One of the most vocal and visible aspects of rape culture is street harassment, which in itself is a form of sexual harassment; and sexual harassment is a social phenomenon that women across the world have to cope with inn their daily lives. It can take place in the workplace, school, online, and in the case of street harassment, in public places. It is the unwelcomed comments, sexual advances, requests for sexual acts (including a kiss), unwelcomed physical contact, and requests to “smile,” which go unrecognized and unaddressed. The greatest problem with street harassment it that it is viewed as a social norm across cultures, and the behavior for the most part is deemed acceptable. The burdens are left on women and girls, who leave their homes having to expect and fear these unpleasant interactions; and they certainly should have some degree of fear, because street harassment leads to verbal assaults, physical altercations, and rape itself. For women and girls, these exchanges can prove to be embarrassing, stressful, frustrating, and frightening.
Yet, due to patriarchal notions of accepted gender roles and behaviors, far too many men believe that women are obligated to act as an audience to every single one of their thoughts, desires, and calls for attention. Within this aspect of rape culture, women lose all agency.
Let’s Get To the Tape
As persistent and problematic as street harassment is, it took a now infamous video to draw a tremendous amount of attention to this issue and spark much needed conversations on the topic. “10 Hours of Walking in New York City as a Woman” features a hired white actress, Shoshana Roberts, walking through New York City, while a hidden camera records the reactions and comments that she receives. The video, produced by anti-street harassment organization Hollaback, quickly went viral. It shows Shoshana enduring constant catcalls and propositions from mostly Black and Latino men. At one point, one of these men decides to jog alongside her, and follows her for a considerable amount of time.
Unfortunately, the horrible editing by producer Rob Bliss prompted the wrong type of feedback or response to the video, which essentially led to the message being lost. The video editing conveniently excluded all of the white men who may have also hollered at Shoshana. Bliss shared the followingexplanation for his racially insensitive editing. This was not the only blaring problem with the video; however, it served to shift the focus of the conversation. All of a sudden responders did not notice or care to consider the fact that although the editing was bias, the actions of the Black and Latino men in the video were still wrong, that street harassment is indeed a problem, and that women are indeed victimized by the entire phenomenon.
Instead, the conversation was solely about the persecution of men, particularly Black men, who felt that they were unfairly showcased in this cautionary tale that harkens back to historical stereotypes about Black male masculinity. No thought was given to Black women, or other women of color, nor trans and queer women for that matter, despite the fact that they are the most endangered and impacted by street harassment, as shared in the 2014 National Street Harassment Report .
The following comments on the website Gradient Lair provides a concise explanation as to why Black and Latina women end up being the most frequent victims of street harassment:
Areas that are poorer and browner/Blacker tend to have dense populations anyway. The more rural or suburban an area is, the more White it often is and the less dense it regularly is. This is not always the case, but this is common. This is because of the impact of decades of blockbusting, redlining and other discriminatory housing practices. Where people live and the density is not arbitrary. And Wall Street? New York isn’t the center of the Earth. The reality is many White women have never experienced street harassment (and not at the same frequency or intensity when they do) because they do not live in highly dense cities like New York. In cities in South Florida for example where public transportation is scarce and most ride in cars who can afford them and live in suburbs, the poorest women (who tend to be Black and Latina) who live in apartments and urban areas and use public transportation face more street harassment than those “safe” in their suburbs and cars and work in buildings set back from the street that they drive into. Even in dense spaces many men will skip over even speaking to a White women to harass me or other Black women. They smile at her while I and other Black women are “bitches.” I’ve watched this discrepancy for decades.
Also, here is an unpleasant truth: like any other form of violence, intraracial violence (including acts of street harassment) occurs more often than interracial violence. Thus, Black women, not white women like actress Shoshana Roberts, are more likely to be harassed by Black men who look like those in that infamous video. The video ultimately excluded them, but depicted their reality.
Herein lies the most critical problem with the video: its exclusion of women of color and focus on protecting and upholding white women, their physical safety, as well as their virtue and social hierarchy status. Again, a white woman is placed on a pedestal above women of color whose lived experiences are discredited and go without mention. They are edited out as if they do not exist, as if they do not endure street harassment, as if their lives and safety are somehow less important. In short, the video’s racial politics are appalling and disturbing – reinforcing centuries old stereotypes about who should be feared and who should be saved and protected.
