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she's a crowd maps stories of sexual assault

she's a crowd maps stories of sexual assault

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Zoë Condliffe is offering people in power a clearer picture of gender-based violence.

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Any woman who’s walked home alone down a poorly lit road, or squeezed onto a crowded train at peak hour, or copped a pinch on the bum at a gig, knows what it’s like to feel vulnerable in a public space. Unfortunately, we’re often told it’s our responsibility to monitor our own behaviour – what we wear, where we go and with whom (thanks a lot, patriarchy!). But what if we could design cities with women’s safety in mind from the get-go? Secure workplaces, music venues and schools, right off the bat.

The trouble is, it’s hard to know what kind of change is needed when we don’t have the complete picture on sexual assault and harassment. Statistics show that in Australia, more than 85 per cent of sexual assault goes unreported. Plenty of women and non-binary folks have #MeToo stories, but how many have shared them with anyone beyond their close friends? Yeah, they were once groped in a ‘jokey’ way by their boss at a summer job. It was annoying, but maybe didn’t seem like a big deal. Who would they even tell?

Zoë Condliffe, the Melbourne-based founder of She’s A Crowd – an online crowdsourcing start-up collecting stories about sexual assault – says we’re so used to harassment that we often don’t feel compelled to report it. “We normalise these things so much, we think they wouldn’t be worth reporting,” Zoë says. “We think no one will listen to us, or that it happened so long ago it doesn’t count anymore.” And some people, such as Indigenous or migrant Australians, might feel uncomfortable interacting with the police or other authority figures, let alone sharing intimate details about a traumatic event.

She’s A Crowd aims to change all that by putting the power of reporting sexual assault back in the hands of women and non-binary people. The website, available 24/7, takes users through a series of optional questions about their experience. (There are no log-ins or sign-ups required, either, meaning total anonymity.) You can share something that happened to you or something you witnessed. Any level of harassment can be reported, too, from ‘creepy vibes’ to ‘controlling behaviour’ or ‘financial abuse’. There are questions about how you felt or acted after the incident, and there’s space to write up the story entirely in your own words. Accounts collected by the platform are then turned into anonymous datasets, which are analysed for trends and themes around when, where, how, to whom and by whom violence occurs. 

“We don’t exist to take anyone to court or hold anyone accountable,” says Zoë, who started She’s A Crowd in 2018. “We exist to allow you to share your story, sometimes for the first time, with the knowledge that it’s going to make things better for the next person.” Zoë says data is an awesome tool for advocacy and change, especially for government types, who like concrete numbers to back up their policies. “If they’re doing a street-lighting project, and they want to know how women are experiencing a particular neighbourhood at night, we can tell them,” she says. “If they want to know how Asian women are feeling during the COVID-19 crisis, because there have been heightened racist attacks, we can look into our dataset and figure it out.”

Zoë didn’t start out as a data nerd, but she’s had a lifelong interest in social justice, thanks in part to spending some of her childhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where her dad worked in human rights for the UN. When she returned to Cambodia in her early 20s, she opened a non-profit organisation supporting arts education in rural areas. 

While there, Zoë found herself in an abusive relationship. It snuck up on her in subtle ways that are sometimes neglected in conversations about gender-based violence. “He was very careful to never do anything that could be called ‘physical’,” says Zoë, whose partner would try to take control of her car, her finances, her social life, and even her contraception. “He would become very violent and punch my car, for example, or deliberately drive in a very scary way so I would be terrified.”

Zoë’s experience opened her eyes to different forms of abuse – stuff she wished she’d known more about early on. “I think a lot of women experience that, but we don’t necessarily see it at the time as assault or harassment,” she says. “After seeing it for what it was, I knew that was what I was going to dedicate my life to.” 

On moving back to Melbourne, Zoë began a master’s degree that focused on women’s storytelling and how it can help process trauma. She found that sharing her own story helped her come to terms with her abusive relationship. “I was super-ashamed of it,” she says. “I thought it would never happen to me, and then it did.” She learnt that by talking about what had happened, she helped other people feel more comfortable opening up about their own experiences. “It was this process of realising that, by sharing my story, I released so many people from the shame of theirs. So, how could we magnify that?” 

For Zoë, the first step was leading a digital crowd-mapping project called Free To Be, started by Plan International Australia, which tracked women’s personal experiences of street harassment. Then, thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement, everyone was suddenly interested in information on gender-based violence – something Zoë had access to. She decided it was time to dig deeper into this lack of reliable data, while still working to help women heal. 

She’s A Crowd is a different way of collecting data, Zoë says, because it prioritises women’s experience over the needs of a researcher or government official. A lot of traditional data collection comes through crime statistics, which underrepresent the actual rate of gender-based violence. Academic research and surveys are definitely useful, but they tend to feel a little impersonal. 

“We found that a lot of the portals for reporting are like black holes,” Zoë says. “People end up feeling extremely disempowered afterwards, because they had to run through this survey that probes into a lot of personal questions, then they kind of just got nothing in response.” People who tell their story through She’s A Crowd, however, can opt to receive customised information about ways to get help in their community. (They’re very clear, though, that if someone’s safety is at immediate risk, they should contact emergency services as soon as possible.)

So far, Zoë and her team have collected more than 10,000 stories, which they’re working on translating into data for public transport, health research and city-wide safety initiatives. They’re also looking at ways people can use the program to launch storytelling campaigns in their own communities, so that one day, a university student who wants to know about incidences of sexual assault at their college can lead their own research project. 

She’s A Crowd has helped people in more personal ways, too. One woman in her 60s who’d experienced sexual assault as a child shared her story through the platform, then went on to take her perpetrator to court and get a conviction. “What we’ve heard from people is that they find it to be such a great first step,” Zoë says. “They’ll say, ‘I felt so empowered; it felt so good to get it out. I’m now going to tell my partner and my family, or I’m going to report it to the police.’”

Zoë says she’s always surprised how much storytelling helps people process their experiences. “We get emails all the time saying, ‘Thanks for giving me the chance just to share,’” she says. “And it’s really meaningful, because you think, now this has gone somewhere, it might help the situation for other women in the future.”

This story comes straight from the pages of frankie 97. Head here to find your closest stockist, pick up a copy from our online store or subscribe from $59.50.

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