How emerging technologies like VR can drive empathy and help win the fight against harassment.

by Raquel Harrah

After grabbing a coffee on a warm March day, I began leisurely walking the two blocks back to my apartment, enjoying the sweet scent of budding cherry blossoms that permeated the Washington, D.C. air. I felt the sun’s beams on my face as I sipped my iced caramel macchiato (an indulgence I reserve only for the weekend). A flood of Vitamin D penetrated my skin and I felt at peace, blissful even, after a seemingly long winter and busy workweek. But my idyllic bubble quickly and abruptly burst when I heard an old man yelling out the car window to me, phlegmatically, “nice ass.”


The irony is that I was preparing to write this article on harassment, and after empowering conversations with experts about how we can tackle identity-based harassment, I felt frozen in that moment. I should feel safe to be here, safe to walk this two-block strip from my corner coffee shop to my apartment, I thought.

Memories of past experiences came rushing to the forefront of my thoughts. All the unsolicited grabs at bars, jeers on my way to work, and awkward encounters at work with former male colleagues. My sweet-girl demeanor, perfectly curated from years of reinforced societal norms, had repeatedly made me a bystander to my own harassment.   

I recalled stories from friends, who after spending an exciting day in Paris, were traumatized to see a man masturbating to them on a train. In our cases, we ignored the oppressor’s behavior, maybe even accepted it as an inevitable part of our reality, and let the shame and confusion fester and eat away at our self-confidence.

I returned home that day and looked at my pants in the mirror, questioning whether the fabric hugged my body too much. Questioning my clothing choices. Questioning myself.

Despite the progress made with the #MeToo movement, there is still so much to be done and no clear blueprint on how to effect change. The uphill slog can feel tiring and demoralizing sometimes.

“I think a lot of times when the onus falls on the people experiencing harm and the marginalized and oppressed, that gets tiring and it’s a lot to ask those people to constantly fight to get recognized as humans that matter,” says Brooke Harris, Detroit site leader of the nonprofit organization, Hollaback!.

Hollaback!’s mission is to build safe, inclusive public spaces by transforming the culture that perpetuates discrimination and violence. It is one of a handful of organizations aimed at ending harassment in the wake of #MeToo. In my exploration of movers and shakers in the battle against discrimination and harassment, I found that while each organization takes a unique approach, many share a common thread – using technology and social sharing to help alleviate the heavy burden, and inspire hope to keep up the fight.

We need allies because the emotional toll can be a heavy weight to bear alone.

Harassment and the empathy gap

A study by U.N. Women and Promundo found that 90% of men who harassed women said that the reason was “for fun.” Although the study was confined to the Middle East and North Africa, researchers at Promundo suspect that these findings can be applied globally.  

“I've seen that reasoning before in other studies: 'I'm bored. I'm bonding with my male friends. We're just having fun,'" Holly Kearl, founder of the organization Stop Street Harassment, said in an interview with NPR. "Men aren't thinking about how women are feeling."

The findings demonstrate a lack of empathy and concern for how harassment affects victims. Studies show that the effects of harassment can be emotionally damaging – women (who tend to experience more adverse effects) can experience anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress and a lower level of overall happiness. Harassment can also be triggering for those who have survived sexual assault.

The links between power and sexual harassment may stem from heightened perceptions of sexual interest, the ability and propensity to act on one’s desires, and lower empathy among high-power individuals, according to two studies. The latter study suggests that power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point and reduces their ability to comprehend how other people see, think, and feel. So what does this all mean? It means that women could be viewed as objects by high-power individuals and that power gives individuals the green light to act on sexual impulses.

This is deeply disturbing when we consider that women represent 45 percent of the S&P 500 workforce but only  4.8 percent of CEOs of these companies in 2018, down from 6.4 percent in 2017.

Therefore, it’s important to get women into positions of power to stop the power abuse and harassment cycle. When there is gender parity at the top, harassment magically disappears because there is no longer implicit male endorsement. More training and education is also needed to bridge the empathy gap by making harassment matter to those that have been unaffected. As Harris points out, we need allies, because the emotional toll can be a heavy weight to bear alone.

Photos from “Stop Telling Women to Smile”, a street art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh •

Photos from “Stop Telling Women to Smile”, a street art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh •


Bridging the empathy gap through Virtual Reality

Research suggests that when men learn about suffering from a victim’s viewpoint, there’s a lower likelihood that they will sexually harass.

One woman is using tech to put people in the victim’s shoes, through virtual reality (VR). Morgan Mercer, a two-time survivor of sexual violence, founded Vantage Point in 2017 after realizing society lacked proper education around intervention techniques, and that VR could be a new tool to arm companies in stopping harassment. According to the company mission, “Vantage Point was founded under the belief that while technology can cause apathy, immersive technology can drive empathy and fundamentally make the world more human.”   

The company offers sexual harassment training solutions for corporations, but instead of deploying information-dense training modules, it uses immersive training to get workers to feel and experience harassment to create new understanding.

