social networking does not keep women safe

 

 

Keeping Women Safe Through Social Networking, an article in Feb 28th’s New York Times Business section, discusses how women are threatened when traveling, and looks to Ihollaback.org and Stopstreetharassment.com as potential sites for making women safe on the streets.

This is needed because, as the article points out:

But rarely is it reported — not to the authorities and not at the office, where a woman who talks about harassment on a business trip may worry about being marked as a problem traveler.

The author then goes on to write about  a number of women who have faced verbal and physical abuses on the street, from the women who started these websites, to  “ESPN reporter, Erin Andrews, filmed through a peephole while naked in her hotel room,” to “CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, who was sexually attacked by a mob in Tahrir Square in Cairo.”

This article raises a couple of interesting points- the first is that women face physical and verbal assaults while they are in ‘public’ spaces; the second is that they are, for many reasons, mostly not reporting it; and thirdly, that there are now spaces for women to disclose the wheres, whens and hows of street harassment.

These are all valid, but the article doesn’t go far enough. It stops at the idea that social networking sites can, according to the title of the article, ‘keep women safe.’

But let’s be clear here: social networking does not keep women safe.

The author actually says:

Ms. Kearl also operates a Web site, Stopstreetharassment.com, “where people can share their stories in a way they don’t feel comfortable sharing them in person,” she said.

and then in reference to Ihollaback.org,  Emily May, one of the founders, is quoted as saying:

“We’re using social networking, blogging, aps and maps to help people share stories and to build a case,” she said. “Street harassment of women has been silenced for too long, and we’re breaking that silence.”

The author misses the point that these sites are for sharing, for raising awareness, for educating and breaking the silence.  These sites map and document where it has happened in the past.  If I was to use these mappings to avoid places where other people had been harassed, I probably wouldn’t be able to leave my house.

These sites by themselves are not intended to, and will not stop harassment or violence against women. These applications will not prevent a woman from being raped, or otherwise physically assaulted.  This is not their point.

Though, according to their website, hollaback! “is dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology,” it is actually a space for harassed and assaulted people to have a public voice, to not feel alone.

And Stopstreetharassment.com has strategies for women to report and respond to harassment, along with education for men, and says flat out that

Street harassment will not end until men stop harassing women. Therefore, it is most important to focus educational efforts on boys, young men, and men

It is not only for critical mass, but for redefining and changing the relations of power and aggression.

Hollaback’s ‘about’ section then goes on to say “We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK.”

So the issue is not about ‘keeping women safe through networking.’  The issue is the  systems in place in our society that allow people to feel it is acceptable to harass or physically assault people on the street (or in a bar, or on a train or a bus, or by peeping in a hotel room).

Hollaback is looking to empower women to speak back, and to have a support system to rely on to do so. These sites want to enable a change in the relations of power on the street, which is a huge task, and one that I applaud them for. This is a far cry from social networking keeping women safe.

It is an attempt at changing the cultural climate that allows it to happen in the first place.