The Street Harassment Explainer That Shouldn’t Have To Be Written

By this point most people on the Internet have seen the video of Shoshana B. Roberts getting harassed more than 100 times over the course of 10 hours of walking the streets of New York.  If not, watch it now:

First of all, if watching that video doesn’t make you uncomfortable and angry,  I don’t want to know you.

Second of all, I’ve worked in online media for many years, so I’m well aware that the comments section is often where the worst of humanity lives, but the some of the response to this video is shocking.

So when misconceptions are as widespread as the ones around this video and the subject of street harassment are I feel like I need to set the record straight for whoever is listening.

The most pervasive comment was some take on “But most of those guys were just saying Hello, they were being nice and she should be happy to receive positive attention.”

Nope.

As a general rule shouting something out to a stranger walking by you on the street is not how human interactions happen. Conversations do not start by blurting out something(no matter how “nice” or “simple”) at some one you don’t know who is walking past you. Shouting anything to a stranger is threatening behavior. Period.

The assertion that she should have “just smiled” or said “hello” or “thank you”  was universally given by men.  There is not a single women who advise doing any of those things because all women have experienced what sometimes happens when you do that: sometimes nothing, but sometimes the “perfectly nice” men view that small acknowledgment as an invitation to start following you, talking to you, say wildly obscene things to you.  As evidenced by the video, she received men doing all of those things after giving them no response.

Which is what is at the crux of the problem of street harassment. Some men protest that they are “just complimenting” or “saying hello” to women or even that they don’t do it but don’t see the problem with it. But all women (#YesAllWomen) have a story (or several) of a time when they felt unsafe walking down the street.

In a myriad of circumstances: wearing any combination of clothing, during any time of day, in any public place. I have had things shouted at my walking down the sidewalk in the after in the small town I grew up in in Michigan when I was a teenager walking with mom. I’ve had men try to feel me up on crowded trains. I’ve been approached, honked at, propositioned, yelled at, and told “to smile” more times than I can count. And so has every woman I know.

This kind of attention isn’t flattering, it’s frightening. 

The fact that this never happens when I’m walking with my husband or any other male speaks volumes as to what’s really behind even these “simple hellos”: ownership and power. If I’m with a man (any man) the assumption is that I’m in some way his property and their comments would be disrespectful to him. I have in fact experienced men apologizing to the man that I was with after a catcall when they didn’t first see that we were together.

It’s been said eloquently before but it bears repeating: women do not walk outside for approval, praise, or comment. They, like all humans walk outside to get from place to place. If another human being isn’t smiling it isn’t your job to command them to smile. I am the boss of my facial expressions.

Other perplexing responses came from many sources, including some women whose views  I’ve agreed with on other topics. The main being that the video is racist because the majority of men were minorities and because she appeared to be walking in minority neighborhoods like Harlem. This is frustrating for several reasons: First, the implication is that there are certain places that aren’t appropriate for women to walk, that’s a small slippery slope to saying that a woman in a short skirt is “asking for it.” Secondly, it’s my impression that the video was a document of her normal day and included several neighborhoods in NYC including Midtown. To be clear, as the non-profit Hollaback who commissioned the video mentioned on their site:  “Street harassment is a “cultural” thing in the sense that it emerges from a culture of sexism — and unfortunately — that is everyone’s culture.” White men, Black men, Hispanic men, Indian men, Asian men, and more have made women feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

And finally, as if to prove the entire point of the video,  Roberts received threats of rape and violence after the video was posted, because it seems that whenever a woman publicly expresses any kind of opinion (or in this case appears in a video online silently walking down the street) that makes her fair game for the worst degradation.

I don’t have an easy to tie up with a ribbon solution, but I think that as misconstrued by some people this video was, it’s a good start. Drawing attention to this issue as non-profits like Hollaback, and Jessica Williams’ reports at “The Daily Show” (and maybe blog posts like this) do, hopefully open the eyes of some men to rethink their behavior and other men to stand up to them when they think that shouting at strangers on the street is complementary.

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