*Update (1/15/21): Since this story was published, the Giggle policy on inclusion has changed. Giggle is now an exclusively "female only space".
At the age of 24, a young Sallie Grover moved across the world from her homeland of Australia to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of being a screenwriter.
Initially, Grover had made the jump with a friend of hers, another woman, and everything was going great. When her friend left, though, Grover was on her own. That moment marked the beginning of a decade of Hollywood abuse, harassment, and sexual assault — well before the #MeToo movement started holding men accountable.
“I had men grope me in meetings,” she said, “at work drinks, leverage sex, call me unprofessional when I wouldn’t deliver on a spec after an assault, say I was hysterical.”
Grover moved to New York to escape the abuse of Hollywood and recover. After moving in with a group of other young women, she remembered that life could be great when women support each other. The idea for giggle, a “girls-only” app to connect women for support, was planted.
“These experiences were the instigator for giggle,” Grover shared in an interview with 4W, “Giggle began with a conversation between my Mum and I. I was a shell of a human being and she was helping me recover from literal years of harassment and assaults. She said, 'I want to keep girls safe!' and giggle was born.”
The app allows women 17+ to find support in communities tailored to their needs. There are communities for grief and loss, freelancers, finding a roommate, exercise, hobbies, and activism (to name a few).
From the beginning, Grover dreamed of a no-boys-allowed zone where women would feel safe. “Women experience online abuse at the highest rate. Whether they’re simply expressing an opinion, telling a joke, looking for work, looking for housing or just generally living their lives,” she said. The name giggle, which is the collective noun for a group of girls, is meant to communicate this spirit.
“We wanted to create a refuge from this abuse. I want there to be a place where every girl can go, free from the male gaze and the judgment we simply cope with on an average day. A place where women have choice, control, consent, connection and conversation at all times.”
Getting the male-dominated tech world on board with creating a female-centered app was not easy, though, and Grover soon started facing the same misogyny she had tried to leave behind in Hollywood in her own startup.
After hiring a tech agency to create giggle, men started questioning her ability to lead the company. One sixty-year-old man claimed that he could run the company better than her. Another said that Grover should not be referred to as the CEO of her own business (even though she is). He went on to say that she needed to be “managed” because she disagreed with some of his suggestions for the company.
Grover shared her experience of working as a female tech start-up founder in a video, which was shared on Reddit and Instagram. In response, she was met with even more misogyny.
Grover and giggle started receiving a slew of hate mail from men angry she had called out the misogyny in tech. “There are many men who aren’t fans, of both giggle and me talking about the misogyny I deal with every day,” she said.
“The abuse in private has been death threats — just sliding into my DMs or emailing giggle directly telling me to die or that they will kill me. The abuse in public is telling me to close down the app or doing “investigative research” to desperately try to find holes in giggle.”
Men attacked her for just posting the video in the first place. One man on Reddit wrote, “Maybe those guys could actually run the company better.” Another called her a liar.
Others were more vulgar. One man wrote in response, “Can I talk to the man in charge I need a strong leader not some pussy.” Another user wrote, “Feminists are so dumb and should just shut up.”
Sall Grover will not shut up, though.
All of this experience, she said, only reaffirmed for her the need to create a space for women away from men. The technology she used to make that happen, though, sparked another round of backlash.
After giggle started getting some attention thanks to her video, Grover found herself at the receiving end of an internet mob.
Giggle uses an AI facial bone-structure recognition technology to determine if users are male or female. According to the Smithsonian, there are differences between male and female skulls that can be detected. This is one way archeologists are able to determine the sex of a skeleton, along with other bones like the pelvis.
Giggle relies on these underlying differences in a sexually dimorphic species to identify male versus female users, and keep men out of the app. This, of course, precludes transgender women, who are biologically male.
Although giggle has been very explicit that they welcome transgender women and are happy to manually approve them*, this hasn’t prevented the trans community from waging a war against Grover and giggle.
The giggle FAQ states:
“Trans-girls are 100% welcome on giggle. Giggle’s “gender verification” onboarding process is a gatekeeper to stop men from getting on to the platform, not girls or those who identity as girls. If you are at all concerned with the possibility of being misgendered, you are welcome to contact giggle HQ for manual onboarding. giggle both fully supports and recognises gender identity and will never discriminate.”
Yet, numerous outlets have reported on giggle as being discriminatory, transphobic, or even “dystopian.” This is despite the fact that the software is clearly helping create a much-needed space for women. Grover reports that out of the 10,000 app downloads, about half of them have consistently been men trying to break into a space that is clearly not for them. One man even “tried 48 times to get past the verification system,” according to Grover.
“They’re enjoying the verification selfie to see if they can get past it. They can’t. giggle is boy-free.”
“It amazes me how many try and repeatedly try. “No means no”. This is what we have been talking about, very loudly in a post #metoo world. I think that giggle can also be a way to teach these kinds of men to respect a woman’s space and privacy.”
The fact that biological males can not simply identify into giggle and have to undergo a slightly different process to gain access has resulted in another round of harassment, abuse, and intimidation aimed at Grover.
Some have compared the software to Phrenology, a pseudoscience that uses bumps on the skull to make determinations about mental traits. Phrenology was often used to justify racist stereotypes, and has been discredited by empirical research. Sex identification by skulls, however, is both possible and commonly used today.
Many on Twitter have taken to calling Grover a “TERF,” a slur used against women who recognize the existence of biological sex. Users have told her “shut the fuck up terf,” and “fuck off TERF.” The abuse persists despite Grover’s insistence that trans women were part of the decision-making process and that their alternate verification method is available to anyone who needs it.
The abuse hurled at Grover by trans activists mirrors the earlier abuse she received from men for sharing her experience of misogyny in tech. From both camps, there has been name-calling, misogynistic hate, threats, and — most commonly — telling her to shut up.
“What am I going to do, close up shop because @MenRule69 told me to?” she said, “Of course not.”
Grover says that despite the backlash, she remains focused on the over 5,000 women and girls who are using giggle. “That the demographic giggle is created for has, largely, been utterly welcoming and appreciative,” she says, “There is a wonderful community of girls growing on giggle.”