Followup: You can do something about street harassment

I recently posted about fighting street harassment using mobile phones. The idea has two parts: one, make it simple and fast to report street harassment. Two, take away the anonymity of harassers by taking a photo of the person doing the harassing (when safe) and posting it along with the harassment report.

To my flabbergastment (yes, I made up that word), the most common objection to this project was this: If you give women an easy way to post photos and stories about men who sexually harass them on the street, they will use it to falsely attack men they don’t like. Co-workers seem to be an especially big concern.

On the one hand, this is great news! If people are afraid of being falsely accused of street harassment, then they think it’s a bad thing. This certainly isn’t a universal opinion yet. Today, I stopped a man who harassed me and asked him if he thought he was doing something wrong. He didn’t think it was bad – but then he also refused to let me take his picture. Here’s the back of his head:

But on the other hand, this means people are more worried about women lying about being harassed than the actual fact of harassment. Several people don’t want to support the project at all because they believe the potential harm – of women lying in order to damage the reputations of men – exceeds the potential good – reducing the incidence of street harassment. In simple terms, better women harassed than men falsely accused of harassment.

Personally, I think the first false accusation of street harassment on iHollaback would be an incredible landmark. First, someone would have to care enough to fake a report (including anonymized email, time, date, place, incident, and convincing on-the-street photo). Second, the person falsely accused would have to notice – because enough people were reading the web site that one of their friends recognized their photo. It’s sort of like a blog’s first libel suit – Score, enough people are reading my blog that it’s worth suing me over! Woo hoo!

Speaking seriously, iHollaback has a strong incentive to make sure their reports are accurate and truthful. If your concern about false reports prevented you from donating to the Kickstarter campaign, please take a moment to reconsider. What is the likelihood of harm from false reports, compared to the potential benefit? If you don’t experience street harassment on a regular basis and aren’t sure what the benefit would be, please take my word on it. Just being able to report the harassment I experience put a smile on my face for a week.

Thank you.

14 thoughts on “Followup: You can do something about street harassment

  1. Wow! You are rockin’!

    Wish I knew how to spread the word of iHollaback around campus. I’m faculty, so I need to tread very, very carefully. HR is quite conservative (in the action sense, not necessarily political), so they’d frown on actively spreading the word, and I don’t yet know the local WISE folks. .. Perhaps it’s time I find them and point them to this and your previous post on this topic. One of them must have taken something related to file systems. That’s enough of an opening to point them in your direction.

    Thank you!

  2. As a man, I support the idea. My wife’s family is a bunch of therapists, so I’ve been receiving an education on abuse and domestic violence pretty much since we started dating over 8 years ago.

    While I’m certainly no expert on the subject, I feel that I’ve gathered enough information to have a moderately informed opinion. It is my perception that the cases of false accusation are few and usually have more to the story than just a simple, “She’s lying about me because she wants to victimize me!” The fact that men make up the vast majority of violent criminals indicates that these sorts of women are few.

    That said, I do think there needs to be a balance. There’s a lot of self-centered, rude, and very clueless people in the world who don’t consider others. I encounter many of them in my local theaters talking during the films. Direct, assertive confrontation generally tends to allow me to identify the clueless from the willfully malicious and proceed accordingly. Rude people often sound a lot like abusive people, but will not rise to the challenge of being confronted. Rude people don’t care about the power dynamic that abusers thrive on.

    A singular act can be blown off or chalked up to a mistake or differences in accepted social norms. Behavior that persists after a request to cease is obviously harassment.

    So, my concern with this project isn’t so much the potential for false accusations, but premature accusations. Educating people takes time. So long as the general public remains uneducated about the issue, then it needs to be approached first by polite confrontation with an offer for educational discourse.

    Once the abusive demonstrate that they’re abusers and not simply clueless, THEN this sort of a project is a great home to a rogue’s gallery of abusive assholes.

    If care is not taken with separating the rude, yet clueless, from the genuine abusers, then those who are “fighting back” are no better than the abusers they are trying to combat. Rather than applying social pressure and education to help curb abuse, they will instead be victimizing the under-educated and ill informed. I’m not sure I can see a moral justification for victimizing people for simply being rude and clueless.

  3. Thanks for the reminder. I pledged, and I laude the goal of making harassment completely unacceptable and risky to the harraser. When I saw your first post, the only thing that concerned me was whether taking a harasser’s photo might cause things to escalate, but in the end I guess that is a judgement call that only the person receiving the harassment can make. I hope the project meets its goals.

  4. The thing is that it violates everything about a fair justice system. You get to be judge, jury, and “executioner” and there is absolutely no such thing as teh possibility of a fair trial. That’s what such a concern is about. In such a system there is no such thing as innocent until proven guilty, there is only guilty, and no way to do anything about it.

