I just spent an hour plus of my day arguing back and forth on two separate Facebook posts, with two different groups of people, about what constitutes "street harassment." Upworthy recently posted a video of an experiment run by the organization "Hollaback," which seeks to eradicate street harassment, in which a hidden camera followed a woman for 10 hours through the streets of Manhattan and documented the over 100 instances of street harassment that she encountered. The instances ranged from mild to writhingly uncomfortable, from seemingly innocent comments such as "Hey beautiful" to gross violations of the woman's personal comfort like being followed closely for over 5 minutes by one man. There were points in the video where my stomach literally turned, recalling having been in very similar situations myself, and the fear and discomfort I experienced .
Considering my recent crusades against street harassment in downtown Trenton, I reposted the video on my Facebook page. Shortly thereafter, a guy I know posted the video on his own page and requested responses from some of his contacts, myself included. The responses he got, in addition to the comments on my own post, alarmed me. I was shocked, and dismayed, to see that many of the women he had tagged in the post were VERY quick to say that the woman in the video was a bitch, was stuck up, and needed to adopt better etiquette, because she didn't engage with any of the men who spoke to her (despite the fact that this was clearly part of the structure of the experiment, and not necessarily her personal or natural reaction). These comments were among the inquiries from the men regarding why anything they say is painted as street harassment, and how and when is it appropriate to approach a woman they find attractive on the street. My inclination would be that the women were taking this position in an attempt to commiserate with the men and be looked favorably upon for it, but I won't make the argument here because I honestly don't know their reasoning (subconscious or otherwise). I will however, drop the thought.
In any case, what was clear was that no one felt as though the woman had the right to determine what was or was not harassment, and that her safety and comfort were not paramount to the situation. Now, as a rape survivor, I will suggest this: Some women, like me, may be more sensitive to comments from men on the street than others, but frankly that is irrelevant. Harassment is defined as aggressive pressure or intimidation*. "Harassment covers a wide range of behaviours of an offensive nature. It is commonly understood as behaviour intended to disturb or upset, and it is characteristically repetitive. In the legal sense, it is intentional behaviour which is found threatening or disturbing" (Wikipedia).
This being said, in understanding street harassment, it is important to understand a few fundamental things:
1. Harassment is characteristically repetitive.
What many men don't understand is the sheer VOLUME of comments and expressions that women receive on a daily basis while attempting to do everyday things like, say, walk down the street. Or grocery shop. Or wash their car. Or get the mail. Or get gas. Women endure this REPETITIVELY. So although it may not be you who is repetitively harassing her, you are certainly not the only one who has made a comment, however innocent. You don't know what the 10 guys before you in the last 10 minutes have said to her. You have to understand your advance in context of the several other advances she has already encountered that day, creating a barrage of unsolicited comments. To deny or ignore this reality is to deny a woman her lived experience. As Jamilah Lemieux, Senior Digital Editor of EBONY, states "when you are consistently terrorized on the street, "hello" doesn't feel super safe al
2. While YOU may not think your comment is pressuring or intimidating, YOU don't get to dictate.
Men deciding what constitutes harassment of women is like white people getting to pick what is and isn't racist. Or like the Washington Redskins deciding their name isn't offensive, cause "they didn't mean it like that," even though the people who the name "represents" say it is. Men don't get to decide what is and isn't harassment. While you may think your comment is perfectly harmless, it may not come off that way to the woman receiving it. For example, I've had an "innocent" "Hey beautiful" turn into a "Fuck you stupid bitch you ugly anyway" because I didn't respond in the way the commenter wished. So now imagine you approach me with the same comment, "Hey beautiful." I feel pressured to respond in order to avoid being attacked again. Or to avoid people calling me a bitch on the internet. Or to avoid being thought of as stuck up. Or to avoid being thought of as being ill-mannered. Not to mention that "Hey beautiful" is soliciting in nature, anyway. The issue is, that by commenting, you are trying to elicit a response from someone, whether they want to talk or not (pressuring, if you will). It places an unfair onus of responsibility on the woman to engage with you, which she did not ask for. Additionally, the very fact that street harassment takes place in a public setting makes is pressurized by nature. If a woman chooses not to engage with you, there are other people around who will witness this, and potentially condemn, criticize, judge, or chastise her for not responding. This creates an inherently pressurized situation. To take it step further, if I do respond to your comment, that opens the door for you to engage further, despite whether or not I may want to. Again, as Jamilah Lemieux presents: "responding to that "hello" may find us in convos we don't want to have, sometimes we want to be left alone...may even need it."
3. It is objectifying.
There was a big debate on these posts about being attracted to someone versus objectifying someone, which most people seemed unable to differentiate between. Objectification is to treat an individual as an object without regard to their dignity. By publically expressing desire for a woman based solely off a brief glimpse of her physical appearance, you negate any of the other aspect of who that woman is and what makes her an individual human being. You are for her that is physical and sexual in nature, relegating her to a kind of ornament. It is not an expression of appreciation for or genuine interest in who she is, but a communication that you find her inherently doable. You also place her in a situation in which you are calling attention to her publically while soliciting a response from her, thereby stripping her of her dignity. The guy who posted the video actually likened the situation to a scenario in which if someone commented on his sneakers he wouldn't be offended. You can't compare a woman to a pair of sneakers and then argue against objectification. Notice that no where in this explanation did I say that attraction is not important in a relationship (another argument that was made). But we are not talking about a relationship, or developing one. We are talking about hollering at a stranger on the street.
