Can an App Make Women Feel Safe?

by: Tshepo Mokoena

August 26, 2013

Oh hey, street harassment. Nice to see you in the news this week, and out somewhere besides the subway stops, quiet streets, laundromats, park benches and countless other city spots where you normally hang out. And though it’d be even better to not see you at all, it’s exciting to know that soon New York lawmakers will start paying attention to you as well.

Hollaback App WILD Fashion

In an unprecedented move, the city’s tackling street harassment with a combination of GPS-location wizardry, grassroots digital activism and a touch of City Council heft. The Hollaback app for iPhone and Android—cue every “there’s an app for that” news blogger lede—earns its name from a global activism network, and is newly launched just this week.

But its premise isn’t anything new. For eight years, founder Emily May and her growing team at non-profit Hollaback has inspired women, and LGBTQ individuals, to share their experiences of harassment and public intimidation in short testimonials online, using mobile technology. The site encourages harassment targets to post a picture of the aggressor in question, as well as a snapshot of where the incident took place. Essentially, to hollaback when hollered at.

That’s all well and good, and has certainly helped researchers pull together data based on anecdotal contributions from the site’s community. But now, the app adds the element of location to the data set, and gives New Yorkers the option to send the information directly to City Council and the Mayor’s Office.

Hollaback App WILD Fashion

“Reporting this takes back your power, and says ‘What happens to me on the streets matters, and I’m going to let the city of New York and Hollaback know it happened to me’,” said City Council Speaker and Mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, at the app launch press conference.

Also there, Hollaback’s founder and executive director, Emily May, thanked Quinn and the Council for their support. More importantly for women and vulnerable populations in the city, May spoke about the power dynamics of street harassment.

“Harassers love people who they can wield their power over,” she began. “And if you’ve been harassed throughout your life, you’ve probably come to understand: This is what it means to be a woman and to walk down the street. This is what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and to walk down the street. This is what it means to be a person of color, and to walk down the street.”

Hollaback App WILD Fashion

In tackling a deeply-embedded cultural and social practice, the Council’s got their work cut out for them. It’s one thing to endorse the app, but another to consider both its potential shortcomings and possible contributions to a slender body of research on what academics call “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.” You know, what happens when a stranger follows you off a train car, or makes those kissy-lips sounds at you. Those experiences when he cat-calls you, grabs you, hisses at you, strokes you, leers at you, murmurs that you’re “sexy, girl” in the split-second when you pass each other on the street before swearing at you when you rebuff his “flattering” advances.

In America—and these figures are over a decade old, signaling how little attention the academic community’s paid to street harassment so far—a reported 87 percent of women surveyed by researchers said they’d been harassed by a male stranger. The real interest here isn’t so much that a new app for your phone was just developed, but that we might be on the precipice of data sets that both map harassment in the city and deliver its prevalence right into City Council’s lap.

“We’ve seen that women particularly feel, when they’re reporting these issues, that they’re not heard,” said Beth Livingston, assistant professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, when I called her to talk about how the app fits into her research. “They’re told they’re being too sensitive, or that there’s nothing to be done.”

Hollaback App WILD Fashion

Livingston released two reports last year with colleagues from Cornell—one of whom, KC Wagner, pioneered the recognition of sexual harassment in the workplace in the 1980s. In collaboration with Hollaback, they used hundreds of written testimonials from 2005 and 2008 to understand both how street harassment plays out, and its short- and long-term effects on targets.

This is where the app might have missed a trick. While it’s poised to pull in some excellent facts on where, when and how often women and men are being intimidated in the city, it isn’t looking into how they immediately reacted. Or how they felt in the minutes, hours and days after the incident.

That’s the stuff that sticks with you. The sense of fear, or anger, or responsibility (“maybe in that dress I was ‘asking for it’?”) that makes something as simple as setting one foot in front of the other in public an exhausting production.

Hollaback App WILD Fashion

For some, it’s reason enough to skip town altogether or drastically change their movements. For others, the emotional effects of street harassment (hello, fear-blame-powerless cycle) can mirror those of other kinds of gender-based violence, according to Livingston and Wagner’s research. So it’ll be interesting to see how much of an impact the app can have on making the city’s vulnerable (exclusively smartphone-using) populations feel empowered, while serving its data purpose for Council members.

Let’s see where this social-science experiment takes the city (cue the Gwen Stefani clincher).

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