Catching Catcalls On Camera

This video is making the rounds:

The backstory:

In August 2014, Rob Bliss of Rob Bliss Creative reached out to Hollaback! to partner on a PSA highlighting the impact of street harassment. He was inspired by his girlfriend — who gets street harassed all the time — and Shoshana B. Roberts volunteered to be the subject of his PSA. For 10 hours, Rob walked in front of Shoshana with a camera in his backpack, while Shoshana walked silently with two mics in her hands.

Megan Garber admits “there are approximately 5,000 caveats here”:

Among them: This is an ad (for the Hollaback campaign). It is produced by a “viral advertising” agency. It is not science. It is unclear whether it is even pseudo-science. Could the whole thing have been staged? Yes. Could it have been selectively edited? Certainly.

Still. There’s a reason that the video is currently going viral on YouTube—the way similar videos have gone viral on YouTube—which is that, sourcing questions aside, the experience it records will resonate with pretty much any woman who has ever walked down a street. (Or, for that matter, who has been online.) What is it like to be a woman? Sometimes, sadly, it’s uncannily like this.

Amanda Hess gauged some reactions from guys watching the video:

“I knew this stuff happened—I see and hear it every once in a while—but the frequency of the remarks was astounding,” one colleague told me. “As a (fairly obvious) gay guy, I like to think I know something about being surveilled and self-aware in public, but this style of direct confrontation is pretty rare,” another said. The video is a “great reminder of how even the most ‘innocuous’-seeming comments pile up over the course of an hour, day, and life to feel oppressive and awful,” added a third.

Emily Badger looks though a “a 302-page guide to state laws that may be applied to street harassers”:

New York’s disorderly conduct law bars obscene language or gestures in a public place. Its harassment law bars someone from making alarming or seriously annoying comments to you at least twice (both violations: a $250 fine and/or up to 15 days in jail). Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, it’s illegal to follow people (as happens to the woman in the video twice). In the District of Columbia, it’s illegal to engage in abusive language or conduct that disturbs a person’s path through public space.

Though she strongly disapproves of street harassment, Lizzie Crocker rejects criminalizing it:

According to Hollaback’s mission statement, the group is interested in modifying the law to punish offenders (and raising significant First Amendment concerns). Because comments such as those documented in their latest video, they explain, are the “most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against.” The group hopes to “inspire legislators, the police, and other authorities to take this issue seriously—to approach it with sensitivity, and to create policies that make everyone feel safe” because catcalling is a “gateway crime” that ultimately “makes gender-based violence OK.”

Hollaback is right to shine a light on these creepy comments from creepy strangers. We should be offended. Such behavior should be considered socially unacceptable. But let’s not get the law involved. Because while calling a passerby “sexy” may be uncouth, it shouldn’t be illegal.

Catching Catcalls On Camera, Ctd

Many readers are scratching their heads over this video:

Oh c’mon – street harassment? I watched the video, read the posts, and I don’t see what the fuss is all about.  Yes, it is cringe-worthy, especially where the guy walks along beside her for too long, but she is on the crowded streets of NYC.  I never felt any kind of actual fear for her, mainly because none of the comments were really all that threatening.  They appreciated her young beauty, and expressed it, so what’s the big deal?  OK, gee, she felt “uncomfortable”, but so what?  We have all kinds of things to feel uncomfortable about – that’s life in the 21st century.  Deal with it.

Now I’m of a certain age where I can say that I was in the more or less in the first wave of feminism.  I was young, blond and attractive, and all kinds of comments were made to me at school, at work, and while traveling.  They never really bothered me, and I’m certainly not psychologically scarred by it.  As women, being told one is pretty is the least of our problems. Yes, I know, it “objectifies” us, but oh, gee, so do lots of things.

I’m not going to contribute to Hollaback, no thank you. My feminist dollars are better spent at Planned Parenthood, or any of the host of other worthy organizations that support women’s health and well-being.

Another:

I’d love to see the full 10 hours of footage. If all they could get is a boiled down two minutes of mostly guys saying hello, good morning, god bless, it seems like the world is not quite as hostile as they hoped it would be. I wonder how many thousands of men she walked by in that 10 hours that said nothing, didn’t notice her at all.

