It’s Not A Compliment
It’s an experience that almost all women have had at some point in their lives: walking down the street, minding their own business, and being subjected to whistles, catcalls, verbal commentary on their looks, or even assault. Street harassment has long been a part of life for many American women — but widespread attention to the issue may bring about a change by starting a dialogue about why it’s problematic.
What exactly is street harassment? It’s a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. According to Hollaback, the anti-street harassment organization, “At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Further, it reinforces the ubiquitous sexual objectification of these groups in everyday life.” It can take many forms, including verbal comments, obscene gestures, following a person, touching them, or leering at a person. Street harassers do this to intimidate — to make their targets feels scared or uncomfortable, and to feel powerful. This experience is nearly universal among American women; an informal survey found that 99% of women had experienced street harassment. At its core, street harassment is about disrespecting someone, exerting power over them, and sexually objectifying them without their consent.
A recent video by Hollaback shows just how pervasive this problem is. Wearing jeans and a crew neck shirt, a woman is recorded as she walked through New York City over the course of 10 hours — remaining completely silent. During that time, she was subjected to more than 100 instances of street harassment, ranging from “Hey, beautiful!” and “Smile!” to catcalls, whistles, and angry demands that she smile or express appreciation for the remarks. One man followed her for a full five minutes — despite the fact that she was entirely ignoring him. Since its release on October 27, the video has been viewed more than 35 million times.
The reaction to the video has been mixed, with many women noting that it validates their very real experiences of harassment. Others have claimed that the video really just shows a woman getting compliments — and that these sorts of comments are just “normal greetings.” The woman featured in the video has received both death and rape threats. One of the most controversial aspects of this video is how the harassers are almost exclusively men of color — primarily Black and Latino men. According to the video director, the white men who were on tape were edited out because their comments were made only in passing or off camera. Hollaback addressed this issue directly, noting that harassment can and does come from men of all races, ethnicities, religions and social classes. Another commentator noted that white men harass women — but they do it in different ways because of their privilege. We would note that anybody can perpetrate sexual violence (including harassment) against women and other vulnerable groups, and that the video’s lack of white men should not be taken to mean that they cannot or do not participate in this sort of behavior.
Now that this problem is in the national consciousness, what do we do to stop street harassment? Hollaback hopes to empower targets of street harassment to take action by documenting and uploading the information to their website using an app (which then creates a map of harassers). The organization Stop Street Harassment offers a number of ways to help end street harassment, from documenting your experiences on their blog to monitoring offensive ad campaigns and participating in Anti-Street Harassment Week. We believe that education and efforts to understand why these behaviors are considered acceptable by some are critical to ending all forms of sexual violence, including street harassment. You can take part in ending sexual violence by learning about the effect of media on our culture of violence, scheduling a training or education program, or reading more about types of abuse. Men can get involved by joining Blackburn Center’s mission, taking the pledge against gender violence, and speaking up about this issue. Volunteering and donating to Blackburn Center are also great ways to get involved. Working together, we can end street harassment!