Confused as to why the New York Street Harassment Video is such a big deal? Read on
Anyone who spends any time on internet news sites is unlikely to have missed this week’s latest street harassment exposé.
Working with agency Rob Bliss Creative, Shoshana Roberts, an actor, walked for ten hours, just behind a hidden camera through the streets of New York, dressed in a tight-but-sedate pair of black jeans and simple black T-shirt, to highlight just how many instances of unsolicited male attention she would receive on any given day.
And lo and behold, the video shows her getting cat-called, randomly propositioned, followed, stared at, told repeatedly (for no apparent reason) that she should have a nice day, that someone was “just acknowledging her beauty”, “god bless her”, “damn”, and that she looks pretty “beautiful”. One guy even asks “why don’t you want to talk to me, is it cause I’m ugly?” For most young women, this wasn’t a surprise.
Predictably however, lots of people seem to have a problem with her even posting the video (not to mention a bunch of other people coming out with the usual “alternative” responses and dissecting it a billion other ways. PLUS, Roberts has already received rape threats because of it). Alas, the internet isn’t known for its sensitivity towards sexism.
In less than 24 hours, Roberts has had to defend her actions, and even in my relatively-open, left-wing, well-educated, understanding and supportive corner of social media, I’ve seen instances of people questioning how “bad” the video is, suggesting that the men in it are just being friendly, and that women who have a problem with such behaviour need to let go and not get so offended.
I get it – if you’ve never experienced street harassment, or you’re a man, or both, you might not quite see what the big damn deal is. And that’s fair enough, if you’ve never felt it yourself.
So here’s a handy myth-busting guide for anyone struggling to understand why this video is so important, and why street harassment isn’t the compliment-strewn cakewalk some think it is.
Myth 1. The men are just being nice, lighten up!
Nope, this isn’t about compliments. These guys aren’t talking to everybody in the same way, or doing it because their hearts are just full to bursting of the world’s wonder, and they’re just genuinely all about sharing the love. Aww.
They are saying it to her because she is a young, attractive woman, who they feel is OBVIOUSLY inviting comments, stares and sexual invitations simply because she has the TEMERITY to walk down the street (sarcasm, yes).
This woman hasn’t spoken to those people in any way, or shown that she is interested in speaking to them, or even has time to do so. There is no reason for them to talk to her at all – most of the men aren’t talking to anyone else. If they were genuinely asking her a question, such as asking for directions, that would be different.
The men here aren’t speaking to her because they genuinely want to get to know her or legitimately flirt with her – this isn’t an appropriate space for that (a bar, or a date, for example).
These men are invading her personal space and making it clear that they believe she SHOULD respond to them, simply because they have decided that THEY want to speak to her. She has no choice in the matter – some of them chide her, telling her that she SHOULD acknowledge them, if she doesn’t respond. Even though she never wanted to speak to them in the first place.
Roberts herself has said that if people have a reason to say “hi”, and she’s showing outward signs that she’s up for conversation, she’s totally happy to chat back.
But we’re not just talking about people saying “hi” or being friendly over buying coffee, or apologising in a polite manner when they accidentally bump into her turning a corner.
Nope. One guy just randomly walked next to her for 5 minutes. Weird. Also, creepy.
And while many of these guys probably ARE harmless, she doesn’t know that.
Some of these guys seem friendly. But what happens if they turn nasty, or follow her? (As Roberts said in this follow up video: “It can escalate so quickly.”) It is a potentially threatening situation; at the very least it’s unpleasant, and she has done nothing to attract it in any way.
I know from personal experience that having someone walk or drive past you, yelling or laughing something about your looks, completely out of the blue, without invitation and perhaps even in an angry or threatening manner, is a disorienting experience.
Couple that with alcohol and a dark night, and it can turn from something mildly annoying to downright terrifying.
Even someone telling you to “smile” is an invasion, to be honest. I mean, who the hell asked you? I might have been deep in thought (Roberts herself said that it “disrupts her train of thought”), but you felt the need to let me know that I forgot to ensure my face looks attractive to you? Ha, fuck off. Do I tell you how to arrange your face? No.
Just because men (or whoever) think they’re being nice, and have historically behaved in this way for generations, doesn’t mean that their comments will be received in that way, especially by someone who is just going about their business, and doesn’t know that guy from Adam.
Imagine if someone randomly just came at you in the street when you were minding your own business, and called out something about your body, facial expression or supposed sexual abilities, or worse, whispered it, out of nowhere, in your ear. Seriously, imagine it.
You wouldn’t be very happy, would you?
Myth 2. She shouldn’t expect privacy, she’s in a public space.
I do think that often people (and it is mainly men, sorry, but it is) don’t appreciate how their comments can make a space seem threatening. A girl shouldn’t have to think about attracting sexual comments and attention simply because she’s walking in the street.
