New app lets you report 'street harassment'

What began as a local effort to report instances of public sexual harassment is being reorganized into a global one, with an iPhone app replete with a map and user stories.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read

We've come a long way since the '80s, when my mom kept a whistle in her purse and one by the telephone. Now, there are all sorts of ways to report and publicly shame sexual harassers. One of the better-known is Hollaback.

When Emily May started the project in 2005, she designed a blog where women could swap stories of public sexual harassment--she calls it "street harassment"--in part for the relief of telling their stories, and in part for the power behind putting the accused harassers' faces and/or behaviors online for anyone to see.

Welcome to the Movement, from Hollaback's new Executive Director from Emily May on Vimeo.

But the Hollaback blog, which started in New York, proved to be such a popular concept that it now boasts satellite blogs based out of eight cities worldwide.

As of June, it goes 2.0, launching not only a free app for the iPhone and other smartphones but a more streamlined Web site with a map of reported harassment hot spots. The message: sexual harassment (characterized as verbal, physical, and public masturbation) will not be tolerated. As executive director May recently told The American Prospect:

With street harassment, if you walk on, you feel victimized. If you yell at the guy, you put yourself in danger. And of course, if you tell the police, they don't care. So when it happens to you three, four times a day, it really starts to weigh on your life. It changes the way you live your life, the clothes you wear. More than anything, we all wanted a response to street harassment that felt good.

So while Hollaback's mission is in part to deter harassment, it's also about those being harassed reclaiming a certain amount of power. Which is why May tells me by phone that Hollaback will also welcome harassment reports filed by men: "If somebody else wants to report harassment, I think that's fine. It's a good way for men to get involved, because 95 percent of men on this earth do not harass and [also] deplore this behavior."

Personally, I've always confronted guys who go beyond casual catcalling (which over the years became something I learned to ignore), but then again, I'm not exactly the shy type. If texting your story into your phone feels just as good, more power to you.

If, however, you're a dude who's been harassed by a woman, May is the first to admit this app is not for you: "We're targeting a power dynamic, so we're not looking at men harassed by women--to the extent that it may happen--because it's not the same degree of power dynamic. We do look at, for example, gay men harassed by other men, but we've received very few posts over the years. It tends to be an issue that women are most affected by."

Of course, as Hollaback grows in scope, so too does the potential for its abuse. (We've seen this with other sites, such as Unvarnished, which TechCrunch recently called "a clean, well-lighted place for defamation.") At Hollaback, subjectivity is a factor; one person may experience an incident as harassment, while another might just shrug it off as a minor annoyance of urban living. And what's stopping people from trying to exact revenge on an enemy or grudge through the widespread public humiliation afforded by the Internet?

May says there are safeguards in place to prevent such misuse. All reports, via the app or e-mail, are screened by an editorial board, which tends to post the most simple reports of type and location immediately but vets reports with photos and stories. And while May says that taking photos of people in public is perfectly legal, they're meeting with a legal team to determine how to handle potential libel cases--though in its five years she says Hollaback has never been accused of fabrication.