I had the great good fortune to spend five days in NYC last week, walking some of the same streets that the woman from this Hollaback video walked while she videotaped the response. If you haven’t seen the video, it is essentially the distillation of ten hours of footage as she walked around Manhattan in jeans and a t-shirt. The reason it is worth watching is because of how she is treated by strangers as she strolls the streets alone. Some of the unsolicited attention is very disturbing.
Like I said, I walked those same streets last weekend and, with the exception of street vendors trying to sell me something or hand me a flyer for a bus tour, nobody talked to me at all. Because I’m patently unattractive? I don’t think so. Because I was walking with a man.
He happened to be my husband, but he could have been my brother or my uncle or just a friend. And that is what I think makes all the difference. The two of us witnessed many incidents of street harassment of other women as they walked alone or in groups and I may or may not have told one man as he repeatedly increased his volume and pled for one woman to respond to his “compliments” that I thought he was an ass and he should just shut up. Bubba may or may not have squeezed my hand and started walking faster.
Since this video was posted, there has been much debate on the subject of catcalling and street harassment and many of the usual players have cried foul. On Fox’s show “The Five,” host Eric Bolling said he didn’t see anything wrong with most of what happened in the video and his co-host agreed so wholeheartedly that he catcalled her from the set of the show. In addition to the more famous folks weighing in, there have been scores of others who have defended catcalling as “polite,” and a legitimate way of greeting people on the street. It is this notion of ‘people’ that I take issue with.
If you are a straight guy on the sidewalk and a couple walks by, are you likely to greet them both with “good morning,” or a leering “God Bless You” if they are a particularly handsome couple? When a single guy walks by, would you look him up and down and say hello or comment on his choice of clothing? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you might live in the Pacific Northwest or some other locality known for its neighborliness or polite culture. But if you are in a big city and the only people you “greet politely” on the street are young women, either walking alone or in a group, then you are likely giving them unwanted attention. If you persist by asking them for something (a phone number, an enthusiastic response, acknowledgment of your physical prowess or simple glee that you noticed them), you have crossed the line into creepy and aggressive and inappropriate.
If you, like men’s rights activist Paul Elam, believe that men who catcall are simply as “innocuous” as “panhandlers, strangers who talk too much…salespeople, survey takers and even officious video makers,” you might want to realize that these obnoxious folks on the sidewalk are Equal Opportunity Offenders. These folks are starting unwanted conversations with people of all ages and genders. Their motive is generally to make money and, occasionally, to incite discomfort. Folks who catcall are not neighbors simply trying to connect with other human beings. I cannot say exactly what their motives are and I suspect they are complicated and not necessarily universal, but the fact that most of the remarks are sexualized in nature or tone adds an insidious element to them that is not present when a shiny pamphlet or petition is being shoved in your face.
There are already too many situations where a woman can be uncomfortable in public given the culture of objectification in this country. I fully admit to being very nervous in an elevator by myself with a man I don’t know or walking down a dimly lit street alone when a man or two is coming toward me. That may be unwarranted, but the balance of power is shifted such that I, as a female, feel vulnerable in those instances. Add in comments such as the ones Shoshana Roberts heard in her daytime stroll through a crowded city, and I don’t think you can fault women for crying foul. If it isn’t something you would say to someone you aren’t sexually attracted to, it isn’t something you should say at all.