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'Damn, Baby': Some Thoughts on Holla Back


I'm moving to D.C. in a week and a half (still don't have a place to live, but that's another post) for a new job as associate editor of Although I went to Howard, I've been living in sleepy central New Jersey for the last 4 years or so. To prepare myself for life back in the city, I've been checking out a few DC blogs, including the rage-inducing Holla Back DC.

Actually, HBDC isn't only rage-inducing. Taken objectively, it's also 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.

Holla Back started with a New York-based blog that puts an emphasis on taking pictures of harassers. Amanda Hess at The Sexist compares HBDC to HBNYC and writes:

But when local activists Shannon Lynberg and Chai Shenoy mounted a D.C. branch of the Hollaback movement last March, they found that local harassees were a bit more reluctant to whip out the camera phone. On Holla Back DC!, locals regularly write lengthy retorts to the strangers who harass them on the street, but don't usually accompany the prose with a visual.

Why are District holla-backers more shutter-shy? Perhaps it's as simple as a branding issue. Holla Back New York City's main page features a line of New Yorkers holding their open cell phones menacingly toward the camera. Holla Back DC!'s more textual approach doesn't aggressively encourage the harassed to snap a pic in the moment, but it does provide the multimedia option on its submission form page. In lieu of user-submitted photos, Lynberg and Shenoy often accompany anonymous posts with stock images from Flickr.

But the local reluctance to broadcast visual evidence of incidents that often aren't quite crimes also illuminates a rift in activism styles between D.C. and New York. "D.C. is a much smaller place," Lynberg hypothesizes. "Someone knows someone who will know someone that knows the perpetrator in the picture. And that breeds fear. . . . people are more afraid of litigation here." According to May, to-shoot-or-not-to-shoot is a highly personal consideration, regardless of locale: "We know that in a lot of situations, people aren't comfortable taking a picture of the harasser," May says. "It's not appropriate for every situation, and it's up to the individual to decide if it's appropriate or not."

I'm not sure how comfortable I'd feel taking a picture of a harasser. I suppose it depends on the situation. But since a Hollaback app is coming soon, it'll be a lot quicker and easier to do. And as hard as it is to read HBDC at times, I'm deeply grateful the blog exists. Street harassment is one of those topics that needs to be talked about more and more, since women (and a few men) mostly experience it while they're on their own. Gathering the stories in one place is empowering (and I rarely use that word, so know that I mean it). And for the record, HBDC isn't all negative. It's also a place to share stories of strangers who did the right thing.