By Amanda Pickett
Developers have been using technology for survivor empowerment and support for years. But what would it look like to have sexual violence prevention technology that’s directed specifically at men, especially since at least 90 percent of perpetrators are men?
“There’s an app for that” is an expression you’ve probably heard. Owning a cellphone is almost ubiquitous in this day and age. Unfortunately, it’s also ubiquitous to know someone who has experienced sexual assault or harassment, wherever you are in the world and especially since the #MeToo campaign went viral this fall.
A 2014 survey from Stop Sexual Harassment, a U.S. organization, found that 65 percent of all women had experienced street harassment and among all women, 23 percent had been sexually touched. Among men, 25 percent had been street harassed—a higher percentage of men from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community than heterosexual men reported this. Aggressors—mostly men—assault one in three women and one in six men before the age of 18. Trans and gender nonconforming people are 3.3 times more likely to experience intimate partner violence. Rates of violence are also significantly impacted by other intersections of identity including race, ability, age, sexuality, and class.
Awareness and prevention apps
To leverage the rapid growth and accessibility of smartphone apps for combating the problem of sexual violence, developers and social justice initiatives have been teaming up since the early 2000s to design and mainstream apps about prevention and awareness.
In Iran, TORANJ is an app produced by legal experts and women’s rights activists to provide education and support to survivors and those who are at risk. According to TORANJ, “social, cultural and legal barriers already make gender equality a struggle for women, [thus] user-friendly technologies are vital to providing support to at-risk individuals and raising awareness about their right.” In Lebanon, HarassTracker brings together mapping technologies with multimedia campaigns to advance reporting, awareness, and access to resources. Ramallah Street Watch in Palestine, similarly addresses empowerment through reporting.
In Canada, Sayfe.U is a mobile platform out of Toronto that educates university students about consent and supports survivors. In the US, Circle of 6 alerts a user’s six chosen emergency contacts. The app UsafeU.S. connects campus-based users with resources including counseling, legal advocacy, and how to be an effective bystander. HollaBack! empowers users to report street harassment immediately or shortly after an incident. Heartmob, a digital tool powered by Hollaback!, provides a platform for exposing online harassment.
As part of a 2013 World Bank challenge to create a digital gender-based violence prevention tool, Costa Rican developers designed an app about healthy relationships for young people. In El Salvador a web, and text message–based tool for identifying and reporting violence was produced.
In Kenya, a report on gender, income level, and mobile phone usage found that concerns about mobile security and harassment are common among women and serve as a barrier to mobile phone use. Thus, call blocking apps are noticeably popular with female users in sub-Saharan Africa, as a means of avoiding harassment.
Mobile phone users in India are reporting and mapping cases of sexual harassment via HarassMap Mumbai, and HarassMap Cairo in Egypt. SafeCity is similar but for users anywhere in the world, as it aims to generate awareness and “solutions for hotspots through local action.”
Sawt Nissâ addresses sexual harassment in Algeria; users post pictures and stories in order to reclaim action and subjectivity after an incident of harassment and objectification.
It’s important to note that these apps seek to empower the survivor or potential victim of violence. They are not geared toward encouraging critical reflection on the part of men who are intentionally or unintentionally committing acts of violence and harassment or who may be seeking support in changing for themselves and their communities.
Addressing the root causes of sexual violence
In an episode of NPR’s Radio Rookies, Jared Marcelle is a reformed catcaller in Brooklyn, New York, interrogating the roots of street harassment. He discovers that it’s more about peer evaluation among men than about a given woman and the impact upon her. He also discovers how pervasively normal and unexamined it is that men harass women and act entitled to do so.
A report from Cornell University and HollaBack! found that “85 percent of women in the United States experience street harassment before the age of 17.” Some of the impacts of this norm include men feeling a precarious sense of having proved their masculinity in the eyes of their male peers—a homosocial behavior according to sociologist Michael Kimmel, executive director of the Center for Men and Masculinities. The impacts also include that “more than half [of women surveyed in the Cornell report] changed their clothing, refused a social event, chose a different transportation option or felt distracted at school or work.” It is worth speculating about how men might feel about this disconnection between the behavior society resignedly expects of them and the impact it’s having—on the harassed and the harassers.