However, despite the above, my biggest issue in all of this was that the conversation was NEVER about how the woman feels, but always about how the men felt and how/when/where they can express their interest and attraction. Or about unfairly persecuting the few men who are "innocently saying hello/good morning," or about men also being harassed. It was never about whether or not the woman felt safe, if she felt harassed, if she felt threatened, and how we can respect or address that, but always about the men feeling oppressed for not being able to freely express their sexual desires to a woman walking down the street, and how the woman is rude and stuck up for not responding to their unsolicited advances. It was completely and totally male-centric. I have never seen men cling so tightly to their male privilege as they did in their defense of why they should be allowed to approach strange women on the street. From "some women like it" to "then why do ya'll dress up if not to impress men?" to arguments of "cute girl privilege" and putting an "ugly girl" in a pretty woman's body for a day, the men were determined to defend their freedom to solicit and harass women on the street based on the fact that they "meant well" and considered their advances to be a compliment. It was like when white people interject in a conversation about racism to make the surely valid, but also irrelevant and inherently racist and privileged point that "Not ALL white people (insert racist thing that MOST white people do)..." Just like it is racist to try and center a conversation about Black (or other non-white) people around white people's feelings, it is also sexist to center a conversation about women folk around the feelings of men. But as I said on both of the threads, just as it is white people's job to shut up and listen to what non-white people have to say about being oppressed or offended, it is men's job to listen to and respect what women have to say about being oppressed, harassed, offended, etc.
The other important aspect of the parallels between street harassment/sexism and racism, is the fact the women of color, by function of intersectionality, suffer the most from street harassment, endure the harshest (and most violent) forms of it, and are discredited the most regarding it. There are many Black women who would do a much better job of explaining this concept, and their experiences with it, than I ever could, but it is absolutely critical to recognize and acknowledge in this conversation. For more information on this, and other issues of intersectionality, I would suggest visiting www.gradientlair.com for a good foundational context and basis for research.
As far as this particular thread is concerned, the male centering of the conversation was naturally accompanied by victim blaming as well. One person went so far as to suggest that a woman shouldn't "dress like a smut" if she doesn't want to be harassed (note here that the woman in the video was wearing a tee shirt and sweatpants), a harkening back to tried and true rape culture, surprise surprise. Another suggested that women should just "get over it" and "just deal with it," because it is just the reality of the situation. Again, this leads me to ask, why is the onus of responsibility always placed on the women? Why does it have to be the women who "just deal with it?" Why can't men "just deal with" not hollering at women in the street? What they fail to realize is that for every one "nice guy" who might approach there are 10 assholes with bad intentions who already have. So the chances of it being an asshole who is soliciting our attention are far great than those of it being our future husband. To quote Jamilah Lemieux for a last time "stop blaming women who are trying to stay safe and sane and blame the men who harass us" or as Elon James, writer and CEO of TWIB Nation, so plainly pointed out, "Why is the need to say "hi" more important to dudes than the need for women to feel safe walking down the street?"
What people seem to be missing here is that the experiment was intended to give people a glimpse into the excessive amount of soliciting that a woman encounters on a single day. It is critically important for men to understand (to the degree that they can) what women go through daily in terms of street harassment so that they can be more discerning about what/where/how/when they approach women. My hope would be that it would make men, and the women who defend street harassment, more empathetic to a woman's experience, as well as more understanding if/when a woman chooses not to engage or respond, rather than responding by attacking her character or trying to center the conversation about how #notallmen. Sadly, however, it seems many people have failed to see the bigger picture here.
Don't get me wrong. I do believe there is a difference between street harassment and being polite. I also think that you don't have to defend yourself so hard if you are genuinely being friendly. But most of what I saw in that video fell under the category of street harassment, in my opinion. In any case, what I am defending here is a woman's right to exist, peacefully, without uninvited intrusion. The right to walk down the street without being pressured to engage in exchange with strangers while we are trying to get somewhere. The right to decide who we want to talk to and when. The right to decide we DON'T want to talk to you without having our character assassinated or being verbally assaulted by men OR women. And to the women who condemned the woman in the video, shame on you. The number one rule of righteous womanhood is to empower other women, not tear them down. Even if it threatens your "likability" in the eyes of men. Besides, those aren't the kind of men you want in your life anyway. Because while you're at work, he's on his break catcalling women walking down the street (charge this snarky comment to me being irate).
All this being said, from this point forward, I refuse to engage in dialogue in which the other side insists on centering the conversation around them and their privilege. So when you're ready to talk about why street harassment is wrong instead of why you should be allowed to do it, THEN you can "holla at me."
*As defined by the Oxford Dictionary