Sticks and Stones: Group takes a stand against verbal harassment | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Sticks and Stones: Group takes a stand against verbal harassment

"Everyone deserves to feel safe"

A woman is at the gym running on a treadmill when she notices a man staring at her. "I just love watching you run," he says.

Another woman is crossing the street when two men walking in her direction part to flank her on both sides. "Hey baby," one whispers into her ear.

These are just two local stories of street harassment — a form of sexual harassment that occurs every day between strangers in public spaces — posted among thousands on, a website where victims of street harassment can share their experiences from around the world.

Hollaback has launched in 22 countries and 64 cities around the world, seeking to empower victims by giving them an outlet for talking about street harassment. The organization started a Pittsburgh chapter in December. Founded by four local women, the local chapter is focused on increasing awareness about street harassment and why it is disrespectful.

"The goal is not to end communication between strangers, but to have it defined by respect," says Alison Winters, one of the founders of the Pittsburgh chapter.

Street harassment can range from sexual comments and stares to groping or flashing. And while acts such as groping or flashing are widely denounced as unacceptable, attitudes toward catcalling are more ambiguous. "I was always told to ignore it," says cofounder Heather Dougherty.

One of Hollaback's goals is to educate the public on how any kind of street harassment — even remarks that may be intended as compliments — can have negative consequences on victims, potentially including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Everyone deserves to feel safe," says Maggie Graham, another cofounder of the local Hollaback site. "Physical violence leaves a longer, visible mark. But I've still felt threatened."

However, there are few legal tools victims can use to combat street harassment. Whatever the potential negative impact of verbal catcalls, the speech is protected.

"One person talking to another person — even if it's unpleasant — would likely be protected under the First Amendment," says Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. "So, ‘Hey, sexy,' or ‘I wanna sleep with you' — one-time catcalls like that are protected."

But that doesn't mean those who experience street harassment can't fight back. As part of the testimonial process, Hollaback encourages victims to take pictures or videos of their harassers and post them on Hollaback's website. That, too, is protected free speech.

"This antidote is also constitutional," Walczak says. "The catcaller cannot cry foul when a video is posted on YouTube of them acting poorly. There is a First Amendment right to record people in public."

In addition to increasing awareness about street harassment, posting pictures or videos of harassers can also serve to shame people into changing their behavior.

"If someone does something inappropriate, then yeah, I'm going to take a picture because people don't believe this exists," says Akirah Robinson, the fourth founder of Hollaback Pittsburgh.

That rationale, in fact, is what inspired the creation of the site in the first place. In 2005, a woman in New York City took a picture of a man masturbating on the subway. When she showed the picture to police, they said they couldn't arrest the man, but the picture went viral after being posted online and ended up on the cover of the New York Daily News.

"Our whole organization was sparked by someone taking a picture," Graham says. "The police said they couldn't do anything, but the man was publicly shamed."

So far, no one has uploaded a picture or video to the Pittsburgh site. But the local website has received more than a dozen testimonials from people who have witnessed street harassment. And for Hollaback Pittsburgh's founders, being able to share their stories makes all the difference.

"If you're treated [as] less than human, you feel less than human," says Dougherty, reflecting on her own emotions after being harassed in the past. "I felt rage followed by shame. But [because of] Hollaback, I feel validated, empowered and strengthened."

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