Women are not monolithic. We do not all like the same things. We do not all fear the same things. It is dangerous to assume that we are all a single entity. Recently, a street harassment organization called Hollaback! put out a video of a woman walking through the streets of New York City being catcalled, and feminists jumped up in glee — male feminists included. Finally, awareness had been raised on a serious issue women face each time we leave the house — street harassment.
I watched the video and my joy as a feminist crashed spectacularly. What the hell had I just watched? This was no cause for celebration. From my view, men of color equal catcalling savages, there was no clear definition of what constitutes street harassment — females being victimized should cower in our passivity while allowing uncontested male aggression, and a women are invisible.
I expected the responses to this video to come as well-reasoned, fair arguments that clarified what constitutes harassing behavior and to make an attempt at empowering women who experience this — i.e., all women. I’ve yet to see arguments (except one by Hanna Rosin for Slate) that aren’t almost entirely reactionary, and none that illuminates the defining factors that make street harassment problematic.
According to Cynthia Bowman’s article, “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women,” in Harvard Law Review, the following is offered as characteristic of street harassment of women: 1. The targets are female; 2. the harassing party is male; 3. there is no acquaintance between the parties; 4. the event happens face to face; 5. the event takes place in a public place such as the sidewalk or the street; and 6. the interactions are not meant as a public discourse or conversation in any real way and they are objectifying and otherwise degrading or threatening.
(This definition is not inclusive and does not address that same harassment experienced by members of the LGBTQ community.)
In the video, several men fit the description of harasser, and some did not — but all were lumped together as such. Some of the men simply said “Good morning” and in no way indicated any further aggression.
In my observation, women — at least those who have lived in a big city — find even this greeting problematic because it sometimes is taken as an invitation or leads to more disrespectful comments. Sometimes.
I respect their view that occasionally men who just say hi want more, but I felt the arguments swelled into a bifurcated standoff that neither allowed men any room to greet a woman in public nor left space for women who disagree that the street is completely off limits to receiving introduction or even greetings.
My conclusion was that the reaction seemed to be predicated by a particular experience — past victimization. While this experience is relevant, it is not universal — and despite the fact that all women face the male gaze, not all of us feel victimized by it. We also do not all feel that “Good morning” or “Hello” presents an environment of danger. Not to minimize the experience of any woman who feels threatened by this situation, but I don’t want to my voice to be co-opted in a stance that does not fairly represent the issue.
Hollaback! admitted that its edit excluded many of the white men who catcalled the young woman. Their claim was that background noise or other extenuating circumstances prevented the use of these shots. The problem with what they preserved is that it presents men of color in a way that recalls imagery of black males as aggressors against the white female. This, paired with the fact that the video completely ignores the black woman’s experience, adds to the problems of this video. It is not a topic that can be painted with broad strokes.
Feminists are different, and no one activist should ever claim to speak for an entire oppressed category of the citizenry.
Instead of shutting down the men who ask, “What do I do?” I propose engagement and consideration that some men have no concept that in general, yelling across a street is improper social etiquette, much less that it may constitute harassment. No, it is not our responsibility to teach them — but if men are genuinely asking, what does it hurt to answer?
The video has its flaws, but it did open a conversation to address street harassment. I give it that, but I am adamant that if we are to have this conversation, it needs to be careful and clear, allowing the space where we may not all agree.