Why One Viral Street Harassment Video Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

Did you watch the new viral street harassment video? Here are some of our thoughts:

  • We thought: Wow, nearly 23 million views???! People are talking!

  • We thought: Look at all of this amazing conversation about street harassment, what it feels like, and how we can stop it.

  • We thought: But, this isn’t what “walking as a woman” looks like, because every woman’s experience is different.

The woman being harassed in the video is a white woman walking through Manhattan. It’s dangerous and also plain incorrect to generalize her experience as representing those of all women. From the research and from stories of people of color, people from low-income communities, people who identify as LGBTQ, people who are differently abled, and others who don’t present like the actress in this video (see below for some of our favorite examples), we know that these communities experience more severe and more frequent harassment starting earlier in life.

Activism is challenging and never perfect. Especially tricky is the problem of representing something like street harassment, which has endless layers and complications and is experienced differently by people of different identities and settings. We admire and appreciate the work that went into creating this video — many of you told us that the video resonated with you strongly, and there’s no doubt it’s expanding the conversation about street harassment — but even as we do that, we can hold Hollaback and the video’s creator accountable for the choices they made.

We know that instances of harassment perpetrated by white men were edited out of the footage, reportedly because the footage or sound was of poor quality. Whatever the reasons, we agree that the final product reproduces a narrative that leads to the criminalization of men of color, and the centering of just one story in a movement where we can and must do better. And we question whether the video would be so viral if this hadn’t been the case.

We encourage you to ask yourselves: Would the conversation be different if the woman in the video were fat or differently abled? Would people be as shocked by the video if it was of a woman of color being harassed by men of all races? Because that’s our challenge, you guysIn order to end street harassment, we have to get to a place where every single story matters, whether the victim looks like you (or doesn’t), or the harasser looks like you (or doesn’t).
 

Recommended Reading

Take a look at this reading from people who said it better than we can, and then tell us what you think. What does this video mean to you? What’s your take on the intersections of harassment, class, and race?

Hello, Beautiful: On street harassment, public consent, race and more, Medium, Deanna Zandt

A Viral Video Can’t be the Only Way to Understand Street Harassment, Stop Street Harassment, Holly Kearl

De-Centering Whiteness is Essential to Thinking About Street Harassment, ColorLines, Aura Bogago

The Director of the Viral Catcalling Video Explains Why It Has So Few White Men, The New Republic, Molly Mirhashem

More analysis we love on the intersection of race, class and street harassment:

#YouOKSis? It’s Time For Men To Be Proactive In Helping Women Fight Street Harassment, Terrell Jermaine Starr, NewsOne

Blinders & the Tyranny of Good Intentions: Street Harassment, Stop & Frisk, and Criminalization, Prison Culture

The Uncomfortable Privilege Of Being Catcalled, Thought Catalog, Chelsea Fagan

[VIDEO] Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere, The Daily Show

Racialized Street Harassment: “I’m Not Your ‘China Doll!'”

Location: Eastern Market, 8th and SE Pennyslvania
Time: Daytime (9:30am-3:30pm)

So street harassment is not a new thing in urban culture and urban dwellings. I, along with my coworkers get harassed on a daily basis just walking from the office to grab lunch 2 blocks away – and the easy thing is to just ignore it since it will not stop, and the police have done nothing to curtail the issue. The Eastern Market is a bustling area full of working professionals in office clothes, and then the rift raft that stand outside store fronts all day, every day either pan-handling or verbally assaulting women. I have been followed by a man yelling “hey baby hey baby hey!” just going to the market.

On my 2-block walk to grab lunch, yesterday, I was harassed 4 times in a 3 minute span, one after the other. These events always happen in BROAD DAYLIGHT with plenty of people around in the restaurant district of Eastern Market, indicating the absolute misogyny and disrespect urban culture promotes. However, the 4th man to harass me that day took the cake and that was when I freaked out and started yelling. Sexist misogynistic comments is one thing, but the last man decided to add an element of RACISM to it, and thought it would be ok to call me “shrimp fried rice.” I have also been called “china doll.”

Submitted 9/13/14 by “Anonymous.”

Take a stand against public sexual harassment and assault: Donate now.


Do you have a personal experience with gender-based public sexual harassment or assault? Share your story to help raise awareness about the pervasiveness and harmful effects of street harassment. All submissions are posted anonymously unless otherwise specified.

If you experience or have experienced sexual harassment on the DC Metro system: Whether the event is happening at the moment or occurred months ago, we strongly encourage you to report to Metro Transit Police (MTP): www.wmata.com/harassment or 202-962-2121. Reporting helps identify suspects as well as commons trends in harassment. You can program MTP’s number into your phone so you can easily reach them when needed.

If you need assistance in coping with public sexual harassment or assault, please contact the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) 24/7 crisis hotline at 202-333-RAPE (202-333-7279).