In an interview with Adam Draper of Boost VR, Mercer says, “When you put on the headset and you feel immersed, and you feel like you relate to the character and you start to form a relationship in a way you can’t with a video, you start to care.”

According to Mercer, these feelings, which often can't be explained, are the cornerstone for action, making people want to speak out or comfort those experiencing harm. The training starts with participants picking an avatar and after witnessing some form of harassment, allows participants to practice out scenarios for intervention in safe way. Participants can see the outcome of their actions and receive feedback to improve how they respond to these situations over time.


From passive to active

While the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment conversations typically hinge on gender-based discrimination, it’s important to note that gender-based harassment is not the only form of harassment.

“We’re being aware of our messaging and that we’re being inclusive of all identities because unfortunately, in our current political climate, it’s a lot of people getting a lot of harm in a lot of different ways from people in a myriad of positions,” says Harris.

An intersectional lens is also important. “I know personally I’ve experienced harassment and I’m not quite sure which indentity is being harassed,” says Harris. “Is it because I’m black? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m both? Is it because of who I’m with? There are different forms of harassment and sometimes you can’t quite pinpoint which of your identities is the target.”

While it’s easy to see the older white male as the main perpetrator, Harris points out that most of us hold some level of privilege and that we should all seek to be better because we can unintentionally inflict harm.

“I probably experience more intra-racial harassment just by the nature of where I live and places I frequent. So it’s not always white men who are harassing me, but men of other racial identities as well,” says Harris.

It’s also not always men that harass. According to Harris, a lot of the harm is actually perpetrated by women. Islamophobia is a big one that is perpetrated by people of all genders and all identities. Openness and a growth mindset can help us all push forward and be better.

“Be aware that we all make mistakes. I’m a site leader of a Hollaback! chapter and I know I have unintentionally caused people harm. And being ok with growth. It’s ok if you’ve done it, but how can we collectively move forward to ensure we’re causing less harm as we go through the world,” says Harris.

Hollaback! offers bystander intervention trainings in schools and public places and has trained over 550 young leaders to become site leaders in their communities. The training walks through the 5 D’s of intervention: direct, delegate, delay, distract and document. Distract can often be the easiest to deploy. A simple time check or “you ok, sis?” can be enough. Delegate can sometimes be the most effective, but every situation is different.

“I have found through my experiences as a woman of color, that men tend to take other men more seriously than me. So the delegation could be getting a man to say something as opposed to a woman in gender-based discrimination,” says Harris. “But as a person of color, I don’t want you to delegate to the police unless I’m going to die in that instance. That would make it worse for me.”

Hollaback! also has a mobile app that allows people to drop pins where harassment has taken place and see pinned locations of both harassment and bystander intervention. The hope is that this wider sharing of harassment and intervention will help spread awareness and encourage more action.

The app also allows people to tell their stories, and this storytelling element is a foundational component of Hollaback!.

“We look at story sharing as a powerful tool. As an individual when you’re able to share your story, you get that sense of community and belonging and being heard,” says Harris. “Storytelling can also have a role in social change. A lot of times when you think of other movements, it wasn’t until it got more personal and not just statistics and facts that people were more inspired to change.”

Most of us hold some level of privilege and that we should all seek to be better because we can unintentionally inflict harm.

Recently, Hollaback!, which was founded in 2005, has its sights set on online harassment as well. Technology can be a double-edged sword in the battle against harassment.

“The downside of technology is it’s provided people with a lot of anonymity and comfort to say things that they hopefully wouldn’t say to people’s faces. But I think there are creative ways to use technology, like our app, to get at that empathy piece and share stories and share experiences on a wider scale that other people might not have access to otherwise, if they were living in small towns in their neighborhoods,” says Harris.

The HeartMob platform, powered by Hollaback!, allows to you sign up as a virtual bystander or if you’re experiencing online harassment. As a bystander, you get emails when someone submits a report of online harassment. As a submitter of the report, you can request different actions. You can request that people send you positive messages, or that people report the harassment on the platform on which it’s happening.

In Hollaback!’s description on the website, it claims the people-based movement is designed to “have each other’s backs and build a world where we can all be who we are, wherever we are.”


Ending harassment needs to be a collective effort and we all need to work together to prop each other up and offer support. While technology will never replace the individual efforts, it can give the movement a good boost, like a rocket boost for a lagging car in Mario Kart.

I like to imagine putting my harasser in the VR headset and watching his cheeks flush as he experiences embarrassment and shame firsthand at a “nice ass” jeer. For now, I’ll drop a pin on the Hollaback! app and hope that next time, whether it’s myself or a bystander, I can log an intervention instead of a harassment. The more we amplify our voices, the more we can build empathy, and the more we “hollaback,”  the more we can exercise that empathy. Because we should all be able to be who we are wherever we are, from the workplace to the local coffee shop.