Again, the editing is an unfortunate distraction which takes away the opportunity for needed and meaningful conversations about street harassment. Thus, those who are speaking back against the video cannot seem to move past the Director’s framing of white women’s purity and innocence, alongside black and Latino men’s’ aggressive and predatory nature. Once again, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men; and those who are impacted by sexism (the lost “message” of the video) and racism (which was expressed in the video’s editing) are not considered. Instead, the video’s editor, those at Hollaback who actually greenlighted the final cut of the video, and the respondents who passionately rushed in, in defense of black and Latino men, completely dismissed women of color.
The Problematic & Short-sighted Response to the Video
There is something quite clear when considering the immediate response to the video, and the manner in which it quickly went viral; and this is the fact that framing the issue around a cis-gendered white woman meant that it we now have to talk about it. That we now must recognize sexual harassment as a problem; and, yes, all of a sudden we must combat it. Again, the white woman in the video is afforded privilege, and this privilege means that she can expect to have her safety and well-being protected, unlike women of color. This framing harkens back to centuries-old stereotypes where women of color: Black (wild, animalistic, temptress), Latina (passionate, fast), and Asian/Pacific Islander (docile, exotic) are all seen as being readily accessible, hypersexual, less virtuous, and thus unable to actually be victims of sexual harassment, or street harassment.
This short-sighted response to the video, by men (and some women) on social media spaces, in the comments sections of articles, and in cafes, bars, and other types of public spaces helps to uphold these stereotypes. These men are fixated on defending their rights to approach women (while ignoring a woman’s rights to feel comfortable and safe), on asking what is wrong with saying hello, or on trying to convince themselves that women find their behavior and exchanges flattering. No thought is given to women of color. While they point out the problematic removal of white men from the video, none have asked – where are the women of color? Or, what would their experiences look like?
However, if you ask any women of color, particularly Black women, they would tell you that the street harassment they endure looks much worse. That they have been dealing with the issue since childhood, as soon as puberty began to take a toll on their body, and that these exchanges are often embarrassing and violent – having been yelled at, cursed at, spit on, told that they are not cute enough to act so stuck up (to which I have always responded – cute enough to make you stop), as well as physically assaulted.
Let’s review the recent headlines that include the story of Mary Spears, an engaged mother of three who was murdered after refusing to give a man her phone number. Mark Dorch, her alleged killer has been arrested and charged with her murder. Leaving us with one of the most tragic examples of male entitlement. Then there is the story of Denzel Rosson, who viciously attacked a woman on a CTA train in Chicago after she refused to give him her phone number. His victim was put in a headlock and punched in the face. Then there are the many countless and nameless victims of street harassment and violence that have not made the headlines. I can recount an incident from childhood where my relative was assaulted with the jagged edge of a broken beer bottle; leaving her with stitches on her buttocks, because she did not want to talk to a man; and let me point out that she was a minor. Even this incident did not make it to the headlines.
Consequently, the violence that occurs with street harassment often extends past women victims. Male acquaintances and relatives of women and girls also find themselves in violent altercations when they try to defend their friends and loved ones. A recent incident that caught new headlines is that ofBen Schwartz, a man who was stabbed while defending his girlfriend from a catcaller. Apparently, gone are the days when the presence or the mention of another man could protect a woman from street harassment. Also, if men do not realize it, this is the reason why so many women who are really single and unattached quickly blurt out that they have a boyfriend when they are approached; because it is the easiest way to get a man to leave them alone, because men clearly respect another man and his “property” more than a woman’s mere wish to be left alone.
Thus, the myopic responses to the video are not only short-sighted, but misogynistic, egotistical, illogical, and dangerous; in that they fail to consider the physical well-being and mental health of women and girls who have to deal with street harassment on a daily basis. The responses from men of color are exceptionally troubling because they should have some degree of empathy and understanding of how microagressions work, and how they become taxing on one’s psyche; as well as have physiological ramifications. The term itself was created by Chester Pierce, a Professor of Education and Psychiatry, in 1970, and it describes “social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.” Most understand exactly how it applies in a racial context: it is the random stranger touching your hair with intense curiosity, it is a colleague exclaiming their surprise that black people also use sunblock, it is being followed closely through the aisle of a store by a clerk, as well as the entire phenomenon of Driving While Black and police racial profiling; which black men passionately speak out against.