Granted, that guy following her was creepy as hell, and a minute into it he should have been told to back the fuck off. But really, is all of this honestly sexual harassment? No one grabbed at her; no one physically touched her in any way. No one even said anything overtly sexual. Do we really want to make it a crime to say hello to a stranger on the street?

There are some people in this world who really relish being the victim, it gives them a sense of power. I think that’s what’s behind this video.

Another reader wants the creators to pan out:

To the producers of this video, maybe you can try their little social experiment in perceived unfairness by walking down a street in Bogota, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Kabul, Cape Town or a hundred other places that treat women with genuine, bone-crunching contempt without getting dragged into an alley and killed while people call you an infidel or Sharmuta [whore].  Would that alter your conception of “abuse” in any way?

Another sees the focus too narrow even here at home:

The video really is appalling, mostly because the woman seems largely unsurprised. Maybe it’s acting, but I fear this is really how it is for a woman walking by herself through the city. (I’m sending the video to my girlfriend, and I’m anxious to get her response.) But if you look at the shabby clothes the catcallers are wearing, it’s a pretty fair bet that most are not well-educated. So these guys probably aren’t checking in on feminist blogs every other day, or talking to feminist friends. Which means the feminists who blog or who rant at the independent coffee shop counter really aren’t getting their message out to the demographic that needs it most.

In short, most feminists preach to the choir: to other feminists and their friends, on blogs and on social media, within earshot of the educated straight guys who agree on an intellectual / moral level but feel the terrible weight of their own thought crimes when they see a woman in public they’re attracted to. What good comes of this?

I’ve been waiting for the web’s feminist luminaries to go beyond proving that they have it rough and begin talking about what they’re going to do about it. Isn’t that what a civil rights movement is supposed to do? (To their credit, the organization that made this video seem like they’re interested in real world results.)

Better yet, bring this message to inner city classrooms, public parks and community centers. With their vast supply of creative snark, feminists should be able to come up with some terrific billboards and TV ads that would be seen by the men who commit this kind of harassment. And if the feminists can convey this message without thoroughly shaming a male sexual impulses that are permanently, hopelessly hardwired into the brain, that would be aces. Because we’ve seen exactly how far feminism can go via essays typed on a MacBook Air while waiting for yoga class to begin – and it’s not far enough.

One more female reader sounds off:

Ouch. As a woman, Hollaback’s campaign makes me cringe. It’s so sad to see that in 40 years, feminism has gone from a radical protest movement addressing issues of importance to women in their role as half of the human race, like endless war and oppressive poverty, to a PC crusade by middle class women to make life less uncomfortably “lifey” for women as individuals.

None of the progress of the last half century would have been possible without the unqualified right to free speech, including advances in women’s rights. Free speech means free speech for everyone, including assholes and drunks, and for every kind of statement, including those an individual might disagree with or using words they might find offensive. There is no right to be shielded from unwanted communication, and frankly, life would be less rich if there were.

I can’t believe people are seriously suggesting regulating who can speak to whom in public, let alone calling it a “gateway crime” to chat someone up. I am in no way defending lewd or crass behavior, and have felt harassed myself on many occasions. However, a good chunk of the offenders shown in this video are merely saying hello in one form or another. There are regions and cultures in the US where it’s rude NOT to say hello to passersby, and neighborhoods where a compliment on a street corner is a perfectly normal way to flirt.  In my opinion, many of the interactions in this video don’t rise beyond that level.

Besides, it is simply a fact of life that men and women evolved differently, one as pursuers and one pursued. One result of millennia of conditioning is that in the mating game, guys are expected to make the first move and may end up without partners if they don’t.

What’s most depressing to me is that issues like this one, such as crusading for affirmative consent or against fat-shaming, highlight why the progressive left doesn’t resonate with more independents; taken to this extreme their agenda simply conflicts with our hard-won civil liberties, not to mention common sense and human nature.

Let’s be clear, Hollaback is quite seriously lobbying for public communication to be regulated, for the initiation of an unwanted conversation with a woman to be criminalized. We hear a lot about the right’s so-called “war on women”, but the left doesn’t recognize that proposals like this feel an awful lot like a “war on men” and leave a bad taste in the mouth for fair-minded people of all political stripes.

