Rob Bliss Creative / Hollaback!/ YouTube

Street harassment is the refuge of the powerless

Men in power do much worse than wish women good night

November 5, 2014 2:00AM ET

Walking around New York City for 10 hours, Shoshana B. Roberts encountered more than 100 instances of verbal street harassment. Hollaback, an organization committed to ending such hounding, recorded her experience and posted a video of it on YouTube last week, drawing more than 30 million views.

For having the temerity to participate in this video, Roberts has reportedly received rape and death threats. Many commenters, most of them men, have been eager to prove Hollaback’s point by reacting to implicit criticism with hysterical, over-the-top defensiveness. Thanks to these troglodytes and their threats, you don’t have to be a women’s studies major to see that the world is a hostile place for women.

Most women have reacted to the video with anger and weary recognition, as have some men. Some activists have proposed laws that would criminalize street harassment. Some women of color have shared their stories of harassment; others have called the video out for its “fucked up” racial politics. (Roberts is white; most of the harassers depicted in the video are not.) 

And yet what does the video actually show us? The most disturbing part is a five-minute segment in which a man silently shadows Roberts, leering at her intently. But the majority of the behavior we see is not threatening so much as tedious and potentially irritating. “How you doing today?” asks one guy. “What’s up, beautiful? Have a good day,” says another. The most common remarks include “Hey, beautiful,” “How are you this morning?” and “Have a nice evening.”

When it comes to sexual harassment, it doesn’t pay to eliminate distinctions of degree. Following a woman or threatening her is not the same as smiling and calling her beautiful, even if the latter is intended as a come-on. And by eliding the difference, we are placing the comparatively minor sin of catcalling on a par with the more insidious forms of harassment women still face behind closed doors.

Rob Bliss, the video’s director, has been criticized for what some see as its racist undertones. He claims to have edited out a number of white male harassers because noise pollution rendered footage of them unusable. Hollaback has issued a statement saying, in part, “We regret the unintended racial bias in the editing of the video that overrepresents men of color.”

Perhaps men of color were overrepresented in the video. Or perhaps catcalling is more common in some communities than it is in others. Most videos are edited, and none of Roberts’ harassment was staged.

In my experience, when I’m on a college campus or walking around an affluent residential neighborhood, it is rare for a strange man to whistle, catcall or comment on my body.

This doesn’t mean that educated, affluent men do not harass women. It just means that it’s less public and more damaging when they do. Think of the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi, Bob Filner, Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood, to name just a few.

On Nov. 2, The New York Times ran a front-page story about a sexual harassment case at the Yale School of Medicine. The case, which has been egregiously mishandled by administrators, involves the former head of cardiology, Michael Simons, and a much younger Italian female researcher. The older, married doctor shamelessly pursued his female colleague, whose boyfriend was under his supervision, by, among other things, handing her a love letter written in what the Times called “effortful” Italian. 

At the end of the day, a stranger on the street who limits himself to 'Hey, beautiful' can't hurt me the way a man with real power can.

The woman told Simons his letter was insulting and unwelcome. In 2011 she transferred to Cornell. Her boyfriend, who is now her husband, remained under Simons’ supervision at Yale. Simons allegedly responded to this woman’s rejection by derailing her husband’s career.

Reading about this case made me angry — that a delusional predator like Simons was given the option to “decide” not to return to his post rather than publicly fired, that Yale’s provost ignored a universitywide committee’s recommendation to fire him and that men in power still routinely get away with abusing that power, often because other men don’t take harassment seriously. I find it contemptible that men like Simons rely on a veneer of respectability to protect them from the consequences of their vicious behavior. I don’t feel as outraged by a guy on the street who calls me beautiful.

That’s not to say I don’t understand the rhetorical purpose of lumping together all forms of harassment. The cumulative effect on women of not being able to move through the world free of unwanted interactions with men is harmful and exhausting. It leaves men feeling entitled and women feeling afraid and resentful.

I acknowledge that it has been relatively easy for me to brush off street harassment and go about my business unscathed. Where I live and work, I am not constantly bombarded by it. Women who deal with sexually suggestive comments daily probably have a different perspective, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t appreciate my white feminist self descending on their neighborhoods to prove a point by videotaping or hollering back at harassers.

In a free society, our right to feel comfortable and safe must be weighed against others’ right to freedom of expression. Pushing to make it socially unacceptable to say certain things to women in public spaces, as Americans have done successfully with most racial slurs, is a worthy goal. But protecting women from all interactions they might not appreciate or enjoy is impossible. It is therefore a waste of time, energy and outrage to direct at men who smile and say “Good morning” the fury best reserved for those who prey on women in a sustained manner. At the end of the day, a stranger on the street who limits himself to “Hey, beautiful” can’t hurt me the way a man with real power can.

Even the more obnoxious guys in the Hollaback video — those who commanded Roberts to smile and be grateful for their unsolicited attention — struck me as more pathetic than loathsome. Men who attempt to interact with strange women on the street are laying claim to power they don’t have elsewhere. It’s no wonder they try to assert their dominion over women.

No woman owes a man she doesn’t know a smile or a minute of her time. But certain comments, as unwelcome as they may be, are better left ignored or deflected. There’s no value in making enemies of men who lack power or malice.

Let’s save our most searing scorn for those who most deserve it.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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