First it was a word, then it was a movement, then it was law.
Today ‘sexual harassment’ is outlawed under the 2010 Equality Act, which defines it as ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which … either violates… dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.’ We hear ‘sexual harassment’ – in stories of the Kevin Spaceys, the David Cuomos, the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. We use the term – in a court of law, in an accusation, in a warning. We see it, hold it, grasp it. ‘Sexual harassment’ forms part of the conceptual map that permits us to navigate the world; the ideas that structure our experience.
Consider the time before “sexual harassment” existed as a defined concept. To do so is strange. It’s an unlearning; analogous to thinking your way back to being a child, with a child’s contrived naiveite. You have to place yourself in an impoverished conceptual landscape; imagining people having the experiences that we group under sexual harassment and not consider them as a single entity. You have to unsee the link; erase the map.
Yet there was a time when this was the case, when no one grouped those experiences together. “Sexual harassment” (qua concept) did not exist before April 1975. After April 1975, in an employment tribunal against Cornell University, Carmita Woods found a term to articulate the constant unwanted touching of her supervisor that had prompted her resignation. She described it in a court case as ‘sexual harassment’. The concept came into existence.
The effect of this was dramatic. In the New York Times, Farley (who testified at the same hearing as Carmita) describes how ‘it felt as if the term had the potential to change everything’, how “women could share stories and strategies. They understood that they weren't alone, that millions of working women shared their experience. It was as if a light had been turned on in a dark room."
Kant defined a concept as a ‘general representation, a representation that is possible of a plurality of things.’ Fundamentally, what a concept does is group things. It unifies the disparate, bringing them under a common, overarching branch. In the case of ‘sexual harassment’, the words of Carmita Woods brought structure, a link between the thousands of individual incidents of groping, leering, touching, rubbing, jeering that populated women’s experience. It planted them together, on the conceptual map.
What happens when you bring experiences together in this way? You move from something ephemeral, a fleeting series of individual incidents; to something tangible, a reoccurring pattern that made itself known in the weight it put on the shoulders of women who just wanted to work unhindered. You make it a structure, something that people can fight against. Something is there, the problem made recognisable such that individuals can take steps to combat it. In the case of ‘sexual harassment’, a group – Working Women United – was formed, ‘Speak Out’ events began, and Catherine MacKinnon helped flesh the concept out into something that could sustain the weight of law. Due to her ‘Sexual Harassment of Working Women’ (1979), ‘sexual harassment’ became sufficiently articulated to be brought under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act.
Sexual harassment went from an idea that did not exist, to something that carried a prison sentence.
That is an enormous change.
The story of Carmita Woods can be taken in two ways. On the one hand, it inspires. It attests to the power of a single individual, a single protest, single phrase; it shows the butterfly effects, the chains of events we have the power to set in motion.
On the other, we may well find the story of Carmita Woods terrifying. For it leads us to question whether or not we are as impoverished as those in March 1975. We ask, what concepts are we missing out on? We ask a question that is unanswerable. We cannot articulate the extent of our conceptual deprivation without breathing life and coming up with the very concepts we suspect that we lack. It is the same reason someone could not have predicted the invention of democracy, the wheel or human rights. To have predicted it is akin to having invented it, so innovation is thought to be intrinsically unpredictable. As a result, we do not know how blind we are, and we will not until those concepts are created. Our blindness is something that is shown to us retrospectively. We do not know what progress we are failing to make.
There are two reasons to warrant us believing that our blindness is extensive, and the progress we are omitting enormous. The first comes from an unlikely source – computer chips. It is not entirely true that we cannot predict innovation. Although we cannot predict the form of innovation – the specific concepts and ideas that come about – we can predict the rate – the speed at which we think new concepts arise. This is shown by Moore’s Law. In 1965, the American engineers Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. He extrapolated from historical data about the rate of scientific invention to draw conclusions about future progress. He could not predict how this innovation would occur, only that it would.
We can see the same in feminism. When women make a concerted effort to discuss and draw awareness to aspects of their experience – be that in consciousness-raising groups, or Caitlin Moran’s one-woman crusade to enrich our language – the number of different terms and ideas they come up with is vast. Even in the past few years words – gaslight, mansplain, incel – have allowed new behaviours to be identified, pointed out and tackled. Feminism’s own ‘Moore’s Law’ would suggest that, given sufficient attention, the richness of our vocabulary can increase at an astonishing rate.
