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When Hollered At, HollaBack!

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"Smile, Baby!"

It can happen at any time -- on the way to work, waiting for the metro, walking into a grocery store, or while leaving a bar.

Whatever the time of day or activity, many women have become accustomed to unwarranted gender-based street harassment. Unwanted cat-calls and even groping -- or worse -- are almost customary as we go about our daily lives in public environments.

While at times sounding harmless or even deceptively flattering -- "Bless you for that body," "I'm gonna take you home, beautiful" -- any single experience of unsolicited commentary or behavior can be rife with racial, ethnic, gender and other implications that are the opposite of positive. Understanding these kinds of experiences as harassment is key at both individual and larger levels.

Without that vocabulary, behavior that is, in fact, unacceptable can become a normalized, daily occurrence, and alter the way we think about our self-esteem and personal safety. Ultimately, street harassment can transform the way we as women walk, dress, commute and live -- such that our worldviews assume objectification and disrespect as status quo.

For many, gender-based street harassment has become unexceptional, yet the majority of people have not yet figured out an appropriate response to it.

Hollaback DC! is an online space which fills that void.

The site gives survivors a chance to take charge by sharing their stories. Visitors can anonymously document experiences of catcalling, indecent exposure, and verbal abuse and warn others of particularly dangerous areas throughout Washington metro.

Launched just five months ago, the Washington D.C.-based online forum has already received over 60 submissions and 300 comments, with traffic increasing daily. It is one of over a dozen HollaBack sites that have cropped up around the globe since the creation of HollaBackNYC in 2006. The stories you find on HollaBack forums range in focus from street calls -- "Hi, my beautiful Nubian sista," and "Baby can I walk with you?" -- to more severe levels of harassment, such as accounts of perpetrators following individuals for blocks, into stores, and onto their doorsteps. In many instances, gender-based street harassment has escalated and bordered on stalking, and in some extreme cases, has accompanied acts of violence such as sexual assault, rape and murder .

HollaBackDC! has made it clear that gender-based street harassment is not strictly a "woman's issue" but a societal one, highlighting cases of transgender and queer individuals who were harassed due to the fact that their perceived sex didn't comport to their actions.

"The purpose of documenting incidents is to give the victim, bystander, and survivor a place to share what happened. The power of sharing our life experiences with one another has moved from our porches on to our computer screens," shared HollaBack DC! founders Chai and Shannon.

Online forums like HollaBackDC! aid in the healing process after an incident of harassment, but more must be done to prevent and prosecute acts like these.

We must call for policies that actively fight gender-based street harassment in all public spaces, such as implementing public education campaigns on the issue and holding city police and transportation officials accountable for the safety of women -- and everyone -- everywhere.

Gender-based street harassment has become a normalized action that must be stamped out of our culture. By building a community that actively discusses and fights against these practices, we will slowly be able to do so.

To share your experience of gender-based sexual harassment, visit HollaBackDC!

To participate in HollaBackDC!'s first ever photography contest capturing street harassment, read more here. Submissions must be made before August 12th, 2009.

Many thanks to Diana Price, Nathan Havey, and Rose Afriyie for contributing insights to this article.

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