Street Harassment: Getting the Message

Street Harassment: Getting the Message


Originally posted on Huffington Post on 4/4/2014. 

On April 1st, HollabackPHILLY (a project of Feminist Public Works) launched a series of anti street harassment ads in the Philadelphia public transit system, including subway car interiors, bus shelters and subway station platforms throughout the city.

This is an expansion of the small but high-impact pilot campaign we ran last year, that quickly went viral online, attracting significant local and national press. Our goal with both campaigns was to familiarize the public with the term “street harassment” (gender-based harassment by strangers in public spaces) and define it as a solvable problem, as opposed to an inevitable “fact of life.” However, this year we took it a step further, employing some killer messaging strategies that we hope will generate even deeper conversations.

Last year’s ads were almost exclusively definitional. For example, since most people are unfamiliar with the term “street harassment,” the below ad links the term with specific examples.


Street harassment is often minimized as a “compliment,” and the below ad aims to start conversations around that issue, while linking the term “street harassment” to “unwanted comments.”


This year’s new set of ads build on last year’s definitional work by broadening and expanding it. For example, the below ad distills why street harassment is a problem: harassment communicates that people’s bodies are open for public commentary, and limits our right to move comfortably through public spaces.


This next ad highlights the seriousness of the issue, making a complete break from the common minimization of street harassment as “just a compliment” or “annoying.” Street harassment can make people feel unsafe in lots of ways — for example, street harassment is unpredictable. An example we hear all the time is how a simple, “Hey, beautiful” can quickly turn to, “Stuck up b*tch!” or worse when ignored. Never knowing what might come next means that even relatively mild statements can make people feel unsafe.


Other ads take it a step further, straight into bystander intervention. The following two ads give specific examples of what a person can say to support someone who has been harassed, or how to call out someone who has just said or done something harassing:



The following ads give examples of harassing statements, and pointedly shift the responsibility to respond from the victim to the bystander:





Some of the ads focus on calling out a stranger on their behavior or giving support to a victim after the fact, while others focus on how we can react when those closest to us — our friends — are engaging in harassing behaviors. All of these ways of intervening are powerful and important. If we want to see social change around street harassment, we need to start building up social pressure both out in public among strangers, and privately within our inner circles. This means it’s time to start stepping in when we see harassment happening, because simply being a person who doesn’t harass is not good enough. According to the principle of social proof, our silence when we see harassment happening to others is easily read as acceptance, and reinforces in the harasser’s mind (as well as others witnessing the behavior) that the harassment is socially acceptable.

The shift from individual responsibility to a community sense of responsibility is commonly known as a bystander intervention approach, which has become a gold standard for gender-based violence prevention. Viewing the problem of street harassment as a shared responsibility is a revolutionary shift, not only because our culture emphasizes individuality at every turn, but because this shift puts the focus squarely on the harasser. If we’re active bystanders, ready to intervene, it’s because we see someone (the harasser) doing something wrong. What the victim is doing or wearing is not even part of the equation.

To get technical, this campaign works to establish a new injunctive social norm. Injunctive social norms regulate our perceptions of which behaviors we consider socially desirable or undesirable. There is another kind of social norm, called “descriptive social norms” which describe our perceptions of those behaviors we see as typical or normal. We avoided focusing on descriptive social norms in this campaign, because they tend to backfire by reinforcing a perception that the behavior the campaign is fighting against (in this case, street harassment) is in fact widespread, and therefore acceptable. One of the most famous cases of this happening is the famous “Crying Indian” anti-littering campaign in the 1970s, which actually resulted in more littering by reinforcing the perception that everybody was doing it.

One of the keys to successfully influencing injunctive norms through advertising is to be specific. Just telling people that a behavior is wrong is not the same as giving them the tools to change it. Our campaign ties the problem of street harassment to specific situations, like “Your friend just said, “Is that a dude?” within earshot of a woman walking by and. “You see someone persistently hitting on the girl sitting two rows up.” We also suggest some possible responses, like “That was not OK,” and, “Does that ever work for you?” to start getting people thinking about specific ways they might feel comfortable intervening in the moment.

