Hollaback! to Create An App to End Street Harassment


"Make a woman smile … by not harassing her."

Visit the Hollaback! website, and you’ll see videos like this one, read how-to sidewalk chalk the streets in anti-harrassment messages, and find harrowing, all too common personal anecdotes of harassment. Earlier this week, Hollaback! was propelled further into the spotlight, as they were selected as a grant winner from the Knight Prototype Fund.

Hollaback’s grant money will be used towards building a geo-logging political app synced up to the New York City government, which will make it the first government in the world to receive street harassment reporting in real time. Ideally, the goal is to spread this technology to the 62 cities in 25 countries where Hollaback! movements already exist, and eventually, scale it globally. The app will fuse activism together with a legitimate, empowered response — all of which will take place in real time. I was given the opportunity to speak with founder Emily May and ask her more her vision for the future of the campaign.

May explained, "I want to change the way people are experiencing street harassment. Instead of now, where they may or may not have been told that this isn’t okay, and there’s probably a part of them that blames themselves or feels a sense of shame around it. I want them instead to know concretely when this happens to them that this is not okay, that this thing has a name, that there are places you can report this, and there are people who can help you."

The problem with street harassment is two-pronged. On the one hand, we have a culture that is so saturated with harassment, that it is hard to lift the public consciousness out of the idea it’s just human nature — that the problem is really a woman’s overreaction, and it is ultimately up to her to just deal with as part of life. This view lends itself to the idea that harassment is impossible to change, or worse, not important enough to invest in changing.

The flip side is the way this harassment is internalized. Those who experience street harassment have been made to feel that there is no place for their response. If they have a negative reaction to being harassed, this becomes a reflection on their sensitivity or inability to just simply deal with it "like everyone else."

May made a great comparison to bullying, a problem which just a few years ago everyone acknowledged but couldn’t imagine tackling in a real, systematic way. "The movement is really poised to succeed right now. Think of bullying 10 years ago, and how everyone acknowledged that it was a problem but no one imagined that a complete cultural shift would happen." Now that anti-bullying movements have exploded, Emily believes street harassment too is primed to break out of the cultural shoulder-shrug, and onto the platform for real change.

Of course, that change is not about incriminating one gender. Emily explained, "We know this stuff is in the water. 51% of college men admit to sexually harassing fellow students. But of course it’s not productive to lock up 51% of the population! It is productive to start to change that conversation with them and start to do it at a young age." Emily hopes Hollaback! will not only provide concrete methods for reporting harassment, but also wants to incorporate street harassment into sexual health curriculums and PSA’s. She continued, "We’ve gotten stories from girls as young as 7 … We really want to prevent it. We’re not really interested in locking up all these guys."

As a nation dependent on technology, it is empowering to see shareable content designed for the common good, and on the cusp of creating a real cultural shift.

On the micro-scale, having a platform for people to share their stories of harassment is providing them a formerly absent opportunity: the ability to speak up and raise their voice. I’ll let the voices speak for themselves.

"I tried the unreponsive method and it just made him angry cause then he starts saying just awful comments (sexual in nature) and also racist things … He didn’t leave until I got to a busy intersection where a couple of other people were and he left thank goodness…as much as I wanted to tell him off because he was the lowest person I have ever met, I couldn’t because I was worried he would get violent. I hate these feelings of humiliation, disgust but mostly fear. I should be able to walk in public without being afraid for my life. Street harassment needs to end! Thank you for listening I feel better now."

For more stories and info on the movement, visit http://www.ihollaback.org/.