SVAM Activist: Holly Kearl

Credit to Holly KearlIn honor of Sexual Violence Awareness Month, we want to spotlight activists who are working to end gender based public sexual harassment.  Every Friday in April, we will introduce you to their work, their motivation for bringing attention to this form of sexual harassment, and what we should do if we are victims of or bystanders to street harassment.

First up is Holly Kearl, CASS board member and founder of Stop Street Harassment. We were first introduced to Holly through her survey link she posted on Feministing and sent around through Holla Back NYC. We are delighted that she is a DC metro gal, with a deep interest in women’s rights work and a huge CASS supporter.

One hundred and forty characters or less bio of you.

At work in DC, through volunteering, and in my spare time, I’m an activist for women’s rights. In 2007, I wrote my master’s thesis at GWU on street harassment.

What motivated you to start a blog on street harassment?

In 2008, because of my graduate school research on street harassment, a reporter interviewed me for a article about catcalling.  The article prompted lots of CNN comments, blog posts, and random people e-mailing me.  Around this time I revisited some of the websites I had studied for my paper and I found that UK anti-street harassment and several HollaBacks were gone and the link to stories on the Street Harassment Project was inactive.  The combination of seeing how many people were talking about street harassment and realizing there were fewer online outlets for discussing it led me to start my own street harassment blog and website.

Tell us about your book.

Right now, my book proposal is sitting on desks at various publishing firms and, because I work full time, my overall book writing is going slowly – but steadily.  I’m trying to make people’s stories the driving point throughout the book because they are so compelling and what the general public should read to understand the problem.  The first half of the book explores why street harassment is problematic on a societal level and at an individual level for so many women, and the second half provide readers with both tactics for challenging harassers and long-term strategies for making public places safe and welcoming for women.

How did you collect the stories?

I created an online survey through Survey Monkey.

How many responses did you receive?

In one month’s time, I received over 1,400 responses.

Wow!  Did you know that you would receive so many respondents?

No, not at all.  In 2007 when I conducted a simple survey for my thesis, it took me nearly three months to get 225 responses.

I am still ecstatic to have so much data and I think it really speaks to how many people feel strongly about this issue.

Where did your survey respondents come from?

Of the survey respondents who listed their location, they came from 45 American states, 23 countries and five continents. One hundred and fifteen respondents were outside the United States. The four international regions with the most respondents were Canada (38), the UK (24), India (14), and Australia (9), which is unsurprising since my survey was in English and English is regularly spoken in those areas.  The five American states with the most respondents were New York (238), Illinois (117), California (57), Washington, DC (32), and Michigan (20).  Some of the respondents’ locations that were surprising to me include: Serbia, Sinagpore, Peru, Israel, and Thailand.

And how did you let people know about your survey?

I posted the survey link on numerous blogs and forums and asked people to share the link with others.  A few places that generated a lot of responses were posts on,,, and  Emily May of HollaBackNYC e-mailed a link to over 1,000 members of the HollaBackNYC listserv, which generated most of the New York responses. I also e-mailed the survey to many of my contacts and I posted it on various Facebook groups.

On the survey, did you allow space for someone who wanted to share their story?

There were two main opportunities for people to share their stories.  One time people were asked to share a “personal story illustration a time when [they] felt unsafe or unwelcome in public” and another was to share a specific street harassment incident.

What survey story or stories impacted you the most?

The stories were usually about the worst kind of harassment that had happened and it was incredibly difficult to read some of the stories that involved stalking, groping, being masturbated at, and assault.  It was heartbreaking to read about the fear, disgust, and shame that some of the respondents shared.  Also, stories where women talked about how young they were the first time they were harassed (9-13 years old) were shocking and horrifying.

What thoughts do you have on ending gender-based public sexual harassment in DC?

My research has not focused on DC so I can really only speak on a general level.

Okay, share your thoughts about it in a general sense.

Well, as with other forms of violence against women and sexual harassment, until women are as equally respected and powerful in society as men, there will always be street harassment. The root of the problem is societal disrespect for women, as exhibited by how often women are reduced to their body and sex appeal, no matter how powerful they may be (think Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin).  Many harassers disrespect women enough to think they have the right to invade women’s space whenever they want in order to sexualize them, make them engage in conversation with them, threaten them, or just get their attention.

We can lobby for anti-street harassment ordinances, request that police and transit authorities be trained to handle street harassment incidents sensitively and professionally, hold local street harassment awareness rallies and forums, offer free self defense classes, and start an anti-harassment campaign similar to the ones occurring in New York and Boston’s subway systems.  Teaching women to stand up for themselves, teaching men to stop harassing, and teaching all people to intervene when they see harassment occurring are key components.

Raising awareness online and giving women space to share their stories, like CASS and mine are trying to do, is also a powerful way to help end the harassment.

In your opinion, how has technology played a part in the anti-violence movement?

Technology is HUGE in helping with the anti-street harassment movement.  Websites like HollaBack have raised awareness about the issue on a widespread level in a way I think nothing else before has.

Cell phone pictures have helped get a few gropers and harassers arrested, which is great because without something concrete like that, it can be really difficult to report and prosecute a harasser, who may be there one minute and gone the next without a trace.

What about bystander accountability for those who witness street harassment?

Holding bystanders accountable for helping end street harassment could be very successful, particularly if the bystander is male since men usually look to other men for approval.  Calling a harasser out, standing between the harasser and the harassee, or causing a distraction so the harassee can escape are all good methods.

Why doesn’t it happen more?

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people don’t want to get involved when they see harassment occurring because they may think it’s harmless flirting or that the woman wants the attention, or they may be fearful for their own safety if the harassment is clearly forceful or violent.

What do you think bystanders should do?

If a bystander doesn’t feel comfortable directly intervening, it could still be useful to call the cops or a public transportation official or take a picture or take notes about what is happening to report it and support the person being harassed as a witness to her story if she wants to report what happened.

Who is your role model and why?

This is the hardest question for me to answer and I still can’t narrow it down because there are so many people I admire.  In general I look up to people who have or are trying to improve their communities and beyond and who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo or ask for fairness and equality or a better life for themselves and those around them. I love reading books about people who have made a difference.

What advice do you have to a person who has experienced street harassment?

If the harassment occurred on public transportation or by someone identifiable with a company or organization, they can report the incident to the appropriate place even if it’s been a little while since it occurred. If the harassment was at all threatening or included physical contact, they can report it to the police.

If the person who is harassed feels comfortable doing so, I think it’s extremely useful to share one’s street harassment stories with people in one’s life (family, significant other, friends, classmates, colleagues, anyone who will listen).  Doing so can raise awareness that this isn’t a problem that happens to “some” women who dress a “certain way,” but that it happens to nearly all women.  Sharing one’s stories raises awareness about what women have to put up with in their daily lives and can get people who might not normally be mobilized around this issue upset when they realize it happens to someone they care about.

Above all else, people who have been street harassed need to know its occurrence is not their fault: it wasn’t because of their clothes or who they were with or weren’t with or where they were or what time of day or night they were out.

For more information about Holly’s work, visit Stop Street Harassment.

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4 Responses

  1. Patong Hotels

    thanks, your article is very informative.

  2. […] Holly Kearl […]

  3. […] Holly Kearl […]

  4. […] to the success of this blog, we met up with two amazing activists who we profiled here before, Holly and D. Howard to brainstorm on how we can collaborate together and make an impact on this issue. The […]