While we work to broaden our messaging through social change strategies, the bystander-focused ads circle back to deepen the definitional work as well. The ads above delve into how street harassment specifically affects trans* women, the ever-prickly issue of telling people to smile, and the harassment of queer couples. Street harassment is an incredibly complex issue that doesn’t lend itself to a simple, watered-down slogan. Our campaign aims to be as specific and direct as possible, while making space to open up conversation.

We would love to hear your feedback on this campaign. Share your thoughts here.


Signs of Violence

Signs of Violence

My last post was about the Vancouver YWCA’s annual violence-prevention campaigns. Their 2013 campaign was about media literacy and the sexualization of women and girls, but the year before, they took a different approach that I wanted to highlight separately.

Here is an image from last year’s campaign:

Source: St. Bernadine

I had a strong reaction to this campaign. It aims to prevent violence by showing potential bystanders that often-minimized controlling behaviors (telling someone what to wear, harassing text messages, destroying personal things, etc) can be signs of violence. The images in the ads make an immediate connection between these controlling behaviors and life-threatening physical violence, like this one juxtaposing harassing texts with strangulation:


Source: St. Bernadine

My initial reaction to the above ad was “aren’t harassing text messages violent enough in themselves?” and then I started thinking about how easy it can be to rationalize away controlling behaviors, especially if they aren’t leading to dramatic physical violence. Do these ads backfire a little bit in that their extreme nature could make this rationalization easier (“it’s not that big of a deal, he’s just particular/jealous/has a temper but he’s never laid a hand on me”)? However, the ads are not aimed at people experiencing controlling behaviors – they are aimed at family/friends/coworkers, who may be much less likely to make excuses for the behavior. Do we need something this shocking to grab our attention and encourage us, as bystanders, to take a closer look?

The harshness of the messages felt overwhelming to me, and the intense radio ads (one of which is text message sounds that transform into life support beeping, that then flatlines) remind me a little of “Don’t have sex. Because you will get pregnant. And die” scare-tactic lesson in Mean Girls. I would love to know more about how the general public reacted to hearing them. I found myself wishing the ads had built on the intense attention-grabbing by giving a concrete action for what a friend/family member can do, besides go to the YWCA’s website for more information. According to the outcome data, the website did see a significant increase in traffic (which is fantastic because it means people are getting help), but my mind always goes to the people who see/hear the ads and will never visit the website. What if just a little bit more education could be snuck in there somehow? I don’t have any brilliant idea for how specifically that could be done for this campaign, but it’s something worth exploring. For the HollabackPHILLY Spring 2014 ad campaign, we want to incorporate a bystander intervention focus that goes beyond “do something!” to “what if you did this specific thing?” to start modeling some possible responses. It’s really tough, though! There are lightyears of distance between sitting around saying “why don’t you do x, y, z” and actually trying to figure out whether an approach actually would help your mission, and if so how to go about implementing it. I give props to the Vancouver YWCA for all of the time, energy, and thought they put into their annual campaigns, and can’t wait to see what they do in 2014!

Uncomfortable? You should be.

Every October, YWCAs across Canada mark a “Week Without Violence” during which they hold a series of community events and campaigns focused on violence prevention. The Vancouver Metro YWCA, one of the largest in the country, creates its own public awareness campaign. This year, it decided to focus on the sexualization of girls, saying “Seeing girls and women as sex objects makes people more tolerant of sexual violence and the exploitation of girls and women.

Uncomfortable? You should be.

Source: YWCA Metro Vancouver

I love how this ad says “develop a critical eye and speak out against sexualized images” because what it is really saying is “media literacy is important.” If you’re new to the idea of media literacy, check out FAAN Mail (Fostering Alternatives and Action Now!). FAAN is a media literacy and activist organization formed by women of color, based in Philadelphia. It has great resources on media literacy, which is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media. Being media literate means that instead of taking media at face value, we instead pause and ask ourselves a few questions:

Who created this message?
Who is the target audience?
What is the message?
What is left out of the message?
Who is harmed and who benefits?

