WASHINGTON - I wasn't the only one who saw it. There were dozens of people walking along the same sidewalk, seeing the same thing, hearing the same words. None of them stopped to intervene - and neither did I.
This is what happened: Three men in business casual attire were walking past a young woman in Adams Morgan, a trendy neighborhood in Washington, D.C. As they approached, the men began to call out to the woman.
"Hey, sexy," said one of them. "What are you up to tonight?"
"Look at those legs," said another, "and that face. Hope you're not going home alone."
The woman's face contorted into a pained smile as she kept walking. For an instant, the men paused on the street, and it looked like they might pursue her. But the moment passed, and both parties went on their way.
I went on my own way, shaken and startled. While describing the incident to my boyfriend over dinner the next night, our server overheard our conversation and joined in.
"That actually happens to me all the time," she said. And what did "all the time" mean? "At least a few times a week." I asked what she meant by harassment. "Oh, catcalls, unsolicited compliments, comments about my body . . . and, of course, men exposing themselves to me."
One final question: What do you do to fight back?
"Nothing, really," our server said. "There's nothing I can do."
Some studies suggest that it affects at least two-thirds of women in New York City, Chicago and the California Bay Area. In fact, it's "a very old problem" that has only been recognized recently, says Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment and International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which began April 7.
Historically, victims have had no means of identifying their harassers, of broadcasting their stories, or of documenting what occurred. Through smartphones, blogs and social media, however, victims can share their stories and educate their communities - and fight back.
Empowerment is a key goal of anti-street harassment groups like Hollaback, which has activists in 62 cities throughout 25 different countries. "There's something very different about making your story public versus just trying to pretend like your stories aren't happening," says Emily May, co-founder of Hollaback. "Just telling your story catalyzes so much, emotionally and externally. A public response actually decreases [a victim's] experience of trauma and lessens her risk of facing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder."
Hollaback's goal is to make more responses public. In 2005, the organization created a website on which women were encouraged to share their street harassment stories. Since then, the group has launched a smartphone app that allows women to report their harassment in real time. The app notes location, and its data helped Hollaback - in partnership with Cornell University - track patterns of harassment and analyze the effects of harassment on women. Intriguingly, the app revealed that street harassment levels correlate to nothing but population levels; socioeconomic factors played no role. Where there are more men, there will be more street harassment. It doesn't matter if the men are black or white, wealthy or poor.
These smartphone reports also help Hollaback work with legislators to end street harassment. Hollaback's location-targeting apps have revealed which districts have the highest incident of harassment, information that might encourage legislators to sponsor anti-harassment education. Each app report, moreover, can be relayed to the New York City Council, which is working with Hollaback to provide stronger preventive resources to communities. While much street harassment does qualify as a misdemeanor or even felony offense, Hollaback's focus is prevention, not criminalization.