    Any benefits from a system like that is null and void when facing this point. Actually, there should be no reason to take it at all seriously, because it is totally unworthy of a modern, justice-based society.

    This is all in principle, of course. I’m sure you post pictures of really bad guys. In your opinion. Which is all that’s necessary, because YOU are in the right – and so will everyone else be that posts a picture. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it, right?

    Copyright holders wants to be able to tur of any individual’s internet just because they say that person is a bad guy too. No court, no judge, no jury. They also think they are in the right, and never mind if anyone might be innocent.

    The harm done to anyone possibly innocent is always greater than the harm done by someone not getting their punishment, that’s the basis of our whole wester justice system, and why we must free if we aren’t sure we got the right guy.

    That is why a system like this is totally despicable. For shame.

  5. Just like the biggest problem with rape being illegal is OMG WHAT IF THE WOMAN LIES!!! right? Yeah, should totally just make rape legal so the women can’t be lying about whether they were forced into it. Wouldn’t want to damage men’s reputations, after all!

  6. People often react to proposed change by thinking of the worst aspects and ignoring the benefits. They’re happy with the status quo, so they don’t care much if it improves, but they don’t want it to worsen. This encourages them to be reactionary. You’re very unhappy with the status quo, so your attitude is the reverse. You’d be willing to try even risky solutions if they might improve matters, and this solution isn’t even risky.

    Worrying about false reporting would make a lot of sense if we were talking about actual penalties for reports. If someone can be penalized based on one person’s testimony, that’s a serious problem. But this system will at worst bring opprobrium on someone falsely accused, and probably not even much of that, so the objection is weak here.

    This kind of reporting strikes me as harmless at worst, so if it makes anyone feel better, go for it, IMO.

  7. The thing is that it violates everything about a fair justice system.

    Except for the part where the women who take pictures of their street harassers are not, in any way, law enforcement officials. THey are private citizens exercising their right to free speech.

  8. Mackenzie,

    Like the biggest problem with whatever being illegal is that OMG WHAT IF THE VICTIM LIES!!! Right? Yeah, should make any crime legal so the vicm can’t be lying about whether they were forced into it.

    Please, this is a serious matter, help us keep the discussion level high. Just because you heard this comment from some idiot it does not mean we should perpetuate it. Stay silent when you don’t have anything meaning to say.


    As for the matter at hand, whoever feels threatened by a street harasser is entitled to reasonable actions for self protection, such as taking a picture. On the other hand, publishing the picture and implying something about the person is a liability as the idiot might sue you for libel. Just make sure to document it well and if the idiot attempts to sue you, counter sue him/her and publish his/her name.

  9. The concern about false accusations is part of the larger cultural stereotype that women “manipulate” men and lie to get what they want. You see it in the way rape cases, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, child custody cases, and harassment are all treated both by the general public and by the law. There’s a deep-seated belief in patriarchal culture that women are inherently untrustworthy, and that they have no “natural” sense of ethics (as opposed to men, of course). It’s a preemptive strike against women’s credibility that effectively protects the patriarchy from serious challenges. For example, it’s the basis of the absurd “false memory” panic that completely undermined the credibility of adult women who testified to being sexually and physically abused as children.

    In any of these areas, the numbers of women who make false accusations is so minute as to be statistically irrelevant. (The same people who are in terror of women falsely accusing men of harassment probably don’t support state funded mandatory DNA testing of criminals sentenced to death row, where a much, much higher rate of false convictions exists.) But those few cases receive a huge amount of publicity and are bandied around as “proof” of the “lying woman/victimized man” stereotype.

    So bravo for the the Hollaback program! Catch those guys on camera and video, hopefully while they’re harassing you. You don’t have the right to privacy when you’re committing a crime in a public place. Serve up clear, graphic evidence of the pattern of discrimination against women, and the everyday threats to women’s psychological and physical safety. Don’t think twice about those folks who are worried about “false accusations” because they aren’t worried about *your* welfare. If we don’t protect ourselves, it’s very clear that no one else will.

  10. Kali, according to my psychology textbook (Myers, 7th Ed., p. 372 ff.), false memory has been observed repeatedly in many experiments conducted by many people. For instance (p. 376),

    “One research team interviewed 73 ninth-grade boys and then reinterviewed them 35 years later. When asked to recall how they had reported their attitudes, activities, and experiences, most men recalled statements that matched their actual prior responses at a rate no better than chance. One in three now remembered receiving physical punishment, though as ninth-graders 82 percent said they had (Offer & others, 2000).” (Full reference: Offer, D., Kaiz, M., Howard, K. I., & Bennett, E. S. (2000). The altering of reported experiences. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 735–742.)