Just because it’s a public space, it shouldn’t become a problem. If we said that everything was permitted, just because it’s a “public space”, we’d soon get a situation where women were afraid to go outside, because they can “only expect respect and non-objectification in a “private” space. We don’t want that (it often already happens – who has ever decided not to walk home from an evening out because they’re afraid?).
This video is highlighting how many women cannot just walk down a road – even in broad daylight – without attracting comment on their appearance. Why should I, or any woman, have to feel objectified, reminded of my apparent “sexual attractiveness” and even maybe threatened or followed, by random guys in the street, just because they feel like it?
Often, people use the analogy that if you leave your door unlocked, you can expect to have your laptop stolen. But this woman isn’t inviting this behaviour in any way – how is walking down the street an invitation, please? AND, even if she WAS wearing a short skirt, or whatever, the unlocked door analogy isn’t the same, because she is A PERSON with feelings, not an inanimate object ready to be taken at any point.
And anyway, this particular woman is totally sober, and almost completely covered. Her clothing and mindset isn’t the issue. it makes no difference.
That’s why someone’s behaviour, drunken state or clothing isn’t a serious factor when it comes to gendered violence. It happens anyway. It originates with the attacker/cat-caller. Not the other way round.
Similarly, there is more to a woman walking down the street than her attractiveness to random men ‒ but catcalling reduces her to that, and nothing more. It’s objectifying, reductive, and unoriginal.
What’s more, it makes the man look like a leering creep who can only see women as sex objects and little else. I expect more from my men, and I’d like to think they expect more from themselves.
Myth 3. Street harassment and comments happen to men too.
Ok, so this isn’t a myth – it DOES happen to men too (I’m reliably informed, although I’ve never seen it happen myself).
A major reason highlighted for why such behaviour isn’t acceptable is because the men speaking to her wouldn’t do the same thing if she was a man. That’s generally because they don’t feel that men are “trying” to be sexually attractive to them, and they don’t feel that they have “a right” to demand attention from a man.
BUT, if and when the same thing does happen to men, it would be equally wrong.
And yet, it’s undeniable that it happens far less. On top of this, there isn’t the historical and social context of seeing men as vulnerable, in comparison to the context of men-on-women violence and harassment that does exist.
Women are socially raised to be afraid of random men in the street – taught by their mothers to cross over the road if they’re walking home and someone approaches you on the street; told to carry attack alarms; told to not get too drunk; told to “wait” to have sex; told to generally behave like attack or violence might be imminent at any time. Women are “supposed” to be deferential to men’s ever-present superior force and/or judgement.
But this is victim-blaming, and it puts all the onus on the victim to not be attacked, rather than the attacker NOT to attack. The same is true of street harassment – it’s the harasser’s responsibility not to threaten, not the victim’s responsibility to avoid (or shrug off) the threat.
This isn’t a difficult concept. Without the harassment, there would be no issue.
Similarly, women are far, far more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men are (that’s not to discount men’s experience), and far more likely to be afraid of men, as they tend to be taller, stronger and louder than they are. It’s an inescapable fact, and any man worth his salt should realise this and act accordingly – i.e. NOT like a dick.
It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how a cat-call could get physical, and when we’re talking about completely random people in the street, it’s easy to see how even one comment could feel like a potential threat.
Would you like to feel threatened just walking down the road in your jeans? Thought not.
Myth 4. Street sellers and other people on the street speak to you in public too, and that’s not harassment, so why is this?
Minor point: street vendors and similar are selling something – they have a legitimate reason to talk to people who they think could be potential clients. They aren’t making a judgement on your sexual proclivity, even if they are thinking that you might be a potential customer because you look young/rich/poor/busy/educated/interested. People who have a genuine reason to talk to you aren’t threatening, or choosing you simply because they’re objectifying you based on your supposedly attractive looks. It isn’t the same.
Myth 5. This happens to me too, and I just ignore it, so what’s your problem?
Good for you. But behaviour like this is symptomatic of a society that still disproportionately judges women on their looks, compared to men, and makes women feel threatened when they have no reason to feel that way.
Ignoring the behaviour doesn’t fight the root cause, and still suggests that men “can’t help themselves”. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think I can respect men, and see them as rational human beings capable of changing their behaviour to their surrounding circumstances.
Just because one person doesn’t feel affected by something, doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. If you don’t get harassed, then you’re lucky. But for those of us who do, it’s unsettling, and just downright fucking creepy.
A certain kind of bloke – one who thinks it’s totally OK to yell at women in the street ‒ is ruining it for the rest of them (note – SOME of the men in the video manage to walk past the woman WITHOUT saying anything! IT CAN BE DONE, PEOPLE!). And, just because something’s been OK or acceptable for years, doesn’t make it OK now, or forever.
It’s videos like this that highlight the problem, and, as we all know, only with acceptance of a problem, can we finally figure out how to finally make it stop.