Caroline Tompkins walked down a busy section of Broadway on a recent day in Brooklyn, her long blond hair loose over her shoulders, a tote bag hanging at her hip. As she walked past an appliance store, a man called out to her, "Hey, gorgeous!"
Tompkins sprang into action, grabbing her Mamiya 7 camera from her bag.
“I’m going to take your picture,” she said, before clicking the shutter. The man covered his face and shook his head, but Tompkins was already back on her way to work.
For more than three years now, the 22-year-old artist has taken hundreds of photos like this one of the men who catcall and harass her on the street, as part of her project Hey Baby, a website where she documents the common problem, with the aim of taking back public space.
Tompkins is just one of a growing number of women, men and, increasingly, LGBT people, who are fighting back against street harassment. Call it catcalling, wolf-whistling or just choruses of “hey, baby” — more than 70 percent of women around the world have reported experiencing some sort of street harassment in their lifetime, according to nonprofit Stop Street Harassment.
For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, that harassment is often linked to the threat of violence. A 2013 survey in Boston by anti-street harassment organization Hollaback showed that 90 percent of LGBT people experienced some kind of street harassment. And it’s a problem that crosses borders. A May 2013 poll of 93,000 LGBT people living in the European Union revealed half of respondents avoided certain public spaces after experiencing street harassment.
“When I first moved to New York from Ohio, I found myself feeling incredibly unsafe just walking to school, walking to work. I felt like I was part of a performance I didn't ask to be in,” Tompkins said. “I felt myself needing to fight back from that, at least for my own sake, to feel like I was doing something about it.”
Often, Tompkins said, the encounters she has experienced haven’t stopped at catcalling.
“I have been grabbed, I have been surrounded by men at night walking home. In terms of what they are actually saying — it’s anything from 'hey baby' to where they are going to put their genitals on me, what kind of babies we would have together. There is never a break, it's relentless,” Tompkins said.
It’s a story familiar to Debjani Roy, deputy director of Hollaback, which is embracing technology to fight its campaign. Recently, Hollaback developed a smartphone app that allows people to report street harassment in real time. The app maps where incidents most often occur; users also have the option of sending a complaint to the lawmakers from their district.