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Fighting Street Harassment, One Snapshot at a Time

BY Nick Judd | Friday, July 9 2010

In 2005, Emily May launched Hollaback NYC , a blog dedicated to collecting first-hand experiences of women being catcalled, leered at and groped in New York City as a way to document and, hopefully, eliminate street harassment.

Hollaback expects to put more force into that push with an iPhone app, to be released any day now. It will capture coordinates of the incident, allow users to snap a photo of the alleged harasser, select from a list of types of harassment, then post the resulting record of the situation to a database. As each incident report is moderated — to prevent, for example, geolocated pictures of male private parts from flooding the system — it's posted to an interactive map. The user will then get a follow-up email asking for more information about what happened.

The app is an elaboration on the Hollaback blog, which mixes similar vignettes of harassment in New York with essays and other news about harassment and violence against women. Even if it isn't published yet, the ideas themselves — of the blog and it's approach to social change, and this type of iPhone app — are worth exploring.

"In very real terms, it's turning the lens off the woman who's being harassed and onto the harasser," May told me in a phone interview Thursday.

As Hollaback ally Rebekah Spicuglia, a writer and activist, alluded to an op-ed published Thursday in the New York Daily News, it doesn't take long on many streets in New York in the summer — or any subway car in New York more or less ever — to see examples of the kinds of ungentlemanly behavior Hollaback was created to counteract. And exerting the right to not put up with it is hard to do face to face.

"Street harassment puts women in an impossible position," Spicuglia writes. "When we do nothing or say nothing, it continues. When we yell at the guys, it escalates. We are often blamed by the culture for what we are wearing. Some even call those offensive comments 'compliments.'"

May says that women often don't report verbal harassment to the police, and even women who participate in Hollaback might not follow through by submitting an account of what had happened to them.

"We found that women harnessed their personal strength to try and pretend like it didn't happen, to try and pretend like they weren't just harassed," she said. "The effect of that is by the time they got back to their computers, they didn't want to send an email and tell the story."

This is where the iPhone application comes in: If it's approved, it will be a way to respond to a situation in real time, without necessarily creating a confrontation.

That has collective as well as individual implications as far as May is concerned. What happens in real-time is that the user can document where she was and when, and take notes on the type of the event that occurred, which doesn't involve a potential confrontation between harassed and harasser. She can also take a picture of the person that's making her feel harassed. But on the Internet, that moment becomes a datum about street harassment: It is a set of coordinates, a categorization, and possibly a photo all related to an incident that can be mapped alongside other incidents. Data proving the prevalence of street harassment can be used in the fight to change that behavior.

May also puts this in a historical context. Movements for social change involve "a core point where people stood up and said, 'this isn't okay anymore,' and really bucked what was considered normal and accepted in society as something people should just put up with," she said.

"Unlike the civil rights movement, or unlike what happened at Stonewall, we're not creating that instance in a real time location," she said. "We're creating that instance by gathering the voices of thousands of people internationally and we're doing it online."

Unlike the tools of movements past, this one calls out individuals — although not by name — for allegedly uncouth behavior. May says that's not the point — the point for her is to document that some men act this way to women and that it happens often. Her position seems to be that the outrageousness of the way women are often treated in the street will speak for itself. (The agency of the women involved, that in this model they act on their own behalf, is no small part of this either.)

When I broached the subject, she specifically told me that this is not about revenge against harassers. In fact, most of the pictures posted to Hollaback, if they're of an alleged harasser, are so blurry or from such a distance that the person's face is hard to make out, May told me in a Friday follow-up call. That's partly by design. In five years, May says, not one person has contacted Hollaback to protest a post, and May would like to keep it that way.

It's unclear how Hollaback would react if that ever happened. The organization is in the process of becoming incorporated, and will have some legal insurance once it is an official entity, but May seemed uneasy about the prospect of any kind of battle over Hollaback posts — legal or otherwise.

The iPhone app has been under review for over a week, May said, although she expects it will be approved soon.