Catching Catcalls On Camera, Ctd

A reader pinpoints another unintentionally revealing aspect of that Hollaback video:

The elephant in the room here that no one is discussing is the racial aspect.  It’s pretty clear that the vast majority of men catcalling in that video, and the most egregious examples, are displayed by minorities – either African-American or Latino men. I’m not saying that harassment like this is exclusive to non-whites, as any women that has encountered a gaggle of drunk frat boys can attest. But whether intentional or not, the video presents a particular theme that people seem to be conveniently avoiding discussing. This is somewhat reminiscent of the inconvenient truth of minority support of Prop 8.

Many more readers comment along those lines:

The desire to criminalize catcalling is a classic example of two progressive causes heading on a collision course, because it would almost certainly have a disproportionate impact on young minority males, particularly African Americans.

I can’t be the only person to notice that a lot of the catcalling in that video was done by black males.  I’m not claiming that we got a representative sample from the video, but it showed 23 encounters, of which I identified 10 of the males as black and 6 as white (the other 7 I counted as ambiguous, either because the male was off screen or his ethnic background wasn’t clear to me by his appearance).  In an area of New York that is (according to Wikipedia) 13% black, 43% of the “assailants” I could identify were black.  In the two creepiest cases, where the man followed the woman down the street for some distance, both men where black.

Mark my words, if Hollaback gets its way and catcalling becomes a crime, within 10 years we’ll be reading reports of how negatively the law is affecting minority youth.  And the irony is that the people who are most the most concerned about that disproportionate impact will probably be the ones who are the most concerned about street harassment today.

Another cites the reaction of Hollaback:

The creator of the video has protested that, sure, they got white guys on camera doing this but there was always something wrong with the shot, like a siren blaring in the background, etc. But does that sound credible to you?

Unless this was a specific attempt to paint blacks and Latinos as particularly prone to this type of harassment, which I doubt, my bet is that based on the neighborhoods they chose to film in, there simply weren’t as may white harassers. So why didn’t they go into stereotypical white/middle to upper class areas? But what if they did so, or had done so – and also didn’t get as many catcallers?

In other words, is this a class issue? Are men from the lower economic rungs of society more apt to call out to women this way? If that’s the case, can we be grown-up enough to admit that, or do we instead ignore that and insinuate that “all men” do it, that catcalling is equally distributed along the spectrum? And if we do that, isn’t the message that this isn’t OK ultimately going to be too diffuse to really hit home where it needs to be heard the most?

The race/class issues inherent in the catcalling video is unavoidable – though I think liberals in particular will strain themselves to avoid it.

Another drills down on the class issue:

I fear that middle- and upper-class progressives are once again taking up a very difficult cause whose primary aim is policing the internal mores of working-class life, mores that offend the sensibilities of the wealthier and better educated because it occasions one of the few cross-class interactions where the middle classes don’t have a home-field advantage. As ever, it centers on different understandings of what is and is not acceptable to do in public space.

Living in working-class areas of south Brooklyn, I’ve been struck both by how common it is for a man to catcall and the fact that the women in these areas engage with it as a normal part of life. Something you often hear when this topic comes up is “What one earth are these guys thinking? This never works!”

But you know what: it does work. I’ve seen it often enough trudging back from the subway. A guy hanging with his friends outside of their building calls out at a girl. Often enough, she stops for a bit and has a laugh. Or she yells back a joke and keeps on. Or tells him to go fuck himself. But what I rarely see is anyone just completely blanking the guys and keeping their heads down.

This isn’t to say that women who object to catcalling just need to learn to grin and bear it, or convince themselves that yelling on the street is actually a charming practice. It’s not, and I’ve had to coach myself to not flush and feel intimidated when I, a 6’4″ man, gets yelled at when I’m waiting for a bus. But it is to say that changing this won’t be easy when what’s at stake here isn’t just a question of how men treat women, but also the differing understanding of how to act in shared spaces.

Another is more succinct:

She is walking through neighborhoods where the cultural norms don’t match those she grew up with, and she is demanding that those people change their everyday behavior, in their own neighborhoods, where she is a guest, because it inconveniences her. It all smacks of white privilege to me.

Follow the whole discussion here. And for another long thread from readers, check out “The Terror of Catcalling“, with examples far more intimidating than the ones presented in that Hollaback video.