Yet, when microagressions occur along the lines of gender, there are immediate attempts to discredit, deny, and/or ignore them. Men argue that they are just being nice or saying hello, but do not want to acknowledge the entire context of their intentions. Far too many times, as seen on the video, the greetings are not innocent. No consideration is given to a woman’s or girl’s agency and desires. Why is it assumed that a woman must return a hello? Provide a phone number? Share an attraction to a stranger? Speak? Smile? Further, how is it that a man cannot realize that a woman is not interested, and that jogging, walking, driving, and following behind or alongside her will not make her change her mind? In fact, these predatory acts are a form of stalking; and a gross invasion of another’s personal space.
Some have erroneously tried to justify these acts and defend them as a form of flirting, but flirting involves affirmative consent and mutual interest. Besides, as humans, we should be well versed on determining when someone is interested or is clearly not interested in us. This includes facial cues and body language (the automatic smile, eye gaze, etc.) So, a man should be able to easily ascertain when a woman is not interested and does not want to be bothered.
So, what has the response to the video ultimately reveal? That there is much work that still needs to be done. For the immediate and passionate response clearly dismissed and attempted to discredit the lived experiences of women and girls; as it focuses solely on the omission of white men. Those providing this response did not bother to discuss or deal with the fact that all men (including the men of color on the video) carry out these acts. The response does not take into account legitimate safety concerns, nor the fact that from adolescence women have been taught to be weary of strangers; particularly aggressive strangers. Yet now, later in life we are expected to readily engage, smile for, trust, and be available to these strangers who call out to us as we walk by. For some reason, there is a belief that women are obligated to entertain these strangers, and this leads to the question – At what point are women allowed to be more concerned about their safety than a man’s ego or feelings?
Author and activist Miki Kendall, shared the following tweets, using the hashtag #NotJustHello, and it greatly exemplifies this point:
We live in a culture that blames victims of sex crimes for what they wear, where they were…and for saying no to strange men. #NotJustHello
Women are being groped, hit, cut & shot for telling some strange man they aren’t interested. Won’t be interested. #NotJustHello
The #NotJustHello campaign seeks to draw attention to and bring awareness to the problem of street harassment, by pointing out that a casual “hello” is much more than that; it’s often the opening line to lewd comments and behavior, threats, and at times, physical violence. However, if men really want to know what it is like to be a victim of street harassment and gain a better understanding of how unwelcomed those catcalls are, all they have to do is ask questions and listen. Talk to the women in your lives – daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, cousins, and coworkers, or scan the comment section of articles or posts using the #NotJustHello hashtag.
Ask Us Our Stories
Patrice Daniel penned the essay, An Open Letter to Caribbean Men, From Caribbean Women to describe what street harassment looks like from a Caribbean (but also global) perspective, and here is an excerpt:
We do not have to answer you. Our names are our own. We were not christened, “Eh! Baby!” We do not have to turn around and pretend that we enjoy being summoned like pets. We are not charmed when you follow us and invade our space. We do not have to make conversation with you as you block our paths. We do not feel flattered when you stand in a group and leer at our figures, competing to see who can make the vilest remark. We do not take it as a compliment when you comment on our bodies and tell us what you intend to do with them. So stop, Caribbean men. Stop making us feel uncomfortable, afraid to walk the streets of our homelands alone. We do not have to answer to you. Our names are our own.
Again, there are many stories and experiences surrounding street harassment. Here are a few of my own:
9 years old – Being followed home often by an 18-year-old male from the neighborhood who would trail behind me and tell me that I was pretty, seemed to be growing up fast, and even more disgusting things; which I tried my best to ignore as I quickened my steps and discovered new routes home.
