When Katy Matich first moved to Philadelphia from Minnesota in 2008, she noticed a definite difference in the way men approached women in public places.
“Where I grew up, and where I went to school for undergrad, and just my experience in metropolitan cities in Minnesota, the culture was very different with how men treated women," Matich said.
“Actually, here I could identify it as harassment; it was actually more clearly defined. It wasn’t just somebody being playful or just trying to pick you up, this was like clearly more aggressive than I was used to and much more verbally harassing than what I experienced before.”
Matich may have never known that what she was experiencing here in Philadelphia, a variation of whistles, honks, kissing noises, vulgar gestures, flashing or sexually-charged comments, was something called street harassment if it weren’t for an organization called Hollaback.
Street harassment is generally defined by anti-harassment groups as an action or comment by a stranger in a public place that is disrespectful or threatening, and is generally motivated by gender.
Hollaback is a national non-profit founded in 2005 by seven New York City women who were prompted to discuss their own encounters with street harassment. The organization's mission is to help people better understanding what street harassment is and to develop new strategies so women don't feel harassed or intimidated in public spaces.
Hollaback boasts it has trained over 200 leaders in 62 cities and 25 countries to join the anti-street harassment movement since 2011.
Rochelle Keyhan is the director of the local chapter of Hollaback here in Philadelphia, which she started in 2011. HollabackPHILLY garnered a mass of press and citizen support in April of this year when it launched a series of eye-catching advertisements that were displayed on SEPTA buses and trains. Keyhan says the success of the ad campaign helped with many goals that the chapter hopes to accomplish in the future.
“Our shorter-term goals were sort of to just get the conversation started in the city. When the SEPTA ads came out, we sort of did that on another level,” she said. “Now we’re moving on from that step because we have obtained that goal of the definition shift and conversation. Now it’s an engagement shift, where we’re trying to get people more actively involved in speaking up about street harassment; even if they’re uncomfortable in the moment, to report it on the site so we can document the frequency, the severity, where it’s happening, how it’s happening, what time of day it’s happening. That would give us more information to then meet our goal of policy change, where we want to engage City Council to think of creative ways to improve the way we interact with people in public.”
According to Keyhan, two of the organization’s biggest resources are its web site and its engagement on social media. The Hollaback web site allows victims of street harassment to share their stories and provides an array of resources including methods for self-defense, as well as information on how bystanders can intervene if they witness street harassment.
Matich says she first learned of HollabackPHILLY through a posting on Facebook. Laura Jill Steinig, 39, found out about the organization via a tweet.
“I’ve been dealing with cat calls and stares, kissing noises from cars and guys on the street trying to ask me out -- I use that term in quotation marks -- for my entire life,” she said.
Steinig said the information on Hollaback’s web taught her how to stand up for herself.
“What I love about their site is that it made me feel not alone. On the Hollaback site, they have this wonderful page full of strategies of how to respond. Now when I’m walking down the street and there is a construction zone, and someone’s going to say something to me I can get in my head, like here’s what I’m going to say if they say something.”
HollabackPHILLY’s next major project is a comic book, HOLLABACK: RED, YELLOW, BLUE, which will be used for educational workshops on street harassment and bystander intervention.
“The comic book is a pretty thorough introduction to the issue. It’s an engaging and non-aggressive way to get people more aware of street harassment," Keyhan said. "So we can hand them a comic book, and it’s visually appealing, and it allows people to digest and process all of the issues in the comic book on their own time instead of having to do it right then while a person is talking to them.”
The comic book will be available for sale in local comic book stores in Center City and West Philadelphia, as well as on the web site by the end of July.
Keyhan says HollabackPHILLY also hopes to partner with the Philadelphia School District to teach awareness of street harassment to students as part of sex education classes.