As co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!–a movement to end street harassment around the world–Emily May has played a huge role in shifting the conversation around sexual harassment. Now, the Ashoka fellow is taking aim at another hotbed for sexism, racism, transphobia, and homophobia—the Internet—with her new project, HeartMob.
Fusion: Can you tell me about HeartMob?
Emily May: It’s a new platform that takes everything we know about street harassment and applies it to online harassment—everything from educating harassers to tools, support, and reporting.
F: What made you want to shift focus to online harassment?
EM: It’s just sexual harassment that happens in a different public space but is ultimately very similar to street harassment.
I’ve been harassed online since we started [Hollaback!]. It wasn’t just myself experiencing this—friends and comrades were, too. People really leave the Internet due to online harassment. That means we lose voices, primarily women’s voices and the voices of women of color. We can’t have these people leaving the Internet. We need these voices in order to change the world.
F: It’s been 10 years since you co-founded Hollaback! Do you feel like a difference has been made in the way we think about street harassment?
EM: Look at the words “street harassment” on Google Trends. In 2005, there was zero traction on the words—no one cares, no one cares. Then, you can start to see a trend build over those 10 years. It increases with each passing year that we work. It’s very much a testament to the work that Hollaback!’s doing and to the work that’s being done globally.
F: How many countries have their own local version of Hollaback!?
EM: There are 92 Hollaback! sites in 32 countries [and] 18 languages.
F: I read that you give local site leaders a lot of space to decide what Hollaback! looks like in their communities. Is that right?
EM: We give them the platform and tools and education and training, but ultimately it’s the people on the ground who are best at defining the problem and the solution to street harassment in their own communities.
F: What kind of cross-cultural differences would an American not necessarily pick up on in another country?
EM: Whether you’re in Egypt or Brooklyn, nobody’s asking for it, but it wouldn’t be as effective, necessarily, to run a campaign in Brooklyn versus Egypt with a woman with her hair out, saying: “I’m not asking for it.” People would just read her as “a woman,” not “a woman with her hair exposed.”
F: How would you compare the way Hollaback! addresses harassment to the way lawmakers do?
EM: A lot of legislators both here and abroad are very quick to want to increase the criminalization around street harassment. Most of our local site leaders do not support or endorse those strategies, and the reason is that, in most places around the world, they see the criminal-justice system as problem—that it targets low-income people and people of color and it doesn’t target the systematic reasons why street harassment happens.
Even if the system worked, at best you’d still be playing Whac-A-Mole.
[Our methods are] about tackling that behavior and tackling that culture of racism and sexism and homophobia that permits this behavior and not going after individual perpetrators. Ultimately, we see sexual harassment as part of a larger issue.
F: Are there other forms of harassment you’d like to focus on addressing in the future?
I would love to see us look more concretely at what’s going on with college campuses. There’s obviously a huge sexual harassment problem that feeds into the culture that makes sexual assault so possible because it’s already in such a hostile, sexist environment.
When you are living in a culture in which sexual harassment is totally OK, just part of your everyday environment, it makes any other form of gender-based violence acceptable and OK.