PoP Poster Asks, “What Can People Do To Stop Street Harassment?”

end street harassment in dc

Yesterday, DC blog Prince of Petworth (PoP) posted a story in which a reader recounted facing harassment from a group of men in Columbia Heights, asking the question: “What should you do when you’re being harassed?” Though it’s unclear from the original story whether the harassing incident described is gender-based, the behaviors — stalking, verbal threats — were quickly recognized by commenters as similar to the kind of street harassment that women and LGBTQ folks experience because of their gender expression all the time. The rest of the comments, however, ranged everywhere from decent advice to explicit racism.

So, we decided to weigh in. Here are a few things you can do when you’re harassed on the street:

1. Use an assertive response.

Make eye contact with your harasser, tell them their behavior isn’t acceptable and that you want them to stop — if you feel safe! Sometimes no response is the best response, as long as you choose it.

2. Engage a bystander.

In the story that the PoP reader shared, the individual who was being harassed ducked into a coffee shop as an escape. CASS is working hard at conducting community-wide trainings — both for businesses and individuals — to help folks recognize sexual aggression and safely intervene when possible. In the moment, explicitly calling out the harassing behavior and asking people for help can go a long way to de-escalate a situation and find support!

3. Write, draw, speak about it!

If you don’t feel comfortable responding in the moment, there are plenty of things you can do after the fact to channel your frustration and anger, as well as to help raise awareness and spur action. We think this kind of collective action is the key to ending gender-based street harassment once and for all!

4. Become an engaged community member and don’t criminalize youth of color.

When dialogues about violence prevention start, too often the knee-jerk responses reinforce false and damaging stereotypes: that victims should be responsible for their own safety by changing their behavior, and that people of color are inherently criminal. It’s important to recognize these ideologies as what they are: harmful cultural norms — especially for women and LGBTQ people of color, for whom these norms intersect and compound. Rather than reinforcing these stereotypes in moments of fear and frustration, examine how they motivate your own behavior, commit to calling them out, and listen when others do. Building a community in which all marginalized identities are valued and centered is critical to creating a culture in which gender-based violence is not tolerated. If you routinely cross the street when you see groups of black youth, as one PoP commenter suggested, try saying “hello” instead. Think critically about why people end up on the street to ask for money. Act responsibly — and thoughtfully — in your community to address the intersecting injustices that keep us all down. 

RECOMMENDED READING

“Memo to White Women: Don’t Be George Zimmerman,” Lauren Taylor and Sarah Trembath
“Sexism and racism are woven into a tight fabric that maintains the privilege of whiteness and of maleness.”

“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh
“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” This is a short, accessible piece on white privilege and male privilege. The article is a ‘classic’ by anti-racist educators

“A Black Feminist Critique of Same-Race Street Harassment,” Hawley Fogg-Davis
This article focuses on the experiences of black lesbians and the need for black women to hold black men accountable for upholding black patriarchy.

“Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Crenshaw considers the intersections of racism and patriarchy, and how the experiences of women of color remain unrepresented within the discourses of both feminism and anti-racism.

“Blatant woman-bullying,” public masturbation by man at VA restaurant

Location:  Virtue Feed & Grain (Old Town Alexandria)
Time: Night (7:30pm-12am)

my partner (white male) and I (woman of color) ate a lovely dinner and were enjoying a coffee at the bar when a late 20s/early 30s man started a generally kind conversation. It quickly turned in to a randomly anti-sematic (sic) conversation with him diving in to the US and Israel and he began staring at me and rubbing his crotch. he was in glasses and a plaid shirt, about 6’0. after my partner gently/safely/kindly asked him to allow us to have a private conversation he went to a different part of the restaurant. so surreal. we then noticed a woman next to us finding refuge from a friend of his and conversing with the bartender. she too seemed uncomfortable so I believe there were two of them.

not sure if this is appropriate here but it was pretty horrifying – between the racism and the crotch grabbing…the blatant woman-bullying. I shared this with our bartender/server as we left and can’t stop thinking about the other women in that restaurant tonight…

Submitted on 11/24/12 by “Camilla”

Do you have a personal experience with gender-based public sexual harassment or assault?
Submit your story to help raise awareness about the pervasiveness and harmful effects of street harassment. All submissions are posted anonymously unless otherwise specified.

If you experience or have experienced sexual harassment on the DC Metro system:
Please consider reporting to Metro Transit Police: www.wmata.com/harassment; 202-962-2121.

 

When Standing Up to Sexual Harassment Makes You a B*tch

What does it mean when a woman is called a “bitch” for responding to street harassment? What does that say about the options women have in responding to harassment?

By Renee Davidson, Communicators Director, CASS

[NOTE: Renee’s been nominated for the Women’s Media Center’s 2013 Social Media Award! Please support CASS & vote for herVoting closes 9/24/13.]

Protecting against the onslaught: Many street harassers berate victims when turned down.

I recently enjoyed my lunch break by picking up books at MLK Library, located in Gallery Place/Chinatown in Northwest DC. A few steps after I left MLK to return to work, an older man walked briskly toward me on the sidewalk, pointing his finger as he approached. “You’re sexy,” he said, continuing to point at me as he passed.

Stop harassing women,”  I said. I didn’t turn around to see his reaction. A young man waking beside me chuckled. I wasn’t laughing. In my work clothes with my books, I immediately felt embarrassed and objectified by what he said. 

