The video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” which was created by anti-street harassment organization Hollaback, sparked discussion and controversy throughout the country this past week. Everyone from CNN to Rush Limbaugh has chimed in with their thoughts. Worringly, the public’s response to the video seems to be focused almost entirely on whether sexual harassment is as recurrent as the video suggests.
This incorrectly focuses the discussion on whether women’s claims of catcalling and harassment are actually true. While I have seen nearly everyone talking about the video in some capacity, I’ve seen very few people in the mainstream media making more relevant critiques, such as noting the racial politics and victim-blaming undertones present in the video. The way the dialogue has been framed, in which the premise itself is being questioned, prevents us from having a more nuanced and helpful discussion about the issues raised in the video and what we can do to address them.
Following the release of the video, some argue that the incidents depicted shouldn’t qualify as harassment; many of the men only said seemingly non-threatening things such as “Hey” or “Have a good day.” Some men were even outraged that they were being criticized for simply “being polite” to women on the street, as if their only goal in entering into a woman’s personal space was to be polite.
In a brilliant response to this, the hashtag “#DudesGreetingDudes” trended on Twitter, in which men tweeted examples of these “polite” comments being said to another man. This trend comically illustrated how ridiculous it would be for a man to approach another man in the same way that he might approach a woman.
After all, if men’s primary concern in talking to a woman on the street was to be “polite” and “make her feel good,” then they would cease to say these things after encountering protests that explain that these comments make women feel uncomfortable. Instead, men insist that women do like it, that we’re just being too sensitive, or that we would like it only if the man saying these things to us was attractive. Clearly, these statements have nothing to do with “making us feel good.” Instead, this is has everything to do with making men feel good at the expense of our comfort.
Instead of debating whether street harassment is even a real problem, we should, for example, discuss the fact that the video depicts primarily men of color harassing a white woman. This suggests that most of the perpetrators of sexual harassment are men of color, and that the victims are mainly white women. This is simply not true. This black-and-white view of the issue is harmful and helps to further criminalize black men by playing into racial stereotypes of black men as dangerous sexual aggressors.
On the other side of the issue, the video obscures the experiences of women of color, who experience sexual harassment more often and more aggressively than white women. Without showing the experiences of women of color, this video is complicit in making sexual harassment seem like a problem white women face exclusively at the hands of black and brown men, and it makes men of color seem more violent and dangerous to white women than white men.
Another issue that the video brings up is victim-blaming, the idea that some women deserve to be catcalled more than others. The beginning of the video explicitly states that the woman is “silently walking” through Manhattan, wearing only “jeans and a crew neck T-shirt.” Seemingly, the reason for stating this at the beginning of the video is to show that street harassment happens even to the “good girls” — the ones who are docile and dressed conservatively.
But by explicitly stating this, the video also indirectly suggests that loud women who are in tube tops and short skirts are inviting these comments. Combined with the previously discussed racial politics, in which this innocent “good girl” image is conflated with being white, this demonizes women who might be dressed more “provocatively” and plays into the idea that it is more okay to make unsolicited comments to certain women than to others.
Despite its multitude of racial-political problems, this viral video is important in that it allows us to have these discussions in the first place. For the first time, America is having a widespread discussion about the everyday sexual harassment of women, an experience that nearly every woman has had.
For women, the simple act of commuting from place to place carries political weight, and recognizing this is important. But we must remember that street harassment is a complex issue that contains racial and cultural components. By simplifying it, we are erasing and editing women’s experiences. Asking questions about campaigns such as this one is important, but we have to make sure that we’re asking the right ones.