Emily May, founder of Hollaback!, an organization based around targeting and eliminating street harassment, isn’t in the habit of shrinking into the background. Her empowering campaign, which encourages women to speak out against daily verbal mistreatment, has won her several awards and gained her the approval of Gloria Steinem, feminist hero and ageless goddess divine. Recently, May’s company released an app in partnership with the NYU Feminist Society that allows users to document and submit instances of harassment and share their experiences, in the hopes of both alerting fellow pedestrians to potential danger and preventing further instances of verbal abuse in the long run.”The number one piece of advice women get about how to deal with street harassment is to shut up and keep going, and I think that’s the worst possible advice you can give,” May recently told Jezebel. “Strength is being loud about something, even when the world tells you that you should just put up with it.”
NYU Local got the opportunity to speak with May about her own experiences with harassment as an NYU undergrad, her plans for her company, and how technology can be a welcome ally in the fight for LGBTQ and women’s rights.
1. I feel like a vast chink in the armor of the fight against street harassment is that many people still are unsure what constitutes harassment and what constitutes a “compliment.” How do you personally define street harassment?
Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Further, it reinforces the ubiquitous sexual objectification of these groups in everyday life. At Hollaback!, we believe that what specifically counts as street harassment is determined by those who experience it. While there is always the classic, “Hey baby, nice tits!”, there are many other forms that go unnoted. If you feel like you have been harassed, HOLLABACK!
2. Where do you see your campaign and its technology going in the next few years?
There are three areas that we would like to launch — if we’re able to secure adequate support: First, we want to expand the type of data we collect to include demographics, prevalence, and impact so that we can better target the problem – and the solutions. Second, we want to incentivize innovation by establishing a semi-annual competition where our site leaders can submit their best innovative ideas for funding. And lastly, we want to expand to college campuses. College campuses are a hotbed of harassment, with over 51% of college men admitting to harassing their fellow students.
3. What reasonable, long term effect would you like to see your app having on society?
We want to change the experience of street harassment, so that when it happens people know what it is, they know it’s not OK, and there are systems in place where they can respond.
4. How was your experience as an undergrad at NYU? What day-to-day encounters and experiences inspired and shaped your creation of Hollaback?
Throughout college I was harassed two, three, sometimes four times a day. I almost never responded — I just walked on and pretended like it didn’t happen. What options did I have anyway? There was no one to report these experiences to, no one to tell, and no one — not even my women’s studies teachers — telling me it wasn’t OK. I thought that if I let their words in – and I let myself really feel the hurt – that it meant I wasn’t strong. But what happened is that street harassment started slowly chipping away at me. And part of me believed it was my fault.
5. What is the most important message you have for young feminists and activists eager to change and improve society?
Do it! People will tell you that the issue you’re working on doesn’t matter, or that it can never be solved. Haters gonna hate, so let your vision for a different future drive you. The history books remember the creators, not the haters.