Holly Kearl is an anti-street harassment activist, founder of the blog Stop Street Harassment, and author of the forthcoming book of the same name. She founded the blog as part of her Master’s thesis, and now, it is host to the stories of hundreds of women who have been harassed on streets all over the world. In addition to moderating the blog, Holly works full time at the AAUW, where she oversees the Legal Advocacy Fund, Campus Action Project grants and the Student Advisory council. In short, she is one very busy young woman.
Street harassment is something we’ve written quite a bit about here at Feministing, and something that most readers have probably experienced. I remember being told – by a loved one, no less – after one of my first experiences of street harassment, at fourteen, that I should expect no better if I “strut like that,” and since I moved to New York City almost a year ago, I’ve been given plenty of (unwanted) opportunities to observe street harassment first hand. Unsurprisingly, I quickly learned that it happens regardless of whether you strut, jog, amble, trudge, mince or just put one foot in front of the other and outside your own front door. It’s for this reason that I’m so pleased that Kearl has devoted an entire chapter of her book to explaining the different ways that women perceive male attention on the street: some perceive it as a compliment, others as harassment and others apparently as a natural consequence of female strutting. And, since no woman walks around wearing signs that indicate which of those categories she falls into, men would do well to err on the side of caution and keep their thoughts about “hot pussy” to themselves.
Kearl concludes, and I couldn’t agree with her more here, that “we need a full-blown global anti-street harassment movement to truly end this epidemic,” and calls for research, awareness campaigns, education, legal reform and activism. “Most of all,” she writes, “we need men to stop harassing women.” Damn straight.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Holly Kearl.
Chloe Angyal: How did you become interested in street harassment, and how did you move from interest to activism and writing?
Holly Kearl: In 2006, I was in my second year of a Master’s program at George Washington University, and it came time to pick a thesis topic, and I was trying to think of something that was a bit new and different, and I started thinking about how often I had been harassed as an undergraduate student in Santa Clara, whenever I went off campus. Holla Back NYC had launched the year before and I had read about that, and Holla Back Boston might have launched that year too, and I thought that was really interesting. It was really only once I had looked at those sites that I started to think about harassment that I received as problem that a lot of women dealt with. I had always been told that it was a compliment, or that it was just something you had to deal with or ignore, and I had never really talked to anyone about it. Then like so many women who read those websites, I realized that it was a legitimate problem, and I started researching it, and the topic of my thesis became how the lack of a useful law against harassment has led women to do activism on their own, and I specifically focused on online activism.
I handed in the thesis in 2007, and I didn’t really expect to do much more with street harassment, but then that fall, a reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail contacted me. Part of my research for my thesis had been an informal online survey with 225 respondents, and I put my results online. This reporter found my results and interviewed me about them, and so I started updating the website a little more and putting up a little more information. Then another reporter from CNN called, in April of 2008, and she was writing an article about street harassment, and when the article came out, a lot of blogs picked up on it, and I realized that this could be a really big deal. So when I found out that some of the international street harassment blogs I had studied for my thesis had shut down, I created my own website, where people from anywhere could share stories. I also wanted it to be a place where people could share suggestions about how to deal with street harassment. and then, my parents had been encouraging me to write a book about it, so I took a few months to decide about that, and then I did.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
HK: Jo March, from Little Women. She was so smart and athletic and funny. A lot of my role models growing up were women who became writers because there were so few options for women who were so smart and had such ambition. Jo always wanted to be a writer, and she had to publish under a man’s name, because they wouldn’t publish women, and she managed to write a book about her family and get it published. It’s an inspiring story; she stuck with her dream and made it happen.
I’m lucky to have so many real life heroines but there are two who stand out to me because they’re less well-known. One is Irene Sendler, who was a Polish woman who helped save 2, 500 Jewish children during the Holocaust. She never gave up their location even when she was tortured and sentenced to death by the Nazis. It would have been so easy for her to do nothing, like so many non-Jewish people did, but instead she risked everything to stand up for what was right. She managed to escape on her execution day and she died two years ago, and it was really touching to know that even after all she did, she said her biggest regret was that she hadn’t saved more lives.
The second woman is someone I only know was Riverbend. From 2003 to 2007 she blogged about life in Baghdad after the US-led invasion, and her blog became two books called Baghdad Burning and Baghdad Burning II. She’s such a great writer, and I really appreciated learning about what was really happening. I read every blog entry, and in 2006 and 2007 she was writing less frequently, and I kept checking back, wondering what had happened and hoping everything was ok, and then finally her family had to leave. But she wrote at great personal risk and was able to tell people about the reality of the US-led invasion and its impact on people’s lives. I feel that activists and policymakers can learn a lot from people like Riverbend, those people who want to “help” people need to listen to find out if they even want help, and if so what will be most useful. The US has a lot of power, and with that power comes responsibility, and we need to take that seriously.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
HK: Earlier this week I read in the Salt Lake City Tribune about how Utah’s sexual assault rate is higher than the national average. And it’s the only violent crime for which that’s the case: 1 in 3 women in Utah will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Utah has one of the highest rates of youth sexual assault, of women under 19. My grandma grew up in Utah and was abused by her father when she was a child and then by a church leader when she was a teenager, and she’s been to a lot of support groups in Utah and there are a lot of stories out there like hers. I suspect that in any religion where the leaders have unquestioned power, like the Mormon Church, which most people in Utah are a part of, and where there’s gender imbalance, there’s going to be a lot of sexual abuse.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
HK: I’m not sure if this is the greatest challenge, but it’s a big one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and that’s including, engaging and recruiting men to the feminist effort, and doing so in a way that’s not alienating. We’re never going to achieve gender equality without working with men; they’re really essential allies. Especially since men look to other men for social approval, and because so many of the people in positions are men, if we want to get things done, we need to get some of those men on our side! There are so many potential allies out there who are turned off from working for gender equality because the efforts are framed as “women’s issues,” so they think that they’re not welcome or can’t contribute anything. I think we can show how expanding and improving women’s roles and mean expanding and improving men’s roles. The example that stands out to me is how the challenge of balancing work outside the home with family is always framed as a women’s issue. Policies about that focus on how to help women balance those roles, and it’s really ridiculous, and as a result, women often leave the workforce, or drop to part time work, or take lower-paying dead-end jobs to have more flexibility. And it assumes that men have no interest in their families, when men can take care of their families just as well as women can, and many want to just as much, so we should be focusing on how to allow women and men to do that. Especially when so many households have one parent, or two same-sex parents, it’s not helpful to still be using that same model.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
HK: Cereal, a fruit smoothie, and my partner, because when I’m not pre-occupied thinking about fighting injustice, which I probably wouldn’t need to do on a desert island, there’s nothing I like more than hanging out with him. And he doesn’t eat that much cereal, so there’d be more for me.