Right away, I heard the man begin yelling at me from behind. From the sound of it, he had stopped on the sidewalk behind me. I didn’t slow to try to catch what he said, but it was clear I was being called a “white bitch”– at least a few times

The incident shows how street harassment is not an isolated event, or something to be brushed off as “not a big deal.” Instead, it functions within larger contexts of power regarding race, class, sex and gender. As noted by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the intersection(s) of race and gender often (if not always) play an extraordinary role in sexual harassment.

First, what does it mean when a woman is called a “bitch” for responding to street harassment? What does that say about the options women have in responding to harassment?

Many women like myself struggle with the Catch-22 of responding versus not responding to vulgar words thrown at them: “Is it best for me to say nothing and feel like a passive victim (note: this is how I often feel when I don’t respond, but this is not true for everyone or every scenario), or is it best to be assertive and be labeled a ‘bitch?’” I often find myself thinking, “Which of these scenarios will ruin my day LESS?”

So what did this harasser accomplish here, at least for me?  In “Black Sexual Politics,” feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins argues that “the term bitch is designed to put women in their place.” By calling me a bitch – a deeply misogynistic term – the harasser put me in “my place” as inferior to, or beneath him, based on my sex. According to Collins, “One sign of a ‘Bitch’s’ power is her manipulation of her own sexuality for her own gain. Bitches control men, or at least try to, using their bodies as weapons.” In other words, my speaking out against this man’s sexual objectification of my body was a threat to him — it represented my denial of his power and control over my sexuality — and explains his injured rebuke. He called me a bitch in order to invalidate my objection to his behavior on the basis that I was, according to definitions by Urban Dictionary, nothing but an “annoying and whiny female.” He was punishing me for speaking out.

This sexism was in place when the harasser first addressed me. In order to have found it acceptable to wag his finger at me and sexualize my body to fellow passersby on the street, he had to have certain feelings about women – specifically about how he had the “right” to judge their bodies publicly, what he was allowed to say to them, and  – perhaps most importantly – how they should receive his judgment. (I guess I was supposed to smile graciously and say, “THANKS!”). But for me, his comment wasn’t a “compliment” and it wasn’t harmless – I saw it as coming from a point of male privilege in which he felt entitled to publicly judge, comment on, and sexualize my body. This type of entitlement often extends to forms of physical violence.

But I wasn’t just ANY old bitch – I was a “white” bitch. For this man, my race (or at least what he read as my race) played a role in my bitchiness. Our friends at Urban Dictionary define a “white bitch,” (ie me) as a:

    1. Woman of caucasian (sic) extraction who thinks she is more atractive (sic) than she is.
    2. White woman with unwarranted confidence.

Add that little bonus of “white”  bitch, and my objection to his sexual harassment was even more invalid because, as the stereotype holds, white bitches are full of themselves and…let’s be honest…not even that hot anyway. “Calm the f*ck down, not-that-hot white bitch!!”

Why did this harasser mention my race? What significance did this have for him? While I don’t share his male privilege, as a white woman, I have white privilege – something he did not. According to Hawley Fogg Davis, “The stereotype of black men as sexual predators, especially of white women, has historically rendered black men the targets of lynching, and other forms of punishment, humiliation, and surveillance.” By calling me a white bitch, was the harasser hinting at this unequal (and unjust) racist history? Was he trying to shift the power dynamic?

It’s hard to come up with a constructive way to respond to street harassment — or at least one that sits right with you (which is all that matters!). So I hate that the response that often makes me feel the most empowered — assertively labeling the behavior as harassment — ended up with me being insulted. For me, calling out street and sexual harassment is a way to give myself voice and break the sexual objectification I am feeling. But for many women, it’s more empowering to not reply at all — a way to not engage with behavior they don’t support. What’s more, each and every incident is different. Bottom line: Street harassment is complex, and so is responding to it.

Why are racial descriptors so commonly (at least in my experience) tagged onto sexist slurs? How does my experience differ for women of color and varying races? What are other ways in which street harassment becomes racialized? How do YOU typically respond to harassment? What response makes YOU feel empowered? Share your thoughts with us in the comments here, and share your stories by submitting to our site.  In the meantime, you can find some tips for responding to street harassment here.

The phrase “Stop harassing women!” is an expert-recommended response to catcalling and sexual harassment. To learn more, check out “Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers,” by anti-harassment expert (and friend of CASS!), Martha Langelan. It’s currently in stock at MLK Library.

Renee Davidson is a feminist activist and Director of Communications at Collective Action for Safe Spaces. She has been nominated for the Women’s Media Center’s 2013 Social Media Award! Please support CASS & vote for herVoting closes 9/24/13. Follow Renee at @reneetheorizes and @safespacesdc.


 MORE FROM “My Streets, Too”:

 ABOUT “MY STREETS, TOO”

“My Streets, Too” is CASS’s ongoing series on personal writings on street harassment by members of the DC community. Email Renee to submit writings using your full name, initials, or anonymously (just let us know). Please be sure to use the subject line “My Streets, Too.”

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