Interview with HollaBack Toronto!

Through the posts submitted by readers like you  and the work HBDC! has done throughout the community we have done a great job of highlighting just how big of an issue public sexual harassment is in DC and its surrounding areas. So now its time for the next step in the battle, fighting street harassment around the world!


To take that step, this month at HBDC! we want to highlight various Holla Backs and organizations who work to fight street harassment around the world. We feel that by opening up a dialogue we can show that street harassment is an important problem that needs to be dealt with everywhere. Today,  we highlight our friends to the north at  Holla Back Toronto!

Find out what Holla back Toronto founder Lisa has to say about her great site and how she got started, the climate of street harassment in Toronto, and many other great insights. If your left wanting more after this post be sure to head over to Holla Back Toronto’s blog to look around and show your support!

HollaBackTO Founder, Lisa

Why did you start Holla Back Toronto?

I started HollabackTO because it got to a point where I was being harassed almost every day, mostly through catcalls, obscene gestures, or gawking as I was walking down the street. It made me really self-conscious and I was become increasingly worried about going out alone or taking the subway late at night. I was never really afraid of being physically violated by harassers – they always seemed like the type who got some perverse, cowardly enjoyment out of whistling or honking at women walking by and would just leave it at that, but it still really bothered me. By the end of the summer I was even carrying sweaters in an attempt to cover up and potentially avoid unwanted sexual attention. It was then that Hollaback NYC was brought to my attention and I thought it was a great idea and knew instantly that there needed to be a Toronto version as well, so I created HollabackTO so that women would have a place to share their experiences and show that street harassment affects so many women regardless of physical appearance. I also wanted to prove that it wasn’t just a minor problem that should be swept under the table.

What do you think makes Holla Back Toronto different from any of the other Holla Backs?

I think one of the things that make HollabackTO different from the other Holla Back sites is that in addition to posting street harassment stories from regular women across the city, we also post news stories revolving around sexual harassment incidents in the city as well.

Could you tell us a little about the climate of public sexual harassment in Toronto, is it a recognized problem that the community is interested in working to combat?

Street harassment still seems to be a pretty taboo issue. A lot of street harassers aren’t necessarily breaking the law by catcalling or making sexually charged comments in passing, and therefore women feel like this form of harassment is just something to deal with as a daily part of life. So a lot of women just keep these incidents to themselves, which is frustrating, since this sort harassment bothers so many women. We should be sharing our frustrations and getting people to understand that this sort of behaviour towards women is just blatant sexism and it’s not okay to make someone feel uncomfortable or threatened just because of her gender. A lot of men say women should be flattered by these “compliments” on physical appearance, but compliments should make people feel good about themselves – not dirty, humiliated or ashamed, like how a lot of women feel after being the victim of street harassment.

The experiences our contributors submit occur in a wide range of places, where would you say the majority of your experiences take place?

I’ve noticed a lot of experiences taking place where public transit is concerned. Either on the subway itself or while people are waiting for the bus or streetcar. I think some of the reasons for this is because when you’re on the subway you’re essentially trapped in a small space so your harasser feels like he can get away with whatever it is he’s going to do. Same with waiting for a bus or streetcar – you’re stuck waiting there and you’re basically on display to passersby who want to ogle or say something nasty to you, unless you want to leave and inconvenience yourself by walking to your destination or taking a cab – both options still leave you open to more street harassment, however. Street harassment is unfortunately inescapable for most women living in a big city, and that’s why education on the issue is the number one step to combating it.

Many of your posts are in the form of police/news reports on sexual assault and awesome links to resources and articles about public sexual harassment. It’s a great and different type of post that some Holla Backs don’t use as often, what’s your reasoning behind utilizing those types of posts?

The articles, stats, and resources on sexual harassment are there for educational purposes. It’s not only women that read the site, so if we can educate some men on how street harassment personally affects the women in their own lives, maybe they’ll think differently the next time they see an attractive woman on the street and want to ‘holla’ at her. A lot of men who ogle, whistle, catcall, etc, don’t even realize the effect it has on women, so getting them to understand that it is taken as a form of harassment by a lot of women is the key to potentially creating some change.

The police and news reports on sexual assault are there because they feature more aggressive incidents of sexual harassment, and since street harassment also falls under the umbrella of sexual harassment, it’s important to see the effects of not speaking out against  harassers at an early stage. That’s not to say that everyone who catcalls is going to perform a criminal sexual offence, but I think it’s important to note the connection that they are both forms of harassment and as such should be taken seriously.

Similar to the many experiences we receive on our WMATA transit system it seems that you have many experiences that occur on your TTC public transit system. Have posts helped you build a relationship with them or solicit any positive response?

We don’t have any formal collaborations with the TTC, but the few comments we have received from people involved with the TTC have been positive. We had a post on HollabackTO about a year ago that involved a subway ticket collector asking a woman if she wanted to sit on his lap and making comments of an inappropriate nature. The post got back to Brad Ross, the Director of Corporate Communications for the TTC, and he then provided information on how to report TTC employees who’ve been acting in inappropriate ways. It was refreshing to see him taking this form of harassment seriously and actually have him give information on what to do in such situations.

This past month we highlighted how art can be used to Holla Back, and we love that you  are working on Holla Back Toronto posters to plaster your city with,  in addition to the posters could you tell us about any other ideas or projects you’re working on to fight public sexual harassment?

At the moment I’m talking to Holly Kearl, who runs and who has a book of the same name coming out next month, about doing a round table discussion on street harassment, or having her do a book talk at my university. It’s still in the planning stages. I also want to start another poster campaign in the fall to reach women who may not have seen them the first time around. I’ve also been working with Hollaback NYC to contribute some info to their startup packet for future Holla Back sites who need some help getting their site off the ground. It would be great if more cities began their own Holla Back sites since street harassment is such a widespread problem all around the world.

What’s one of the main things you have you learned about your city since starting Holla Back Toronto?

I’ve learned that even though it’s still an uphill battle trying to get people to be aware and proactive when it comes to street harassment, that sites like HollabackTO are slowly making a difference. Since I started the site two years ago, I’ve had articles on street harassment published in national magazines, I’ve been interviewed by reporters writing on the topic for their own publications, and I’ve started hearing stories of TTC officials being proactive when it comes to women complaining about being harassed on the subway system. Just this interest in fleshing out the issue of street harassment and the desire to help women reporting this harassment shows me that things are slowly starting to take a turn for the better. So the response from people in Toronto has taught me that we aren’t just fighting a losing battle.

Any last thoughts about fighting back against public sexual harassment?

I think there are still a lot of misconceptions where street harassment is concerned. A lot of people say, “Well, if she’s going to wear such a short dress, she should expect men to stare,” or things to that effect. Street harassment has nothing to do with what a woman looks like, or how revealing her clothes are (women are still harassed in winter, after all) but it has everything to do with the power dynamic between harasser and victim. The men doing the catcalling or groping probably realize that the woman will be too shocked or ashamed to draw attention to herself or the situation, so he gets away with it. I think it’s key that women start vocalizing themselves if they can, and if they feel safe, by ‘holla-ing back’ at their harasser and turning the power dynamic around – make them the ones who feel uncomfortable when everyone starts looking at them like they’re the ones doing something wrong – because they are.

Thanks Lisa! We’re glad to have you on our side in the fight against street harassment!


One response to “Interview with HollaBack Toronto!

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: July 18, 2010 « Stop Street Harassment!

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