12 years old – First year of middle school, where I had to take two city buses to get to a school. I quickly learned to not go towards the back of the bus despite the fact that I was constantly stepped on by people getting off and on at the front. The back of the bus was where you were really harassed and touched inappropriately. There was no bus line on the street that I actually lived on, so I had to walk a few city blocks, and by doing so, my pre-teen body attracted adult men. They called out to me to tell me that they liked my hair, my lips, etc.; and they slowed their cars down to a crawl, just so they could ‘cruise’ alongside me. I never looked in their direction to acknowledge them. Once, I was lost in thought reading a note that a friend handed to me just as I was leaving school, and a man took his car and blocked my path, telling me that he would like to write me notes too. At that point, I walked up to a random apartment building and pretended like I lived there.
By the time that I became a teenager, I accepted the reality that these interactions were going to happen daily, and as an adult, nothing has changed. I do not smile simply because I do not want to be seen as available andvulnerable, and because I am at the point where I simply just want to be left alone. When I frequent a venue (whether it be a store or the library) where I know that the men who go there are more aggressive than most, I often pull on a sweater, jacket, or anything that I can think of that will cover most of my body; and, yes, I have done this in temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and above. I am serious about wanting to be left alone.
One of the worse experiences that I had with street harassment was being cornered at a night club, where I had to navigate and fight my way out of a situation. I declined to dance with a man and did not want to speak to him, and his bruised ego led him to draw a lighter, which he flickered near my face, again-and-again, and mentioned how he would like to burn me up since I thought I was so cute. To make matters worse, I was surrounded by three of his acquaintances who got closer and only laughed at his threats to me. While recounting this story to an older colleague, she shared that a gun was pulled on her and a friend by a man who was also mad that they declined to dance with him. Never mind the fact that his method of asking involved groping their bodies.
In the article My Street Harassment Story, writer Damon Young shares a personal example of street harassment that he witnessed, where his wife and her friend attracted unwelcomed comments from passersby:
So I watched as these two close friends – one Black, one Afro-Latina; both dressed like women who’d gone to work that day and were attending a screening that evening – walked while talking to each other; laughing and enjoying the weather.
And I watched as they had their conversation interrupted at least three or four times by guys attempting to talk to them.
“Hey sexy ladies” I heard one say.
“Where y’all going? I want to come” said another.
One even started following them. It wasn’t a close follow – he was maybe 25 feet behind them, and they probably didn’t even know he was there – but he definitely got up from where he was sitting and started walking in their direction when they walked past him.
And this is when I decided to catch back up to them.
I’m unsure whether Damon included the fact that his wife and her friend were “dressed like working women” as a way to say that their status, class, etc. made the harassment particularly underserving. In a sense, his comment exudes a certain degree of respectability politics, leaving one to ask — so what if they were dressed differently, would that mean that they were more deserving of the harassment, or at fault? And this is how rape culture operates. It includes the need to justify a woman’s or girl’s experience with street harassment based on perceptions about her choice of clothing. She is at fault, and it is essentially victim blaming. Additionally, the comments made by Elizabeth Lauten, a Republican Congressional aide about Malia and Sasha Obama’s clothing and appearance, and their lack of class, where she states that they should “Rise to the occasion,” and “Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.”, are examples of: (A) how women often help to perpetuate rape culture, (B) that rape culture, like many other aspects of society, is often race-based. In this context women and girls of color are more harshly judged. Again this points back to the Hollaback editor’s decisions to use only a white woman to convey the problem of street harassment. Again, it is a race-based (as well as complexion based) social hierarchy, that puts white women at the pinnacle of purity and respectability. A women of color, walking in fitted leggings and being harassed by men, particularly black and Latino men, would not have elicit the same response or degree of empathy.
Time for Acknowledgment
It is time to acknowledge that street harassment is and has been a problem for some time, particularly for women of color, as well as trans and queer women. The fact that it endangers the health and wellbeing of women and girls means that it should also be viewed as a rampant public health problem; that should be readily addressed.
If a man’s attempt to say hello to a random woman on the street – because he chose to talk to her, and she is disinterested and chose not to talk to him – leaves him feeling frustrated and angry, he should consider himself lucky. Lucky that he will not have to spend the rest of the day being approached by a multitude of strangers (including those that he is not interested in or attracted to), who will flirt aggressively, demand his time and attention, and of course tell him to smile.