The second reason I believe there is so much progress to be made is a little more personal. Over a year ago, I wrote a Facebook post. In it, I put a numbered list, where I detailed exactly what had happened on a night out. I acknowledged that, of the words at my disposal, ‘rape’ seemed to best describe what had happened. But I also accepted that it wasn’t a perfect fit. I was using the best of the language that I had available to me, but in trying to come up with the words that could encapsulate the remainder – the gaps that had led to my experience not quite measuring up correctly to what appeared to be the enormous word that is ‘rape’ – I was left with (rather lamely) with the phrase ‘something wrong’. What I was trying to say was whether or not you felt what had happened to me deserved the name rape, you had to recognise that there was a concept missing to describe the ‘something wrong’ I had experienced.
I’d done very little. I’d vaguely gestured at a concept that needed to come into being. There was no depth, no structure, no concerted effort to pin down what this concept was. Yet the response I received was enormous. 13 girls told me they had reconsidered or re-evaluated some experience that had happened to them – had gone and looked for help after reading what I’d written. These girls had realised that the existence of a gap between their experience and our classical conception of what rape is didn’t disqualify their experience from being something wrong, something worth discussing and addressing. It remains the thing I am – by far - most proud of.
I have many hopes for WYA Writes. I hope it becomes a place where we draw attention to an app that stops these experiences from happening and helps with the bringing about of practical change of WYA. I hope it is a place where people experience catharsis, where they can write to process their experiences, where they can heal. But I also hope that it allows people to interrogate, explore, create and – ultimately – enrich our conceptual landscape. I hope it allows us all to become Carmita Wood’s; to develop language to bring about change.
Where You At is a new free app that allows you to track lost friends in nightclubs, even when there is no signal available. It comes in response to the continuing threat on women’s safety posed by spiking, sexual assault, and scant safety procedures to handle such situations. Where You At offers a pragmatic response to the issue by handing control to the night goers themselves.
The app has two female co-founders, university students, Tamzin Lent and Olivia Leigh and aims to be launched imminently. It comes at a time of great urgency as we continue to read harrowing stories of spiking including the latest threat of spiking via needle injection. It reflects universally felt trepidations experienced by women out at night. The problem is loud and those at Where You At are listening.
The app will provide users with a clear map of theirs and their friends location on entry, allowing users to track and find each other when necessary. The aim is for both venues and app users to work in partnership. Where You At does not rely on cellular connection to work but harnesses Bluetooth to enable precise tracking for friends connected on the app. This will seriously change the way club goers experience nightlife. The use of Bluetooth will give piece of mind where guarantee of stable internet connection cannot be secured. Where You At will be a reliable safe word for groups of friends.
The principal feature of the app is its SOS button which sends out a precise time and location alert to your friends if threatened or in danger. This can provide essential information to police if necessary. Furthermore, SOS alerts can be sent directly to venues to alert staff to unsafe areas on site which they can work to improve. This will also be important for clubs who will be given the opportunity to improve their customers experience.
Trials for the app launch will begin in Oxford and Cambridge with hopes to expand into London and eventually nationwide. COI Lauren Levine hopes that Where You At will become so integral that people won’t consider going to a venue if they aren’t on the app.
The app comes at a critical time in nightlife history. Reports of women being spiked via needle injection are still trickling through the media and action must be taken. Where You At
understands the mutual need for safety and fun. Treating women’s safety as a priority should not contradict with the right for women to enjoy themselves on a night out. Therefore, instead of ordering gender lock down or offering restrictive advice, Where You At offers women a reclamation of the night, and the autonomy to have a good time.
There are currently huge legal gaps in prosecuting against cases of spiking. This is because spiking currently has no registered crime code. Police do not consider it as a stand-alone crime and so it is not reported unless connected to a report of theft or sexual assault. Where You At want to bridge this gap between experience and the legal system erasing these traumatic experiences. WYA have launched a survey in conjunction with the NTIA to document these experiences.
