An App to Help Women Avoid Street Harassment

The challenges of collecting data on where people do and don't feel safe.
Tim Wimborne/Reuters

People who regularly experience street harassment learn to navigate public spaces nimbly, but with anxiety. They might reconfigure their commutes or slip headphones in their ears to look like they can't hear catcalls or whistles.

A new street harassment reporting app aims to help users log unwanted encounters by monitoring incidents in real time and submitting them to their council member. At the same time, though, it raises questions about the definition of "street harassment" and who determines how it should be punished, if at all.

Emily May co-founded anti-street harassment nonprofit Hollaback! in 2005 to document the experiences of women and members of the LGBT community. May was often told that a certain amount of unwanted contact was "the price" that women, gay, and gender non-conforming people paid for being in society, and she wanted to highlight the everyday irritations they were expected to shrug off.

The testimonies on Hollaback!'s messageboard are probably familiar to many. "A man followed me on the bike and then circled around me, making comments, telling me to smile and come with him," wrote one woman, describing a trip home from a Sacramento Amtrak station. A submission from a disabled, pre-op transgender man says, "I'm partially handicapped by [rheumatoid arthritis] and have had caregivers help. One [male-to-female trans friend] I used to live with got so fed up with the attitudes in the neighborhood she quit." The writer's new aide has had to fend off blow-job requests from the landlord, he wrote. These types of encounters are routine for 84 percent of women who have considered changing their behavior, such as choosing new routes or avoiding being alone in public, to avoid being harassed.

Street harassment is problematic because it deviates from unspoken rules about the way strangers should interact. As Cynthia Grant Bowman wrote in her 1993 Harvard Law Review article "Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women," normal public interactions, especially those in big cities, are conducted under a guise of "civil inattention." Strangers typically "perform an avoidance ritual" of making brief eye contact, disengaging, and continuing on their way. There are obviously some nuances--a wordless nod or smile, a quick "hello," or "excuse me," a brief exchange of banter--but, in general, most people tacitly agree to give each other space and expect the same in return. Instead, street harassment becomes a massive game of I'm Not Touching You. Sure, not all street harassment involves aggressive physical contact, but even the nicest of compliments becomes bothersome if it's delivered with disregard for someone else's personal space or an expectation that the recipient be grateful.

That's where Hollaback! comes in. The original app, released in 2010, was basically a mobile extension of the website. However, the newest version released last month for use in New York City functions as a street-harassment reporting tool. The app was granted $20,000 in 2011 with support from New York City council member Julissa Ferreras, the current Chair of the Committee on Women's Issues, and is free. More recently, former mayoral candidate and city council Speaker Christine Quinn threw her support behind the latest iteration. (I called Quinn's office for comment and was directed to this press release.) The home screen lets access "Resources" or "Know Your Rights," and it also includes a map with balloons that reveal street harassment clusters. In addition to posting incidents, users can plot their location manually or via GPS, noting the area and type of location (borough, school, business); enter demographic information (race, gender); and attach a picture of an incident they witnessed or experienced. If users opt in to the feature, those reports then go to their district's database and Councilstat. (Council members who receive complaints in their district will have access, not the mayor.)

But even though the NYPD will not receive the reports, the feature makes some anti-street-harassment advocates nervous. Some are wary of entrusting demographic data with New York City government, while others believe the movement's history of grassroots action will be displaced by government intervention.

May insists that Hollaback!'s mission aligns with public desire for "community-based responses that are about education and mobilization [rather than] more police responses." In the past, Hollaback! has organized safety audits to assess the conditions of particular areas where pedestrians seem to be vulnerable to harassment. Council member Ferreras coordinated with the group to conduct the first one in Queens last year. The patrol resulted in the replacement of street light bulbs and working payphones, which May says "make a space feel safer, and therefore be safer." Ferreras's communications director, Megan Montalvo, said the district hadn't received any formal complaints, "but as a council woman and someone who grew up in the district, street harassment was something [Ferreras] noticed." May sees the app as an extension of these types of grassroots efforts.

The executive director says collecting data enables local organizations to make tailored adjustments, rather than sweeping, citywide ones ordained by law. "If we learn that this is happening to primarily women of color," she explained, "[we can] make sure there are educational workshops and campaigns designed with them in mind." She also envisions greater support for anti-street harassment ad campaigns like the one Hollaback!'s Philadelphia branch launched on SEPTA trains, which will run through October. May believes advancement for these initiatives requires some government involvement.

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