The YWCA ad above directs people to its website, where they can find a guide to media literacy for girls. This is a great idea, and I think it’s the first PSA I’ve ever seen that explicitly encourages media literacy development. If you know of more, please send them my way!

As far as the framing of this ad goes, it chooses not to change the frame and instead asks the viewer to take a critical look at his or her own reaction to it by saying “Uncomfortable? You should be. Develop a critical eye.” I admit that I felt a little bit shocked myself when reading that, because it made me realize that I actually hadn’t been that creeped out by the image at first glance. Whoa. And THAT is why media literacy is important. Without it, we start absorbing these images with less and less resistance.

If this ad had simply used the current frame (“little girls = sex objects”) and switched the “Uncomfortable…” line to read something like “Little girls are not sex objects” it would have completely failed at getting people to think critically about the frame of “little girls = sex objects.” This is because when someone says “Don’t think of an elephant” (which is actually the title of a great book on framing) suddenly, it becomes a struggle to think about anything else. If I show you a little girl dressed in a sexy, adult way and tell you “little girls are not sex objects”, you may think to yourself “I agree! That’s terrible!” but your brain is stuck thinking about little girls as glamorized mini adults. To get your brain unstuck, I have to completely change the frame by showing you another way to think about that little girl (maybe with an image of her riding a bike or doing homework). The YWCA ad, however, chooses not to reframe because it wants us to stop and look at the image with a critical eye. It is teaching us a skill; the ad itself is an exercise in media literacy.

One important thing to note is that the ad language does not refer exclusively to girls. It says “seeing girls and women portrayed as sex objects…”. So why does it choose to use a picture of a sexualized young girl? Because ad space is already flooded with pictures of sexualized, objectified adult women (check out The Gender Ads Project if you have any doubts). We’re already so desensitized to those images that they might make us angry, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as an image of a sexualized young girl.

I found out about the Vancouver YWCA’s yearly campaigns through an awesome Pinterest follower who posted an image from the YWCA’s 2012 campaign on my group board. Stay tuned for a separate post on that campaign – which is very different from this one – later today. 

The Positivo Campaign and Social Norms

The Philly organization GALAEI recently launched a PSA campaign, Positivo, that really hits the nail on the head in terms of effective messaging and framing strategies. GALAEI, which is a queer Latino social justice organization, initially planned to create a campaign to reduce stigma around homosexuality and HIV in the Latino community in Philadelphia. After doing an on-the-ground survey, they discovered that the stereotype that the Latino community is homophobic and fearful of people living with HIV is simply not true.

They then switched gears and created a campaign that reflects this affirming, supportive reality back to the community. The ads feature Latinos from North Philadelphia, and focus on acceptance, pride, family, respect, beauty, and community.

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The campaign name, “Positivo” brings up the word “positive” as in “HIV positive” but shows something very different from typical message. These ads are not alienating or scary. They don’t focus on risk or illness. The below message, which is clearly focused on testing, doesn’t even use the word “test.” What is the call to action?

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Trick question! There isn’t one. Instead of telling you to do something, this ad shows you what everyone else is already doing (getting tested) and why they’re doing it (because they are an important part of a supportive and accepting community). This incredibly powerful ad technique is commonly known as “herd mentality.” Surprise surprise, we are strongly influenced by our perception of others’ behaviors. In academic circles, this is called the social norms approach, and it is most well known for its effectiveness in reducing binge-drinking and alcohol-related harm among college students (who tend to erroneously think that their peers are drinking way more than they are, and try to keep up). It has also been used on tobacco use reduction, DUI prevention, seat-belt use, and tax compliance, and now anti-violence and positive sexuality campaigns are starting to try it out. Have you seen any great campaigns recently that use the social norms approach?

Here are more of GALAEI’s amazing ads:

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To see some other directions that HIV prevention/awareness ads have taken, Osocio has a great list at the end of this post.