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Hollaback Girl: Emily May Fights Street Harassment With Empowering App

Emily May / Photo by Samantha Casolari

Emily May, a 31-year-old New Yorker, spent five years getting harassed on the street without telling anyone about it; then she realized a possible solution was in the palm of her hand.

May developed Hollaback!, an iPhone and Droid app that lets users anonymously explain what happened, upload photos, and mark the incident’s location on a Google map. That information then gets fed into the network, which so far collects data on street harassment in 45 cities and 16 countries. When she has enough data about harassment in a particular area, May presents it to the local government and works with them to propose increased education funding or awareness programs.

The number one piece of advice women get about how to deal with street harassment is to shut up and keep going, and I think that’s the worst possible advice you can give. Strength is being loud about something, even when the world tells you that you should just put up with it.

When one person comes forward to share her story, it inspires others to do the same — it’s like when you’re at a show and three people start dancing. You gain control back over your life. That’s the personal impact; but there’s a political impact, as well. This is how social change has always been made.

The baby boomers in the ’60s and ’70s were great at addressing structural discrimination — the laws and stuff. Social media allows us to realize those grassroots tendencies because everybody can genuinely lead. As a result, our generation has a huge intolerance toward traditional leadership. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We’re not going to see another Gloria Steinem or Martin Luther King — instead, we’ll see a bunch of people speaking out about issues that concern them, and all of those voices will bubble up to create a narrative.

I’m sure that there were people in history who said, “Women’s right to vote? If you don’t like the way your husband votes, then why did you marry him?” Or, “If you don’t want to be harassed in the workplace, then why are you working?” Yet there also have been people who have come before us and said, over long periods of time, “Actually, this isn’t okay. I deserve better.” Nobody usually listens to them the first thousand times. But eventually that message starts to sink in, and that’s how we change culture.

This story is part of a package from the May/June 2012 Loud Issue of SPIN.