Fighting Street Harassment With Smartphones

Smartphones could help women who experience street harassment

Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

I wasn’t the only one who saw it. There were dozens of people walking along the same sidewalk, seeing the same thing, hearing the same words. None of them stopped to intervene—and neither did I.

This is what happened: Three men in business casual attire were walking past a young woman in Adams Morgan, a trendy neighborhood in Washington, D.C. As they approached, the men began to call out to the woman.

“Hey, sexy,” said one of them. “What are you up to tonight?”

“Look at those legs,” said another, “and that face. Hope you’re not going home alone.”

The woman’s face contorted into a pained smile as she kept walking. For an instant, the men paused on the street, and it looked like they might pursue her. But the moment passed, and both parties went on their way.

I went on my own way, shaken and startled. While describing the incident to my boyfriend over dinner the next night, our server overheard our conversation and joined in.

“That actually happens to me all the time,” she said. And what did “all the time” mean? “At least a few times a week.” I asked what she meant by harassment. “Oh, catcalls, unsolicited compliments, comments about my body … and, of course, men exposing themselves to me.”

One final question: What do you do to fight back?

“Nothing, really,” our server said. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Some studies suggest that it affects at least two-thirds of women in New York City, Chicago, and the California Bay Area. In fact, it’s “a very old problem” that has only been recognized recently, says Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment and International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which began April 7.

Historically, victims have had no means of identifying their harassers, of broadcasting their stories, or of documenting what occurred. Through smartphones, blogs, and social media, however, victims can share their stories and educate their communities—and fight back.

Empowerment is a key goal of anti-street harassment groups like Hollaback, which has activists in 62 cities throughout 25 different countries. “There’s something very different about making your story public versus just trying to pretend like your stories aren’t happening,” says Emily May, co-founder of Hollaback. “Just telling your story catalyzes so much, emotionally and externally. A public response actually decreases [a victim’s] experience of trauma and lessens her risk of facing anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Hollaback’s goal is to make more responses public. In 2005, the organization created a website on which women were encouraged to share their street harassment stories. Since then, the group has launched a smartphone app that allows women to report their harassment in real time. The app notes location, and its data helped Hollaback—in partnership with Cornell University—track patterns of harassment and analyze the effects of harassment on women. Intriguingly, the app revealed that street harassment levels correlate to nothing but population levels; socioeconomic factors played no role. Where there are more men, there will be more street harassment. It doesn’t matter if the men are black or white, wealthy or poor.

These smartphone reports also help Hollaback work with legislators to end street harassment. Hollaback’s location-targeting apps have revealed which districts have the highest incident of harassment, information that might encourage legislators to sponsor anti-harassment education. Each app report, moreover, can be relayed to the New York City Council, which is working with Hollaback to provide stronger preventive resources to communities. While much street harassment does qualify as a misdemeanor or even felony offense, Hollaback’s focus is prevention, not criminalization.

Still, the option of exposing one’s harasser remains a potent form of justice for many victims. Stop Street Harassment, a Washington, D.C.-based organization with an international scope, allows victims to share stories of their harassers—and pictures, if they’ve taken them. Collective Action for Safe Spaces does the same and also provides a publicly accessible map of all reported incidents.

CASS has also worked with Washington’s Metro system to create a public awareness campaign against street harassment. (About 30 percent of incidents in the city occur in or around the Metro system.) This campaign includes signs in every Metro station discouraging harassment, as well as a system for women to report a physical description of their harasser. Metro also encourages women to send in a photograph of their harasser if they feel “safe enough” to take one.

Because these tactics are so new, no comprehensive study has proven their effectiveness. But the little research there is seems promising: One study has illustrated the psychological healing power of sharing one’s harassment story on a Web forum. In another, researchers asked students from 30 middle schools across New York City to map harassment “hot spots” within their schools, then conducted awareness and intervention campaigns in those specific locations. The result: a notable decrease in harassment among the students.

As CASS, Stop Street Harassment, and 118 other groups in 18 countries celebrate International Anti-Street Harassment Week, though, the question remains: Why, in 2013, is this problem still so prevalent—and in so many countries? (India and Japan , for example, have instituted woman-only train cars.) According to Catherine Harrington, a senior program officer at the Women’s Learning Partnership, street harassment is “a component of violence against women” that arises “whenever women assert themselves in the public sphere.” Some harassers may act due to a “lack of control over their lives,” while others feel “an entitlement” to “assert their dominion.” Either way, the result is the same: targeted, vocalized misogyny.

It was exactly this kind of misogyny I witnessed that night in Adams Morgan, and I fear those same men will do the same thing to more women without facing repercussions. One day, though, perhaps their victim will snap a picture, or report the incident, or even simply share her story. If she does, her voice will join a chorus of others who are refusing to tolerate such deplorable behavior. And with the help of their smartphones and computers, these women just might change the world.