Now, firstly, I really like Hollaback!. The organisation was the one who taught me the term ‘street harassment,’ who showed me that it was something that was experience by women all over the globe, and that I didn’t have to take that shit.
I also really respect the fact that on their website, Hollaback! does make an effort to discourage the racial stereotyping of men of colour as sexual predators.
Due in part to prevalent stereotypes of men of color as sexual predators or predisposed to violence, Hollaback! asks that contributors do not discuss the race of harassers or include other racialized commentary.
With that in mind, I’m very disappointed that their cat-calling video edited out most incidents of street harassment involving white men– leaving the video with predominantly Black and Latino men, all of whom seemed to be of low-income. If this video was meant to show the prevalence of street harassment, and how it comes from men of all backgrounds, it missed its mark.
The marketing agency who worked with them, Rob Bliss Creative, has stated that their reasons for leaving so many white men on the cutting room floor was because of video and audio problems. While I believe there was no malicious intent in this, I question the fact that no one from Hollaback! brought this up upon review of the edited film. Maybe Rob Bliss isn’t aware of why this is an issue, but Hollaback! should know better. There is already exists the belief that street harassment is a cultural thing, that the men doing it are yelling in AAVE (e.g. lemme holla at you!), that it’s the forte of construction men and other low-income workers.
Where are the white collar workers getting pissed off when you don’t respond to their ‘smile, beautiful!’ Where are the groups of college-age white boys snickering to themselves as the yell at women across the street? As Roxane Gay tweeted, you didn’t walk through any white neighbourhoods?
Look, everyone’s experience with street harassment is different. As a young Asian woman in Sydney, I predominantly get harassed by old white men asking if I want a ‘companion’ to ‘show me around the city’ or white men who yell sexual, racial terms at me. While other women may have a similar set of experiences, it’s not indicative of what all women experience. even other Asian women in my town might experience.
Similarly, this video is not indicative of everyone’s experience with street harassment- but it’s presented as the ‘average’ woman’s experience with street harassment.
I think this video is a good, but flawed start. You really want my attention? Make another video showing a black woman walking down the street for ten hours. And a Latina woman. An Asian woman. A trans woman. Someone walking down the street holding hands with their girlfriend. Fill in the blanks. These things cost money and time, yes, but if the anti-street harassment movement is meant to be a feminist movement, it should support all women. And if these videos do get made, then we, as a community, should make sure they get the same amount of coverage as this video did.
Hollaback!, I hope you address these racial issues soon. I want no part in a movement that will demonize men of colour just so white women don’t have to feel guilty about clutching their purses tighter when they pass a black man.
I want us to do better.
If you listen to enough stories of street harassment, often, you’ll hear an ending similar to this: “Afterwards, when I told my family/partner/friends about the experience, they told me I was overreacting.”
“They told me they’d be glad to get that kind of attention.”
“They told me that these things wouldn’t happen if I dressed differently, didn’t go out at night, didn’t drink- if I didn’t encourage them.”
And while street harassment is always awful, it’s these endings that sometimes scare me more than anything.
If you’re a woman and/or identify as LGBT+, you’re taught to expect at least some level of street harassment. It’s still unacceptable, but you don’t have to think too hard about flipping off someone who catcalls you. You can write off the street harasser as a sexist creep and go on your way. Once you get home, the hard part should be over.
No one should have to go home to find that their sweet, sensitive and loving family, partner, friend will invalidate what just happened. Will blame them. Will make them question what happened to the point where they won’t know themselves. And it’s this fear, the fear that after everything that’s already happened that no one will support them, that is what keeps people silent.
And if we don’t feel safe sharing something as relatively innocuous as a cat call, how are we supposed to feel sharing other, more violent, more traumatic experiences?
Street harassment is a problem not only because it is internationally recognized and experienced by millions of women and LGBT+ individuals, but because it is expected. It is recognized and dismissed. It’s something people have to experience, and they feel they have to experience it alone because they feel they have no one they can trust who will recognize that their experiences are real and awful and undeserved by anyone.
If we want to eradicate street harassment, the first step is getting people to share their stories. That not only means encouraging people to share- it means creating safe spaces where they feel they can share. It shouldn’t be entirely up to women and LGBT+ folks to share their stories- we should be working to make sure they all feel safe sharing their stories.
If you’re reading this, I’m sure you know there are plenty of communities online (The Everyday Sexism Project is only one example), but if you’re looking for things you can do to combat street harassment offline, I think one of the most important ways is being able to support family and friends so that they feel they can share these experiences with you. Not everyone knows about these kinds of communities. Supporting people who experience street harassment shouldn’t be exclusive to anti-street harassment spaces.
