any but his own mother’s.

He was shocked into silence for a good 30 seconds before he started spewing a litany of curses and threats. By then I was a block away, and his words were echoing across the courtyard and garnering him a lot of unwanted attention.

Of course, it was eight in the morning, it was daylight, I was in a populated part of town that I knew well, and a large number of cops and security guards mill around that area because it’s so touristy. So running my mouth off at some jerk-munchie, in this context, is pretty safe. I know what I’m getting into. Ditto for New York (where they seem to expect it).

In Italy, the game changes a bit – I’ve found men will say some pretty raunchy things, and the second you give them a stare, and they realize that you speak Italian, they usually back-peddle, and often apologize (I found the same thing with Spanish-speakers stateside. Once a guy was emphatically trying to convince me he hadn’t said anything wrong, and I told him he knew full well he had – and the whole conversation was in Spanish).

But for some reason, in the U.K, the cat-callers freak me out. It’s probably because it’s just so shocking. Like I’ve said, I usually expect the Brits to be, well, better-behaved than that. I realize it’s just my cultural misconception, but still. Also, I don’t feel as comfortable mouthing off, which is probably a good thing – I generally think that unless you know exactly what you are getting into, you should probably keep quiet.

And take a photo.

I can’t take credit for the idea. Hollaback NYC was launched a few years ago, designed to empower New Yorkers to “holla back” at street harassers. Submitters snap photos of their harassers and post them online. I remember hearing an NPR interview a few years ago with one of the women who started the site. She said she was at a bar watching a friend’s band, and a group of guys came up to her. One started making some really aggressive/harassing comments, and so she pulled out her cell phone and snapped a picture of him. In that second, she described how the power balance shifted, and the guy immediately shut up and walked away.

Since then, Holla Back has spread across the U.S. from Chicago to Charleston, Connecticut to California. And it’s now international – with Holla Back sites for Australia, Toronto, and the U.K.

Which is fantastic, because I have a submission for that last one. Behold:

Hmm ... this photo seems much larger than the images I usually post on my site. Oh, well.

Hmm ... this photo seems much larger than the images I usually post on my site. Oh, well.

This douchebag was standing in the Waterloo subway station, drunk off his gourd, telling his friends in graphic detail what he’d like to do to a woman were he to encounter one.

“Like this little thing, here”, he said as I walked by, leaning way too far in.

Gaaaah! I cannot begin to tell you how infuriating and upsetting that sort of thing is (though I suspect a few of you, especially those who’ve spent a lot of time in big cities, already know) I kept my rage in check for a couple of reasons.

  1. We were in a tube station, and really, you shouldn’t start running your mouth in such a dangerous environment. Tempers flare, and who knows when someone might snap and push you off a platform. I’m only sort of kidding here.
  2. He had a huge group of friends with him, and while they looked kind of mortified that I had heard him, I was still woefully outnumbered.
  3. My husband was with me. If I said anything, I felt like I’d be dragging him into it. And he is clearly a lover, dear friends, and not a fighter.
  4. I had no cultural cues of how to evaluate the guy. Was he sorta drunk, or totally wasted? An asshole? A frat boy? Potentially violent? I honestly couldn’t tell.

Instead, I grabbed my camera. I did so just as the train arrived, and took a quick photo before hopping onto separate car. In those moments, a few of his friends looked alarmed. It was entirely empowering. And kind of nerve-wracking.

Of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have a quick escape route, and if I wasn’t in a crowded station full of lots of people. As always, be careful. But if you feel like you’re in a safe place? Snap away, and holla back.

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