With an awareness of men’s behavior, some men are, and have been, looking to change. Jared, the reformed catcaller, was once like his friend Shawn, who is steadfastly certain that women enjoy catcalls. Jared had a turning point after finding himself outraged in the face of his sister experiencing street harassment. He reflected:
“As a man, I’ve never had to think about what women go through. I made myself think about it…[that] women are not objects placed here for my pleasure. It was like studying for a test I had to write myself because as a guy, this doesn’t really affect me, but as a human being it does.”
Countercultural though it may be, showing up as a man critiquing and rewriting the culture of masculinity is not only being done by individual men in isolation. Violence prevention strategies that address the foundation of rape culture (which all too often means the culture of masculinity) already exist and they come from governments, NGOs, civil society, and community organizing.
What are some of these strategies? How could they be made available in a globalized and mobile-oriented world? Are they already operating? Last December, the Men Engage Alliance, the global network working to engage men and boys for gender equality, co-hosted “Virtual Roundtable Dialogue: Roles and responsibilities of men and boys in response to #MeToo” (in which Voice Male participated). Two of the participating organizations, from Canada and Sweden, are already utilizing technology to build community among men for gender equity and to provide resources for change.
20Minutes4Change.org is an online project created in partnership with Canada’s White Ribbon campaign. The project presents fathers with a mobile-device-friendly script for discussing consent with their sons. Since 2016, fathers have pledged more than 100,000 minutes to engage in conversation about consent with their sons.
In Sweden, Män för Jämställdhet (MÄN: Redefining Masculinity), an NGO focusing on social norms of masculinities and their impacts, has developed interactive videos similar to a role-playing video game. The viewer is a participant in a scene and given options to intervene or to be complicit in violence in a high school setting, including learning about the results of your actions.
In Russia, Отцовство в России (“Fatherhood in Russia”) has an interactive map and online portal that highlights centers, organizations, and activist groups that are strongly urging more men to be active caregivers and involved fathers. Currently 26 organizations are mapped in 16 cities around Russia. In addition to the map feature, the portal also includes a database of resources, methodologies, events, and news stories advancing men as caregivers. Men embracing and developing their capacities to do care work is one piece in the tapestry of men’s engagement in violence prevention, as noted in a 2016 article, “The Opposite of Rape Culture Is Nurturance Culture.”
The future of prevention
On the horizon there may well be a sexual violence prevention app for men. This app might connect men who are doing antiviolence work, like the fatherhood mapping tool in Russia, highlighting, for instance, when a community already exists. Such an app could also be used by men who want to brainstorm what to say next time after remaining silent after witnessing street harassment or hearing rape jokes. It could be for reformed aggressors like Jared seeking a community to hold them accountable and offering guidance from men who have rejected the status quo and feel isolated as outcasts.
Channeling resources, talent, and technology into transforming rape culture will continue to require tireless and life-giving support for survivors and potential victims; survivorship is always present. Simultaneously, though, transforming the culture is—and has been for decades—about engaging men and boys. Social and cultural norms already make gender equity activism an abnormality for men; therefore, user-friendly technologies have incredible potential to provide resources and a much-needed community of countercultural men.
In the future, when a man insists that women enjoy catcalls or is outraged that his sister was harassed or wants to not feel alone in this fight, the day is coming when another man will say, “Hey, you know, there’s an app for that.”
20 Minutes 4 Change (20minutes4change.org)
Circle of 6 (circleof6app.com)
HarassMap Mumbai (akshara.crowdmap.com)
Män för Jämställdhet (mfj.se/)
MenEngage Alliance (menengage.org)
Отцовство в России (men-care.org/2017/12/19/russia-interactive-map-online-portal-organizations-fathers)
Ramallah Street Watch (streetwatch.crowdmap.com)
White Ribbon Canada (whiteribbon.ca/)
Voice Male director of programming Amanda Pickett is a gender specialist in Boston advancing men’s engagement in gender equality with the specific aim of setting in motion men’s “aha” moments about the reality of sexism. An organizer of the Cambridge Forum for Feminist Discussion of Masculinities, she holds a master’s in gender and cultural studies from Simmons College.