50 Stories About Stopping Street Harassers: An Interview with Holly Kearl [Lady Bits]

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Street harassment has been a frequent topic here in Lady Bits. That’s because, as a woman, it’s one of the issues that affects my quality of life most on a daily basis. And also because it sucks. A lot.

I interviewed anti-street harassment activist Holly Kearl a few months ago, and we spoke about what street harassment is and what we can do to stop it. Holly is the founder of Stop Street Harassment, an organization dedicated to documenting and ending the problem of street harassment. People from around the world have shared their stories on the Stop Street Harassment blog, and 50 of those stories are the basis for Holly’s new book.

50 Stories About Stopping Street Harassers is a collection of stories from around the world. It’s empowering, funny at times, and pragmatic, too – Holly encourages her readers to create a plan of action so they can implement some of the same strategies in their own lives. I was lucky enough to sneak a peek at an advance copy, and it’s a powerful read. Plus, 50% of the proceeds go to funding Stop Street Harassment programs.

I spoke with Holly about the new book and what’s up next for Stop Street Harassment. Check it out.

You’ve been doing anti-street harassment work for several years now. What inspired you to write this particular book?

This book was really inspired by the people who have attended my talks on street harassment over the years. I’ve given more than 50 talks in the past three years, and I usually share three or four stories per talk. That’s what people really cling to, or are the most interested in. Because for most of the talk I’m sharing statistics or talking about rape culture, which isn’t particularly exciting but it’s necessary. But I think the stories really capture people’s imagination and are empowering, so I decided that it would be useful to people to have a book with 50 of these stories that they can read through. It’s an inspiration, and almost a more fun way to approach the issue.

So many stories have been submitted to the Stop Street Harassment blog, as well as other online forums. How did you choose which stories to include in the book?

I tried to collect a diverse group of stories. I was looking for geographic diversity and stories involving people of various ages and races. I was also looking for a variety of tactics, for example reporting a harasser, public shaming, getting an apology – a range of ways people were dealing with street harassment.

Is there a story that stands out as one of your favorites?

One of my favorites that I have often shared in my talks is the one of a fifteen-year-old girl in New York City. She was taking the subway, and this man who she said was probably around 43 was harassing her and saying that she looked really sexy in her schoolgirl outfit. She said, “You probably have a daughter older than me.” And when that didn’t deter him, she said, “Sexual harassment is a crime. Leave me alone or I will report you.” What I thought was really powerful was what she wrote after that, though. She said, “I count that as a win for me, because I hear things like that all the time and I finally stood up for myself.” For me, that’s the power in a lot of these stories. Having the opportunity to read the stories and maybe try it yourself, and feel that empowerment, feel like you can stand up for yourself.

Your book also includes a plan of action at the end, which encourages readers to think about and write down three responses they might actually use. I think that is really helpful, because it’s so easy to freeze up when you’re actually confronted with harassment. What are some tips you have for people who want to try and stand up to their harassers?

First of all, they need to make sure that they feel safe and that it is something they want to do. I definitely don’t want people to get the impression that I’m saying they must respond to harassers. It’s totally up to them, I just want them to have some options. I think having something short that they can just say quickly is helpful. Because so often, street harassment just happens, and you’re thrown off, and you have maybe a second to respond. So I think having something short that you can say in a lot of situations can be powerful. For me, I just say, “Don’t harass women,” or, “Don’t harass me,” and then keep on going. I think anything people can do to surprise harassers is the least likely to escalate the situation. So, that can be just responding, or trying to turn it into a joke, or publicly shaming them. That can be very powerful. And then, for the times that people don’t have the opportunity to respond in the moment, they may want to consider reporting it or at least sharing their story to bring attention to the issue.

50% of the proceeds of your book go to helping fund Stop Street Harassment. Tell me a little bit about the programs that money will go to.

One of the main programs that money would go to is a new one, our Safe Public Spaces Mentoring Program. Essentially what people can do is propose a project or campaign they want to implement in their community, and they fill out a short application, and then Stop Street Harassment can take them on. We give them lots of mentoring, so we have weekly check-ins, give advice for the project, I connect them to relevant people in their area, and I also give them a small amount of money to offset their expenses. So right now, we’re in the second month of the pilot program. I’ve been working with activists in Afghanistan, who have been doing workshops in high schools on street harassment. In Cameroon, a young woman there is a leader and she has been doing a lot of discussion groups and talking to people to gather information about what street harassment looks like in their community. She’s going to do a seminar in a couple of weeks. The third one is in Chicago, and a woman there has a team of people who are going to make a short, humorous film about street harassment. They plan to do an event on October 13 to show it and have a community discussion about street harassment. So what I really want to be able to do is expand that next year, so it can take on ten sites.

Holly also hosted a tweet chat about street harassment starting at 1pm today using the hashtag #50Stories. Head on over to Twitter to check it out!

[Lead image via]

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