SHExists: Street Harassment Exists


Imagine this scenario, you’re walking down your block and two cops start yelling, “Hey you!” from across the street. You take a second to look, but ignore it because they probably weren’t addressing you and continue on your way until they approach you. “Where are you going tonight? What are you doing?,” they ask with no cause or reasoning. Despite not wanting to, you’re suddenly forced into having to stop and respond and coerced into an unwanted conversation. We call that harassment.

While that’s an everyday occurrence for many minority males, the non-profit organization Hollaback! is on a mission to shed light on street harassment, its effects on women and its subsequent afteraffects on society as a whole. While I can’t say their mission is completely clear, I can say they started a well-needed discussion that is often sidetracked and swept under the rug in favor of ‘more important’ subjects. A video was shot for Hollaback! by Rob Bliss Creative that’s caused quite the stir on the Internet over the past few days. Footage was captured with a hidden video camera as a woman who wasn’t ‘scantily clad’ (although that still doesn’t give anyone the right to objectify, stalk or rape women) held a mic in each hand as she walked to pick up audio. She was catcalled, followed and approached over 108 times over the course of 10 hours in New York City. Whether that number comes as a shock or not, the notion that street harassment isn’t viewed as a serious problem when it comes to the safety and well being of women in general, should shock you.

“This is harassment?,” asked one man on my timeline. “Men just don’t ‘get’ street harassment”, said another. There was even a man who responded back to the video saying “Following a woman for 5 minutes is not street harassment.” Over the course of the night, one thing did become evident – the term “street harassment” has a different definition depending on who you ask. Nevertheless, the underlying issue is still the same – many women are still made uncomfortable by it, and many men still believe they’re owed a response, a conversation, a number or a date regardless of if the woman actually feels threatened or not.

It’s also been pointed out on Twitter (especially by @tgirlinterruptd & @thetrudz) that the Hollaback! campaign video shows a White woman being catcalled and harassed mostly by Black or Latino males on the streets of New York so it makes Black and Latino males the face of street harassment when White men just as likely to catcall or follow women on the street. It could be argued that more often than not White males are the more frequent street harassment offenders in New York but they’re nowhere to be found in the footage shot by Rob Bliss Creative. This was one of the issues that Deanna Zandt addressed about the video in her new piece on Medium. In yet another take on the Hollaback! vid on Slate, Hanna Rosin also found it to be problematic for the same reasons. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Another serious concern is that White women don’t face the same constant threat of violence that Black and Latina women do for spurning the very same advances the actress that did the walks for Hollaback! do daily thus the campaign’s message and/or approach seriously needs to be rethought. Especially in light of the #YouOKSis twitter campaign created by @FeministaJones in which women of color addressed these issues in detail which predates this particular Hollaback! campaign video. Hollaback! Boston has also released a statement regarding the video editing out White males & addressed other concerns which you can read here.]

To play ‘Devil’s Advocate’, yes, there are plenty of women who purposely shift their hips and pucker their lips as they pass by groups of men on the street to attract those catcalls and boost their self-confidence. However, what about the women who just want to go to the gym without being approached or harassed? Or buy a coffee? Walk their dog? Celebrate a friend’s birthday with a night on the town? Men need to understand how insanely scary it is to have a complete stranger purposefully walk next to you from one block to the next without saying a word – or saying too many, not knowing whether he’s about to pull you aside in an alley or whether he’s emotionally unstable and can’t comprehend the words “I’m not interested, thank you.”

It’s not something that men may have experienced from the opposite sex, but it carries strikingly similar emotions to that of being unnecessarily approached by authorities. Fear. Anxiety. Vulnerability. Frustration. If hetero men were complimented, catcalled and harassed by gay men constantly would they feel the need to say “thank you” or feel the obligation to speak to them? If they continued walking and ignored them, wouldn’t that be “rude”? Unwanted attention is just that. UNWANTED.

I recently read a quote that said, “What most men fear about prison is what many women fear about walking in the streets.” Today’s society is filled with men that treat street harassment like an acceptable action, feel that they’re entitled to a response from a woman or even justify rape based on what clothing a woman may have worn that day. While men are consistently speaking about getting “curved”, the bigger issue at hand is who said a woman is obligated to respond to them? This is a basic human rights issue, no one deserves to be treated in this manner.

Respect warrants respect. If you approach someone respectfully, you deserve a respectful response back – but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily OWED it. Unfortunately, like in many cases of street harassment, the men in this video didn’t say so much as “Excuse me, miss.” In what world do we live in that we’ve allowed men to suddenly believe a “Hi sexy” equates to an owed conversation? It doesn’t.

It’s time men stop minimizing the experiences of women and acknowledge that this is – whether you want to own up to it or not – harassment. Being forced into a conversation purely out of fear of reprisal or violence shouldn’t be something men think they’re entitled to nor should they feel like they “won” merely because we might placate them in the hopes we survive the encounter.

By Erin Ashley (@ellhah)