Map Critique: HarassMap

Since 1999, the United States has seen an increase in the number of women’s empowerment organizations and anti-harassment legislation, nationally and regionally here in New York. In my research, I’ve noticed a spike of anti-harassment campaigns and initiatives between 2005-2015, reaching peaks around 2011. This may have something to do with the Apps Against Abuse challenge brought forward by Vice President Joe Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. According to whitehouse.gov, “The nationwide competition called on software innovators to harness the power of mobile technology to help prevent dating violence and abuse by keeping young adults connected to trusted friends and providing easy access to important resources for help including local police and abuse hotlines.” This seems to explain the surge of apps geared toward creating networks of friends and family to help young women stay connected when experiencing concerns of safety or threats of sexual violence. At surface level, this seems like a move in the right direction, but when I started digging deeper into the apps from this era, I came across a lot of ‘This page cannot be found’, revealing the short-lived nature of these projects. Which begs the question, was this what was really needed? An initiative with this title easily could have moved in many directions, but the parameters laid out seemed to heavily dictate its results. In an era of “the future is female” being slapped on clothing at Forever 21, do women really crave apps that simply react to harassment? The essential aspect of female empowerment is POWER. An app that can make an alarm sound, text a network of friends or simply report post-encounter has nothing to do with taking control over a situation. It is because of this disconnect, that I have chosen to focus my thesis on exploring anti-harassment tactics that harnesses empowerment as a tool to combat sexual violence.

For my map critique, I had a handful of options, as mentioned above, but one organization stood out. HarassMap, an anti-harassment campaign out of Cairo, Egypt with the slogan, “stop sexual harassment, together”. The homepage, with its clean design and simple legend, makes it pretty clear what you’re looking at. The zoomed-out view shows areas of concentration, with the option of zooming-in and focusing on individual incidents. Each point provides the time of the incident, place and a short description about the event. Below the map are options to report your own stories of harassment and intervention. Right off the bat, there’s a pretty clear message that sexual harassment requires intervention. The user has the option to look at the map in three different views: map, chart and table. The chart view shows “Reports over time”, starting with the first reported incident to today. There is an interesting correlation with the highest number of reported incidents around 2011, and the uptick of organizations popping up in the US. The next peak is the highest number of interventions between 2013 and 2014. My guess is this is when the organization had a campaign push, but it’s also possible that politically something was conjuring that contributed to the increased participation. Sadly, like many of these organizations from the same era, it seem to have lost its steam. Without being on the ground in Cairo, it’s hard to say what the reasoning behind this is, but I have a feeling it’s not because this is no longer a problem.

To learn a little bit more about the idea behind the organization, the about section states,

HarassMap is based on the idea that if more people start taking action when sexual harassment happens in their presence, we can end this epidemic together. We support individuals and institutions to stand up to sexual harassment before or when they see it happen. By taking a collective stand against sexual harassment, re-establishing social consequences for harassers – and making role models of people who stand up to them –  we believe that harassers can be deterred from harassing again.

This approach is very different from the organization’s US counterparts, with its mission of immediate intervention from a bystander, versus other apps where the burden remains on the person being harassed. Deeper into the “about” section, they provide steps the organization is taking to get to their final goal. Step 1 consists of “establishing people’s belief that sexual harassment is a crime that is the fault of the harasser”. Step 2 asks individuals to intervene, and institutions to “implement and enforce anti-sexual harassment policies”. Step 3, states the end goal of “zero-tolerance will be the norm and sexual harassment will decrease in Egypt”. Users have the option to continue to learn more about HarassMap’s partners, methodology, campaigns and other resources in various tabs.

My biggest critique of this organization is the idea that harassment requires bystander intervention. Plus, I get the sense (through the map entries and the video under the Campaign tab) that this bystander is expected to be male. I am all for men holding other men accountable, but if the message is that women need men to intervene in order to stop sexual harassment, what agency does that leave women with over their own bodies? As I have started pondering this subject, I have been thinking a lot about how I personally move through the city. Due to the total lack of “raw” data in this area, I decided to start keeping a journal of my harassment encounters.

I tracked the amount of time I spent in public and if I experienced harassment that day. If I did, I divided my experiences into three categories: non-verbal, verbal and physical. In addition, I tracked the time of day it occurred and the location (in a more generic sense, ie. street, train, park, etc.). As I started tracking this data, it occurred to me that in the year I’ve been in NYC, I have already started to engrain tools to preemptively avoid these encounters. I am almost always “plugged-in” to my headphones, causing me to undoubtedly not even register some verbal encounters, but I also have specific paths I take and ones I avoid. I decided to call this concept Spaces of Avoidance.

I took a basemap of my neighborhood and started drawing the most common routes I take, highlighted in yellow. Then, I took red and started marking the areas I avoid due to past experiences of harassment and feelings of unsafety. I have started asking other women in my life to create this same map of places they spend significant time in. I’m interested in patchworking all these maps together, losing the basemap and seeing what it creates. This is almost like a take on the map of avoiding surveillance through Manhattan. Although this does not directly solve the problem of harassment (there is no single answer), it can help women realize what they may subconsciously do everyday to protect themselves and the power they have over their bodies. This map also goes beyond showing women as victims, and emphasizes the burden placed on them everyday to ensure their own safety.