Catching Catcalls On Camera, Ctd

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Many more readers have their say on the controversial video:

You know, I wish this could be supplemented by videos of what it’s like for women to walk down the street who don’t conform to “pretty” norms. Quite frankly, plain women, or ones not compliant with “available chick” visual norms, get just as many cat calls – often more aggressive because “ugly women should be both available and grateful for the attention” and have added in an equal or greater load of criticisms. Dog barks, bitter comments about how ugly they are, suggestions where they should go and what they should do – many obscene, and many suggesting that a man approaching them would be doing them a favor screwing them or letting them go down on the idiots.

If you’re beautiful, it’s bad. If you’re NOT beautiful, it’s hell: all the come-ons, then a layer of vicious critique, all of it from sulky men insisting on their entitlement to women: their bodies, their attention, their sexual favors, even the right to insist on the “right” appearance. Jeez-Louise, it gets old.

Another references the above image:

The reader who wrote “It all smacks of white privilege to me” might be interested in Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art project “Stop Telling Women To Smile.” Would that reader tell her portrait subjects (who are largely women of color) that they’re in neighborhoods where they don’t understand the social mores?

Much more commentary below:

I think a very important point has been missed, thus far, in the discussion of the catcall video.

The problem (for many women, at least) is not with the words themselves. The words themselves, as other commenters have pointed out, are First Amendment expression whether we like them or not.  The problem is the context in which they are being spoken.  I’ve never bristled at a “Looking good today, baby” or “Smile, honey!” comment when I’m at the post office or walking through a mall.

However, catcalls are incredibly threatening (or at least feel that way) while walking by myself or in a sketchy area or at nighttime.  In those situations, my goal is to move as quickly and as unnoticed as I can through the environment.  Being noticed brings with it the threat of assault, violence, or something worse. In those situations, therefore, a “Looking good, baby!” is not just a “Looking good, baby!” It’s implicitly saying, “You have been noticed.  I am watching you. I am looking at your body.” The communication has a very predator-prey feeling to it regardless of how it is intended by the speaker.

Another remarks on the complex mix of feelings involved:

When I get catcalls on the street, I’m not reacting to the actual interaction most of the time.  What I am reacting to is the power dynamic that is happening and the possibilities of future violence.  My stress levels rise when I imagine what is going to happen next, whether I ignore the words or whether I engage.  I feel powerless and afraid.  I feel pissed off at them for bothering me and at myself for “letting” them.  I feel a flush of pleasure at being complimented, and then guilty that I should actually like that kind of attention.  I feel afraid of opening myself up to the guy who really does just want to say “Good morning” because then the next guy I smile at will take that as an opening to talk about my big juicy tits.

And this happens to me ALL THE TIME.  It’s a whirlwind of fear, anxiety, relief, pleasure, and mindlessness.

Another turns to the “elephant in the room,” as our reader put it:

In response to those worrying that the catcalling is mostly done by black men: The first catcall I ever received was from a white man in a suit. I was twelve years old, wearing a miniskirt, on my way home from a party in lower Manhattan. I was also lost, and I was grateful to find a subway station. As I walked into the subway, a man in his 20s or 30s coming up the stairs whispered, “Sexy.” I had no idea how to react. I was so alarmed at being sexualized by this adult that I turned around, left the subway, and took a cab home.

I have been catcalled countless times since then. Sometimes it’s truly offensive, and occasionally, rarely, it’s flattering. (A man once yelled at me, “This is why I love New York! The most beautiful women in the world, and you’re one of them!”) Mostly, it’s just tiring. It becomes one more thing to deal with: Should I respond to that guy, or ignore him? Is he honking because there’s an emergency, or is he just trying to get my attention? Is he scary or just a nuisance?

The value of the flawed Hollaback tape is that it shows men how pervasive catcalls are. For a lot of women, they are just a fact of life – and we forget that men don’t see that. I don’t think catcalling should be criminalized (would that even be constitutional?) or that it’s anywhere near the most serious issue facing women. But it’s worth noticing how often catcalls happen.

More on the racial angle:

Your reader who is concerned about the “inconvenient truth” revealed in the video – that the majority of the catcallers were Black and Latino men – needs to confront an inconvenient truth, as well: he or she (despite the caveats that were offered) is overreading it.  First of all, a number of the white guys were edited out of the video.  Second, let me tell you something:  Right now, I live in South Dakota, and the men who have catcalled me, to a person, are white.  If Hollaback had shot a similar video here, and if the overwhelming majority of the woman’s catcallers had been white, I wonder if your reader would have characterized the problem along racial lines.  I suspect that the answer is “No.”

