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Feminism Reaches the iPhone

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

by R. Reitman

Locate your parked car? Identify songbirds? Check surf conditions? Yeah, there’s an app for that. With over 100,000 active applications currently available for the iPhone —and more added constantly—there’s no foreseeable end to the stream of creative software designed to interface with the popular mobile phone from Apple. The newest addition to the roster, launched in July, brings a fresh twist to mobile application technology: documenting street harassment.

The application is the brain-child of New York activist collective HollaBack. According to co-founder and director Emily May, “Street harassment is on a spectrum of violence against women.” She points out that between 80% and 100% of women internationally face some type of street harassment, yet it is largely unreported.

What is street harassment? It’s a term activists still struggle to define. Typically targeting women and the LBGT community, verbal street harassment can range from “Hey baby” to a violence-tinged sexual tirade. Street harassment also includes flashing, public masturbation, groping and sexual assault.
While most people—as well as criminal statutes—agree that a stranger’s unwanted groping on a subway is a clear violation of one’s physical privacy, many other forms of street harassment are harder to define. Where do men and women draw the line between flirtatious and frightening?

“It’s really up the individual, which can make it tricky for defining street harassment. Anything that’s sexist or sexually explicit, anything that involves touching, anything that doesn’t stop, is over the line,” explains Holly Kearl, a national expert on street harassment and author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women. She says that, “Most of it’s not illegal as long as it’s not a threat or touching or masturbation.”

But legal doesn’t mean welcome. “We felt victimized,” stated May in a recent telephone interview, “When we would say something to the guys it could just escalate the situation — and the police wouldn’t care.”
So May and a group of likeminded men and women turned to the Internet to vent their frustrations – and HollaBackNYC.com was born.

HollaBack offered a unique solution to street harassment—the ability for victims to share experiences, advice, and consolation online. For the most part, victims just tell their stories.

Immediately after its 2005 launch, the HollaBack website found a warm welcome with both the Internet community and the media. And it’s not just New Yorkers who wanted to stand up to street harassers. HollaBack now has independent outposts in five US cities as well as international groups in Australia, Mauritius, the UK and Toronto. While each group currently operates independently, the advent of iPhone app, interest from the press and several years of experience make this a fortuitous time for the HollaBack collective to try its hand at creating a more cohesive, connected, and official nonprofit.

And it’s clear that mobile technology is going to play a big role in HollaBack’s future.

The new iPhone application, which achieved its fundraising goal May 28 through Kickstarter.com, will allow individuals in New York to document street harassment as it happens. Victims can choose to make a report with or without a photograph and will choose a category for each incident: verbal, groping, flashing, assault or other. Users will also be able to provide additional details via email at a later time. Incidents will link up to an online mapping system.

This won’t, however, provide a real-time map of street harassment in New York City. To prevent abuse of the technology, HollaBack will vet entries before they are posted, resulting in an unspecified delay before submissions are published. (Among other things, HollaBack does not allow posts from heterosexual men harassed by women or posts that could be interpreted as racist.)
Of course, there’s no reason to think that iPhone owners in New York suffer a disproportionate percentage of street harassment. What, then, for the rest of us? May refers to the current application as a “beta” version— HollaBack is getting the technology working in New York before opening up to those outside the city as well as smart phones other than the iPhone. Initially, though, incidents outside of New York City can be documented via the iPhone application but won’t be published on the online map.

There is also hope for the victims of street harassment with less-than-smart cellular phones. HollaBack is combining efforts with activists in Egypt who are raising funds for a “Harassmap” which will allow women to report incidents via SMS text messages. Once this system is fully functioning, HollaBack plans to integrate the international Harassmap with New York’s own HollaBack mapping system – a collaborative effort with an ambitious target launch of December, 2010.

All of which begs the question – can an iPhone application, or even SMS posts to an international Harassmap, really combat street harassment?

