Holla atchya Tech Lady: Apps to Combat Sexual Harrassment

I was almost giddy with excitement when I read about Not Your Baby, a free iPhone App that “generates snappy comebacks to street harassment”. It is produced by Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (MACVAWC) in Toronto and available free thanks to Canadian socialism. The app offers tailored responses to different situations, so it can help you whether you’re being harassed at school by a classmate, at work by a colleague, or on the street by an anonymous creep. An amazing idea! Who among us hasn’t been holla’d at or pursued a little to hard by a creepy acquaintance? I figured the app format could be a little awkward, but I was excited to see a new media approach to the problem.

First: how pervasive is this problem? From my direct experience, there are places in my neighbourhood that I go out of my way to avoid because of the persistence of catcalling by complete strangers. I’ve been fortunate in my career to never have dealt personally with an overly creepy colleague or classmate, but I know scores of women who have. To determine whether I had a skewed view of the problem, I took to facebook to see whether my friends shared my experiences. In less than a day, I got a whole mess of responses like:

“Hey lady! Wanna be my girlfriend?”

“hey bebee…wanna to chat?”

“you misunderstood me… I was only going to hang out with you tonight if my other plans fell through.”

“Baby! Smile a little!” aka “Whatever you may be experiencing internally that is leading you to look stressed out or sad is nowhere nearly as important as your duty to look visually appealing to me, a random dude on the street.”

Among many, many others. So this app is attacking a very real problem. But how well does it do?

The first example I tested out was the “hey bebee… wanna chat?” example, which was a staple in the days of ICQ and more timely situations like online gaming and communities. So I fired up the ol’ iPad (we’re android users in this house, so pardon the goofy scale) to see what Not Your Baby had to say.

Not Your Baby App

Hmm, there’s no option for responses to internet harassment, which is unfortunate because I think an app would be completely appropriate to use in this situation. Anyways, let’s try out some ol’ chestnut street hollas. I selected “Stranger” and “Street”.

Call the Police! A man on the street whistled at me!

I’m not sure about where you live, but where I live, the police are unlikely to care if someone is hollering at you on the street without any overt physical threats. Let’s see what else you suggest…

Don’t be that guy

Okay, not bad. Interestingly the “Random Fact” is “Taking pictures of or filming people without their permission is harassment”. I know women who actually do this in retaliation to such harassment, so does this mean that they shouldn’t do that? Or is this a secret code for vigilante justice that we should read as “filming people without their permission is harassment *WINK*”.

How’s about non-strangers? Like when you’re being harassed by a colleague?

I’m reporting you

I guess this could work, but the women I know who have faced situations like this are usually trying to build relationships with their team, and taking an approach like this can make that difficult. I fully support a woman taking such a stand in the face of workplace harassment, but I’m not sure how practical of a suggestion this is. What if said person was your boss?

I'm reporting you. And I quit.

I’m reporting you AND I quit!

Well, okay, but now you’ve lost your job, and in the US, likely the rights to any severance or unemployment. For Tech Ladies, you might actually be able to pull the “Tech Lady is OUT, son!” move given that it is a worker’s market in the tech sector in many parts of the world. But for a woman in almost any other industry, especially if she’s supporting a family, this advice doesn’t seem helpful.

My overall conclusions:


  • Tech for social change: I love that MACVAWC is applying technology in a novel way to solve a problem that (I’ll venture to guess) everyone woman deals with at some point in her life.
  • Supportive: Even if you can’t use this when you’re in the midst of being harassed, it could be very cathartic to explore the app’s suggestions after the fact, when you’re replaying the incident in your head.
  • Informative: In addition to the “comebacks”, the app offers serious information on harassment and links to resources (at least in Canada)

Areas for Improvement

  • Online Harassment: This is an EPIC issue these days. For those of you unfamiliar with this kind of problem, I suggest you read about The Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian [WARNING: Content is very disturbing]. This is also a scenario where you could realistically use an app to respond in realtime to harassment.
  • Snappyness: The comebacks offered aren’t as snappy as I was fantasizing they would be. Sure, I would probably never use this app while I was being harassed, but I would use it after the fact to imagine what I’d say to the bum before roundhouse kicking the guy in the jaw and incinerating him with my laser eyes!
  • Practicalness: Quitting your job because you’re being harassed at work isn’t a helpful strategy, nor is calling the police because some guy on the street made kissy faces at you.
  • Android-ify: Not everyone has iPhones. This is particularly true in the US among communities of colour, where android has the overwhelming market share. As bad as it is for me in my neighbourhood, at least I can avoid the streets where I know this nonesense goes on. It would be great if the girls and women who have to walk down those streets to get to work or school, many of whom are women of colour, to have access to a free resource like this.

Overall, I recommend anyone interested to download it provided they have the right phone/tablet/emulator. This is definitely a conversation worth having. Try it out yourself and “hollaback” with your comments.

Today I’m having an obvious dance party – Gwen Stefani, Hollaback Girl.

One comment

  1. paulschreiber

    Sounds like they get a B+ for effort, but only a C- for actual implementation. Maybe in version 2.0? (Although the idea that the app would launch quickly enough for any comeback is kinda preposterous.)

    “Taking pictures of or filming people without their permission is harassment”.

    It can be. It can also be journalism, keeping tabs on the police, or just plain ol’ art. http://www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/

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