Sexual violence prevention: mobile apps that target men?

The potential of user-friendly technology to fight sexual violence.

“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 the US organization Stop Sexual Harassment found that 65% of all women had experienced street harassment and among all women, 23% had been sexually touched. Among men, 25% 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 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 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 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 for providing 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, is also about 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 United States, Circle of 6 alerts a user’s six chosen contacts in an emergency. The app UsafeUS connects campus-based users with resources like 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.

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As part of 2013 World Bank challenge to create a digital gender-based violence (GBV) prevention tool, Costa Rican developers designed an app about healthy relationships for young people and 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 amongst women and serve as a barrier to mobile phone use. Thus, call blocking apps are noticeably popular amongst female users in Sub Saharan Africa, as a means of avoiding harassment.

Mobile phone users are reporting and mapping cases of sexual harassment via Harassmap Mumbai in India 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.”

صوت نساء Sawt Nssâ 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 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 amongst 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% 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. 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 that:

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?

On December 14th, the Men Engage Alliance, a 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.” Two of the participating organizations, from Canada and Sweden, are already utilizing technology to build community amongst men for gender equity and to provide resources for change. is an online project created in partnership with the White Ribbon campain in Canada. The project presents fathers with a mobile-device friendly script for discussing consent with their sons. Since 2016, fathers have pledged over 100,000 minutes to engage in conversation about consent with their sons.

In Sweden, Män för Jämställdhet (MÄN), an NGO focusing on social norms of masculinities and their impacts, has developed interactive videos similar to a role playing video game. You, the viewer, are a participant in a scene and given options to intervene or to be complicit in violence in a high school setting, followed by the results of your actions.

In Russia, an interactive map and online portal highlights centers, organizations, and activist groups that are pushing the envelope on men as care givers and involved fathers. Currently 26 organizations are mapped from 16 cities around Russia. In addition to the map feature, the portal also includes a database of resources, methodologies, events, and news stories pertaining to the advancement of 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 the 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 anti-violence work, like the fatherhood mapping tool in Russia, highlighting that a community already exists. Such an app could also be for men who have witnessed street harassment or rape jokes, remained silent and want to brainstorm what to say next time. It could be for reformed aggressors like Jared seeking community to hold himself accountable and to offer guidance about the lived experience of rejecting the status quo and feeling like an outcast.

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 for providing resources and creating a much needed community of counter cultural 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, someone will say “hey, you know, there’s an app for that.”

Amanda Pickett

Amanda Pickett is an American gender specialist in Boston and administrator for Voice Male, a pro-feminist magazine chronicling masculinities today. Amanda promotes and advances spaces of men’s engagement in gender equality that set in motion men’s “aha” moment. By this she means the moment(s) it becomes clear that a) gender inequality is a pervasive and complex social problem, b) we are NOT ALONE in our discomfort with, and eagerness to change, gender inequality, and c) we CAN do something. She holds a master's in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College and has worked with Merge for Equality, Inc.
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