Can an App Fight Street Harassment?

Maybe in the old days a woman would be catcalled and do nothing about it. But it's a different world now, full of smartphones and civilian documenters and people who won't simply put up with things.

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Street harassment—catcalls, ogling, the occasional unwanted photograph being taken, and occasionally even groping—has existed since, probably, the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of cities. Women have generally put up with it, because what do you really do? In movies, perhaps, you confront your ogler. But in real life, usually you simply move on as quickly as possible so as not to "make matters worse," which is really sort of unfair. But it's a different world now, full of smartphones and civilian documenters and people who won't simply put up with things and move on. Enter Hollaback!, an app that women can use to upload photos of perpetrators, to tell their stories, and to generally make a statement against street harassers.

Hollaback! has existed for a while—the app and its co-creator, Emily May, have been written about in The New York Times, among other media outlets—but the time appears ripe for some renewed publicity. And that, it's gotten, partly because Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Councilman Julissa Ferreras of Jackson Heights have awarded $20,000 to May's Brooklyn-based nonprofit, according to The New York Daily News, to help support the app and the cause. Hollaback! exists in 52 cities and 17 countries; according to its website, it's "all about your right to be you: A person who never has to take it or just keep walking, but one who has a badass response when she’s messed with. Someone who knows that she has the right to define her own self instead of being defined by some creep’s point of view. Because none of us are as simple as a list of physical attributes. We have a right to be who we are, not who we are told to be. We have a right to define ourselves on our own terms when we walk out the door, whatever that means that day."

As for the creepy behavior the app is intended to combat: According to a recent Cornell University survey of 223 reports from the site, the majority of street harassment was verbal commentary. More worrisome, almost a third was physical, and 4 percent consisted of "nonverbal" creepiness, like staring or photographing. In any of those situations, the technology empowers women to do something about whatever is making them uncomfortable, to open up overall discussions about street harassment, and, perhaps, to even share photos of perpetrators and help catch them.

Like a recent app to report the bad behaviors of your cab driver, Hollaback! is a completely Internet-informed entity; holding people accountable and making them pay for their mistakes via a digital mechanism is par for the course of living in this day and age. "The explosion of mobile technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassment," reads the Hollaback! website. So it's not surprising that politicians are supporting it—plus, it makes for good publicity. And, really, what's the downside?

Still, not everyone is in agreement. One guy told the Daily News, "You can’t put an end to [harassment]. It happens everywhere,” and another went so far as to call the app "an invasion of privacy."

“If you want to talk to a girl. Why can’t you talk to a girl? Let’s say you are a single looking for a woman?” Cruz said.

Tip: If you are single and looking for a woman (and even, frankly, if you're not), don't make her the target of your catcalls.

One note in the piece in the Daily News is strange, though. Emily May, co-founder of Hollaback!, has said that "cops can’t really track loudmouth skirt chasers." We've checked with the NYPD for clarification on what exactly that means and will update when we hear back.

Now, can we get an app to report those strange men on the street who tell you to smile? We really hate that.

Image via Shutterstock by Aaleksander

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.