    More germane (still p. 376):

    “Australian psychologist Donald Thompson found his own work on memory distortion ironically haunting him when authorities brought him in for questioning about a rape. Although he was a near-perfect match to the victim’s memory of the rapist, he had an airtight alibi. Just before the rape occurred, Thompson was being interviewed on live television. He could not possibly have made it to the crime scene. Then it came to light that the victim had been watching the interview―ironically about face recognition―and had experienced source amnesia, confusing her memories of Thompson with those of the rapist (Schacter, 1996).” (Full reference: Schacter, D. L. (1996). Searching for memory: The brain, the mind, and the past. New York: Basic Books.)

    There are four and a half pages (starting on page 376) about childhood memories and repressed memories. The conclusion is that children’s memories are extremely unreliable, and memory recovery techniques often implant false memories. Laboratory studies are cited in which children of various ages responded falsely at extremely high rates (>50%) when asked leading questions about abuse, to the extent that professional psychiatrists could not tell afterwards in an interview which children’s reports were accurate and which were false.

    I would be interested in any studies you have that support the contention that this kind of false memory is actually rare. Or any that suggest that the rate of false accusations of rape is minute (I’m not sure how one would actually study that one way or the other). My limited education in psychology has led me to conclude that testimony of a single witness is not very reliable under almost any circumstances. I’d appreciate any corrections.

    (None of this stuff about memory is material to a situation where a photograph is taken immediately, of course.)

  11. Simetrical brought up examples of problems with — to admitedly simplify a bit for clarity — (a) memories of events a decade or more in the past, and (b) eyewitness misidentification, and then asks for studies that “… suggest that the rate of false accusations of rape is minute”.

    Here’s a related question: of all the accusations of rape, what percentage are of stranger-rape where these problems of identifying the rapist come up (as opposed to rapes committed by someone the victim already knows and is unlikely to mistake somebody else for), and what percentage are reported so many years after the attack? Using these studies to discount the huge numbers of acquaintance rapes as being “probably false memory” is at best disingenuous and at worst actively evil.

    Furthermore, how do the phenomena described apply to on the spot reporting as in the iHollaback project, when the memory is scant seconds old and the perpetrator is still standing right there?

    In short, you have constructed an excepptionally well-documented red herring.

  12. My post was a tangent, not a red herring. I was responding almost solely to Kali’s statement

    “For example, it’s the basis of the absurd ‘false memory’ panic that completely undermined the credibility of adult women who testified to being sexually and physically abused as children.”

    I provided citations about that, nothing else. The only argument I made was that false memories are a real phenomenon that are relevant to some sexual abuse cases.

    Kali also said “the numbers of women who make false accusations is so minute as to be statistically irrelevant”. Since she stated this as a matter of fact, and I haven’t seen good evidence either way before, I asked for her sources. That doesn’t mean I disbelieve her. I’ve heard the point discussed before, so I’d be interested in evidence either way to cite the next time I see it discussed. This is unrelated to my tangent about false memories, and perhaps I should have made that clearer.

    I explicitly noted in the last sentence of my post that it had nothing to do with iHollaback, because memory is irrelevant there. It was a response to Kali’s post, not the original post.

  13. There is no need to separate the a**holes from the clueless. Having your picture taken and published on the Internet is not a criminal conviction and will not send you off to jail. It’s not even a fine (which is much less than repeat offenders deserve).

    What it is, is a way to help clueless people get a clue, and to actually deliver a consequence for an unacceptable behavior that there’s no legally effective way to counter.

    No, suing people for street harassment is not effective (or reasonable — I don’t personally know any women who have the money and time to follow up on all the repeated street harassment they experience). I’m not aware of a single case in the U.S. in which a man was successfully sued for street harassment, as prevalent as it is. It’s not in the criminal code and it’s not taken seriously in the civil code.

    Women mostly don’t turn and confront the harasser for the very simple reason that violent men and rapists don’t wear signs. We have no way of knowing if this is the nut who’s going to blow up and attack, or “just” yell obscenities if we fail to meet his expectations. What women do know is the difference between a normal friendly “hi” as two humans pass on the street, vs. a “smile for me baby” type of approach that’s all about control, not friendliness. Would you “confront” a ticking time bomb? Not if it were obviously labeled as such. We don’t have that luxury with men. They don’t come labeled “Good Guy” or “Rapist-in-Training” or whatever.

    This is why men are such a powerful group of feminists. Many men are aware of street harassment and do what they can to fight it, alongside women. We’re a team, and I always tell men, “Don’t minimize women’s experiences — fight street harassment, and women will be much more open to male approaches. Fighting street harassment improves life for everyone, not just for women.”

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