If you have trouble finding the right thing to say, here are a few quick tips:
-The advice can wait. Besides the fact that certain advice like “don’t walk alone at night” is a.) something most women have heard before and b.) not something women can always avoid, wait until they feel less vulnerable before springing in with the, ‘next time, try…’ line because we already internalize the idea that we deserve the harassment we get. And if you must give advice, try to avoid wording it in a way that implies, ‘you wouldn’t get harassed if you do this.’ Unless the advice is something along the lines of, ‘never go out in public,’ it’s not true.
-On that same note, it’s very easy for people who experience harassment to start blaming themselves. Cut the guilt trip short. Assure them that no matter what they were wearing, where they were going or what they were doing, they didn’t deserve what happened to them.
-Don’t tell them to calm down/ ‘not take it so seriously’. Their emotions are valid and need to be expressed. Sometimes people need to cry. I know, it’s not fun comforting someone who’s crying, but it is still definitely worse for the person who is crying.
– Listen. Listen listen listen because often we just want to acknowledge that it happened, and it was awful. Knowing that you don’t have to experience this bullshit alone can make handling it infinitely easier.
(This is not a real post, but a repost of a facebook status I made on the Catcalls Called Out facebook page. I’m putting it here so that it’s more easily archived, and easy to find. New post coming tomorrow.)
On a personal note: Today I had a particularly trying street harassment experience.
My train was approaching my station, so I walked away from the seats to the area near the doors. There was one other person there. For the entire two minutes I stood there, he swore at me, threatened me with sexual violence and repeatedly insulted my race. He was angry enough that I didn’t feel I could safely respond. When we finally got to my station, he left the train as well, and for a moment, I was sure he was going to follow me.
This wasn’t my first experience with street harassment, racism, or feeling unsafe on public transport- but it still hit me hard. Logically, I know that it wouldn’t have been safe to respond; that I did nothing to provoke him besides existing; that sharing this story should bring shame to the harasser, not me. Yet despite knowing this, there is a part of me that can’t help but feel guilty for ‘letting it upset me.’
I’m telling you this because it’s nonsense; it’s a lie we’ve been fed by a society that tells us that sexual harassment is the price we pay for existing in public spaces. It’s easy to get caught in this lie, even when you know it’s wrong. That’s how pervasive it is. It’s important that we support each other so that when others get caught in this toxic mindset, we can remind them that they have no reason to be ashamed.
Since October is National Mental Health Month (at least, I know it is in NSW and the USA), I would like to take a minute to talk about feelings. (I know, gross.)
Before I start this, I just want it to be clear that I’m in no way qualified to talk about your mental health, particularly if it’s related to sexual harassment or assault. Here are some relevant numbers and websites you should visit (all mostly relevant to Australia and NSW in particular):
Everything I’m about to talk about is experiential, so while you can feel free to talk to me about your experiences with street harassment and/or sexual harassment, there are other channels that are far more qualified than I am. I only want the best for y’all.
Now, often, when I experience street harassment. I tend to have this moment of, “you know, it wasn’t really that bad.” That’s completely fine- that is, as long as that’s how you actually feel. If you’re brushing it off just because you don’t think you should be upset about it- well, the only thing that’s doing is hurting you.
The first time I got catcalled here in Sydney, I remember brushing it off to my friends and family off and online- and then later huddling in a corner and sobbing to myself in my room. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the first time I’d been harassed on the street, and it wasn’t that in that particular instance I had felt unsafe, but it did make me feel horrible and worthless. The fact that it affected me so intensely made the whole experience much worse.
I don’t want any of y’all to feel that way. Street harassment is terrible not just because it demeans and objectifies a person, but because it’s an accepted part of our culture. It’s not something that should be accepted, and no one should have to put on a brave face just because it is. Even things that would be considered micro-aggressions (i.e. men telling women on the street to smile) matter because they’re indicative of the culture we live in- and just how messed up our culture is.
It doesn’t matter how often or how seemingly innocuous the street harassment you experience may be, it’s still awful. You have a right to feel awful, and no one, not even I, should have to give you that right. Anyone who tells you that it’s not that bad, or that you’re over-reacting, or that you are, for whatever reason, just not allowed to feel what you feel- well, those guys are not being supportive. They’re being assholes.
If street harassment is getting you down, come talk to me. Or rant at me. Or cry at me. Or don’t! Whatever you choose, it’s your choice, and I wanna support y’all in whatever way I can. Take care of yourselves.