The answer isn’t an easy one to address. Street harassment is, to all appearances, a series of unrelated incidents perpetrated by (mostly) men who have no connection to one another, no coordination of activities and little or no planning. Often these men don’t consider their actions to be demeaning, harassing or intimidating; they may even consider it a form of flattery. (What woman wouldn’t want a stranger to compliment her breasts when she’s on a morning jog?) So, would fear of public castigation and online notoriety deter potential street harassers?
Even measuring the efficacy of a program to combat street harassment is challenging. In Boston, an ad campaign on subway trains targeting sexual harassment resulted in a significant jump in the number of harassment incidents reported. However, because most street harassment is still widely unreported, it’s difficult to measure whether the ad campaign was an effective deterrent against harassers or simply encouraged more individuals to make reports.
“The solution is always going to have to be multi-layered,” according to Kearl. She believes the best way to deal with street harassment is a program that involves education campaigns, public awareness campaigns, laws and the empowerment of women and girls to stand up to street harassment. Kearl also praises the new iPhone app: “It’s very useful for raising awareness and for the self empowerment of women. I think that documentation through the iPhone app of HollaBack is really the next step so that we can approach lawmakers and say that this is a big issue.”
HollaBack certainly hopes so. According to their website and Kickstarter.com, this application will “track street harassment through data points to quantify and communicate its impact to legislators.” The end result of collecting all of this data is to see “significant improvements in policy and a reduction in crimes against girls, women and LGBTQ individuals.” The data collected through the system will be reviewed and analyzed by researchers from the Barnard Center for Research on Women to better understand the nature of street harassment.

With all of this data and scientific analysis, should we look for stronger laws in the coming years? Not necessarily. May spoke glowingly about the benefits of public policy and legislative reform, but then cautioned that, “Developing laws around it aren’t going to be nearly as effective as educating people and creating a cultural shift. That’s because women don’t want to report it — and I don’t see that changing at any time in the near future.”
While HollaBack is quick to point out the benefits of empowering and educating people, they studiously avoid discussing privacy implications on their website. In fact, the only place they address the issue directly is via an FAQ section. They posit: “But aren’t you worried that your site will fuel the latent vindictiveness within women and LGBTQ-identified folks across the country, leading to a massive witch-hunt and rampant Soviet-style denounciations of countless innocents?” HollaBack’s answer? “No.” They then provide links to two articles that deal with government surveillance of citizens.

This is a cavalier response to an issue that merits at least a thoughtful, open discussion. While, as a general rule, in most situations it’s not illegal to take photographs of adults in public spaces and publish them on the Internet, there are concerns about what the future of our society will be if vigilante justice via cell phones becomes a widespread tool.
In the late 1700s, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham invented a model prison known as a “panopticon” – a prison in which the inmates would never know whether or not unseen guards were observing them. As mobile technology becomes more prevalent and our daily lives increasingly are spent in cyberspace, do we run the risk of inadvertently creating our own citizen-run panopticon? While it might be an effective mechanism for holding street harassers accountable, will we be one step closer to a world in which any activity in a public space will be considered fair game for posting in perpetuity on the Intenet? While these issues may be more a function of the increasingly mobile and connected world we live in than HollaBack’s new iPhone app, it might behoove HollaBack to address these concerns with sensitivity and attention. After all, many of the individuals who are clamoring for privacy on the Internet are the same individuals who turn to the HollaBack site to share anonymous stories – sexual and gender minorities and the victims of sexual abuse, assault and stalking.

Reading through the stories submitted to HollaBackNYC.com is disturbing. Women report being attacked on the way home from school at night, being the object of masturbatory fantasy on subway trains and the subject of sexual speculation when they walk down the street. One who spends enough time on the website might begin to wonder if a course or two in self defense and quite possibly weaponry might be needed for a woman to venture out safely in New York, especially on the subways. The incidents date back years, hundreds of pieces of evidence woven together to show that women are routinely treated as sexual objects when moving in a public space. Kearl describes street harassment as a mechanism for disrespecting women: “I think that it says that women don’t deserve as much respect as men, and it’s almost a way of gender policing. You’re attacked if you meet the societal beauty standards and you’re attacked if you don’t.”

If nothing else, the stories posted to HollaBackNYC.com serve as evidence that America’s struggle for gender equality is in no way finished. Which, for readers who enjoy partaking in the democratic process, might merit a phone call or letter to one’s representatives in Congress. That is, if you can find the right number.

And yes, there’s an app for that, too.

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