The work at Where You At will not be isolated to its app, founders hope to open the door to further, crucial discussions. Their website, Where You At Writes, will be a forum for everything and anything on the topic. Delicate conversations about fear, vulnerability and sexual assault have been far too long shackled to shame, treated with a sense of inquisition and suspicion. Where You At will lift the lid on these salient conversations, smoothing the edges of all that speculation and stigma that so often proceeds these honest conversations.
In discussing her own experiences with sexual assault, Lauren, co-founder of Where You At also emphasises the importance of these discussions in evoking better language to describe this topic. She sees gaps in our language as repressing true articulation of experience and thinks this something we must also address. WYA Writes hope to play a crucial role in achieving this.
Where You At will be of paramount important to young women especially. Spiking and nightclubs seem like scary places right now. The development of WYA is a sign of better things to come and shows how women can come together to fight back against these issues.
Where You At (WYA) is a new and free app launching in December that addresses safety in clubs. WYA is the brainchild of University of Oxford students Olivia Leigh and Tamzin Lent, two women tired of feeling intimidated and vulnerable on a night out - or just about any time at all.
Things don’t appear to have changed much even in the #metoo era.
On conducting a survey, Leigh and Lent were shocked, albeit not surprised, to discover that their own feelings of vulnerability in supposedly safe environments were overwhelmingly commonplace. A staggering 51% of 18-24 year old UK females experience sexual harassment on most or every ‘night-out’ (Drinaware, 2015). WYA (@whereyouatwya) have partnered with Save Night Life (@savenightlife) on Instagram to produce a resource that collects incidents and experiences of spiking. This creates a safe space for people to have their experiences recognised with nil evidence of the occurrence.
Young people frequently rely non instant communication to stay safe and confident. However, lack of signal and large volume capacity often make night-time venues an unsafe purgatory. The recent media focus on club goer vulnerability, such as the spiking by injection epidemic, has resulted in demands for more proactive safety. At present, venues have no well-recognised way to deter the sexually-motivated criminal. The ‘Ask for Angela’ scheme is not widely used and does not involve a tracking system. The majority of club goers would prefer to alert their friends in the case of an incident, rather than the venue. Police reports of such incidents are low as there is a difficulty in getting young people to report incidents, never mind an intoxicated clubber trying to persuade hard-pressed coppers on a late Saturday shift that, no, I don’t actually have witnesses, does not mean that a crime has been, is being and is about to be committed.
WYA tackles all of these barriers.
WYA harnesses the power of simple mobile tech to create closed-circuit groups - whether that’s best friends or university societies - to aid the group in staying in close and safe contact across saturated clubs and crowded festivals. In the WYA survey, 98% anxiously looked for friends on a night out. Leigh comments ‘After years of feeling vulnerable and anxious in clubs when constantly losing our friends, we decided to create a safety solution which uses indoor mapping, works without telco signal, and allows us to SOS friends we trust’. Sound a bit like a battlefield comms link for a squad out on patrol in hostile terrain? We hope not! But WYA is an app that is done with people feeling like hostages. The app is utilising the technology to help us do what we’ve always done for each other: look out. Now, we are telling predators: we’re watching out.
The predominant issue with club safety is that there is often no mobile signal in the venue due to physical constraints or overloaded bandwidth. WYA combats this, offering a WYA button Bluetooth solution whereby club-goers can track their friends, without mobile signal, to their exact location. This is done through the use of strategically positioned beacons installed by the WYA team at the venues, transmitting a blueprint to the app user’s phone. Alongside this precise indoor mapping, there is an SOS alert function, allowing users to contact their trusted circle via Bluetooth and send an alert with their exact location. Not only is this fantastic for club-goers, it is also beneficial to the venues themselves. Through the venue being associated with WYA, 98% of students in our survey said they would be more likely to: buy more drinks, stay for longer, and be more likely to revisit.
So far, WYA has seen much success. The app claimed the Downing Enterprise prize for ‘outstanding Pitch’ and has signed a formal Partnership agreement with the night-time industries trade body NTIA. This is a testament to the app’s potential future engagement. Currently, the app has a sub-system called WYA Writes, a community of all-female writers with the freedom to write about all things safety and club related.
WYA’s launch is much anticipated and should cause excitement. This is the first app of its nature, valuing safety, solving the issue of poor signal, and bringing together venues to aid in reform. It’s launch in December will revolutionise night-life experience, making it a much safer one.