Another reader:

As a mixed-race woman, living in NYC for over 15 years, I can testify from personal experience it is the United Nations of Perverts out there. I have been harassed in similar ways (and worse) as the woman in the video, by men of EVERY race. So have most of my female friends in this city. Where I lived previously (Florida), I was also unfortunately harassed by men of all races (from white rednecks to white men in sportscars to Latin and black men). But in New York, the incidence of harassment is higher because it’s a walking city, and our population is more diverse than most public spaces in America.

This is probably a good moment to post a trailer for the classic documentary of street harassment, “War Zone.” It’s filmed in Chicago. Plenty of white harassers on the video, which makes sense given the population there:

And another:

I worked on a garbage truck for the County Parks Maintenance Department one summer when I was in college.  All the guys in the shop were Archie Bunker types, and I worked with two drivers – one Irish, one Italian (the Italian guy assumed I was also; when I told him I’m Jewish, he thought about it and said “there’s nothing wrong with that”).  The Irish driver would whistle and call women from the truck as I was riding shotgun while I’d squirm, since the last thing I wanted was to call to the attention of pretty women the fact that I was riding shotgun in a garbage truck.

During one whistle/catcall event towards the end of the summer, he turned to me as I was sinking down in my seat and said, “What’s the matter with you, don’t you like girls?”.  It was just kind of taken for granted that this is what you do if you like girls.  Clearly this man in his 60s with a strong brogue, who’d been a laborer all his life and looked it, couldn’t have hoped for any kind of positive reaction from the women, and I don’t think he meant to harass or threaten.  It’s just what you do to express your appreciation for the female form.

He and the other guys had no idea how dumb they made themselves look doing this.  Telling them how threatening they are is probably futile, since they don’t see themselves as threatening and would say that you should just lighten the F up.  A better strategy might be to help them realize how completely ridiculous they look.

One more:

It seems to me that part of what women are saying is the constant everyday-ness of the catcalls.  It’s like African Americans who say it’s not the OPEN discrimination, it’s the thousand tiny cuts, i.e., being followed in stores, being asked for ID along with your credit card when your white friend does not get asked, being stopped by cops for no seeming reason, etc etc.  It just wears you down after a while and I suspect young women feel the same.

Read the whole discussion thread here. Another long thread on catcalling from 2012 is here. More reader feedback on our Facebook page. Update from a reader:

I haven’t read through all the commentary, but as a woman I naturally am very glad to see it being discussed. I’m not sure if this has been sent your way, but rather than catching the catcalls on camera, a Brooklyn artist found another unique way of catching them – she does it in cross stitch:

elanaadler-takecareofthatass

And it’s really discomforting to see the “compliments” or the insults captured in this medium. Sort of perverse folk art.

Another reader:

You know, Andrew, your female readers are reacting to racial aspect of the video (by insisting that white men catcall too, which I’m sure is true) but utterly and completely ignoring the class aspect – or in some cases, as with the story of the Irish guy on the garbage truck, actually making the case that this may indeed be class thing.

I live in a middle class/upper-middle class suburban (and yes, mostly white) neighborhood, and women are not being catcalled here. It’s just not happening. My 13-year-old son has several friends who live in a newer neighborhood with sidewalks and lots of pedestrians about a half-mile away; women are not being catcalled there, either.

The suggestion by your readers seems to be that if a woman were to walk around these neighborhoods she’d get just as many “Hey, baby” catcalls as the woman in the video did. I’ll tell you right now, that suggestion is false.

What we have, then, are women who legitimately feel creeped out or even threatened when something like this happens, but who in turn attempt to suggest that “all men” are either guilty of such behavior, or at least responsible for it in some way. And I reject that; I don’t do collective guilt. I don’t teach my sons to behave this way, the people I hang out with tell their children that this behavior is wrong and offensive. I’m responsible for my behavior, for my kids’ behavior, maybe even to an extent my neighbors’ behavior. But the guys in that video, catcalling the woman? I’m not responsible for their behavior. It’s not my responsibility to change it.

Or should it be my responsibility to tell them they’re wrong – me, the upper middle class white guy, telling impoverished blacks, Latinos and whites that they’re being boorish? That’d be received real well, don’t you think?