Pam Lourenco heard the man whistle as soon as she got off the bus in Johannesburg. “He walked up next to me and started asking me what my name was. I ignored him and kept walking. He then grabbed my arm and said, ‘Sweetie, why don’t you talk to me?’” Lourenco pulled free and ran to her office as he followed, screaming obscenities at her. “It was the longest and scariest walk of my life.”

This is street harassment, and it happens all over the world.

“When we started having this conversation in 2005, nobody had a clue what ‘street harassment’ meant,” said Emily May, the executive director of Hollaback, an international movement to combat the problem. “They guessed it was people on the street asking for money.”

It used to be known as catcalling, a term May rejects. “‘Catcalling’ is diminishing, like it’s a cat meowing at you. That might be annoying to you, but there’s a very big difference between something that’s annoying and something that’s scary.”

The word “hollaback” — a mash-up of “holler back” popularized in a 2005 Gwen Stefani song — “indicated an empowered response to street harassment,” May said.

More than half of women surveyed in 22 countries reported being fondled or groped, according to the latest report on street harassment from Hollaback and Cornell University.

Slogan written in chalk on sidewalk protesting street harassment (Courtesy of Hollaback!)
A slogan from a Hollaback “chalk walk” protesting street harassment. (Courtesy photo)

It’s not just scary for women. Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community also are targets of street harassment.

A mobile phone app from Hollaback allows people to photograph and report incidents of street harassment and tag their locations. The group Stop Street Harassment has created a blog for the same purpose.

The work is raising awareness. New York City, for example, now requires the police department to post data online about sexual harassment on public transit.

Here are four ways Hollaback says bystanders can help when they witness street harassment:

Check in with the target

Ask the person who you think is being harassed, “Are they bothering you? Are you okay?”

Distract the harasser

A simple action like asking for the time can be a nonconfrontational way of showing your presence and distracting them from their current behavior.

Stand up to your friends

If your friends are doing the harassing, tell them you don’t think it’s funny or acceptable.

Join the movement

Visit Hollaback, or other groups, to share your story of harassment, to learn more or to get involved.