On Monday, an app called Hollaback! relaunched in New York City with an unveiling in Brooklyn by Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn. Since its release in 2011, Hollaback! has created a crowdsourced map of street harassment incidents directed at women and LGBTQ individuals with the hope of putting a stop to catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment.
With the updated app, users can opt to report harassment directly to City Council district representatives. Emily May, the Executive Director of Hollaback!, told me that the goal is to gather enough stories to prove to lawmakers that street harassment is an issue that merits legislative action.
That could take the form of public service announcements, education workshops in middle and high schools, and even improving street lighting.
While workplaces have developed workshops and policies for gender-based harassment — a good step, although it persists nonetheless — catcalling on the street is still alive, well, and largely unacknowledged as an issue. But for many women, honks, whistles, and comments on how good they look in that dress are part of the fabric of everyday life. Living in New York, I’ve been told to “Smile, baby” more times than I can count.
When Hollaback! got started in 2005, it was a blog that collected harassment stories, often in the form of photos that women took of their harassers. Building a community around street harassment was an empowering way for those who have been subjected to it to understand it as a widespread problem.
“People came into Hollaback! and said, ‘There this really crappy thing that happened to me,’” May said. “Putting it online helped them contextualize and move it outside their individual experience, and also help them understand that it wasn’t their fault. Their responsibility to end it doesn’t lie exclusively with them, or changing what they wear.”
And Hollaback! isn’t the only organization of its kind. Groups around the world have been building apps, Tumblrs, and community websites geared toward crowdsourcing street harassment stories. In 1999, New York’s Street Harassment Project launched a now-defunct website that shared and archived women’s stories.
Like Hollaback!, Egypt’s HarassMap collects anonymous reports of sexual harassment — anything from ogling to assault — and bundles them geographically into red dots on a map that are proportional in size to the number of complaints. Since the mobile app launched in 2010, they have received 1,243 reports.
For HarassMap, this data is more useful for informing their own offline volunteer efforts than it is as evidence to bring to the Egyptian government.
“We have been in contact with some government agencies, but our experience shows us that so far there has been no real political will to address the issue. A public approach to sexual harassment, in the context of Egypt at least, has been much more effective than an official, governmental one, or one that focuses on advocacy for new or improved legislation,” said Noora Flinkman, a member of the HarassMap team. “We believe that political and legislative change in terms of sexual harassment will only come when the issue has become socially unacceptable and people themselves demand change and action from the government.”
Holly Kearl, founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, said that although the term “street harassment” came out of the rape crisis movement of the 1970s and was addressed by pockets of activists in the 1980s and early 1990s, sharing and documenting the problem through online and mobile tools is what has allowed it to grow.
After piloting its new reporting system in New York, Hollaback! aims to extend that service to the other cities it operates in stateside and internationally. Kearl is currently fundraising to conduct the United States’ first national study on street harassment. If self-reported data gathered on apps isn’t enough to push legislation, a formalized study could have more sway.
“People in power typically don’t experience street harassment so it’s not on their mind or a priority but those who are impacted by it can now tell their stories on social media, on blogs and keep attention on the issue,” Kearl said. “Social media has also been a great way to educate people who don’t understand this issue because they can read through stories easily. I especially encourage people to share stories with men in their lives who may not otherwise know this is happening.”