Columnist Says Ladies Are Missing the Point About Street Harassment

Screen shot 2014-11-07 at 3.54.46 PMOK, the Ms. Blog and others had some problems with the racial disparity in the Hollaback catcalling video that’s traveled through cyberspace this couple of weeks. But there’s one thing we’d never dispute: the extreme unpleasantness of being sexually harassed while walking down the street. It’s an experience shared, a recent study showed, by 65 percent of women.

Yet Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum seems less troubled, in her op-ed yesterday, by the harassment recorded as actor Shoshana Roberts walked for 10 hours through New York City streets than by the fact that Roberts was “totally unwilling to engage in the world around her. She makes no eye contact, responds to no greeting, registers no interest in the people in her midst.”

Huh?

Since the video is only about two minutes long and Roberts spent 10 hours on the streets, it’s impossible to know what she did during the other 9 hours and 58 minutes of the day in question. Perhaps she smiled at passersby that smiled at her, waved at a baby, laughed at the antics of a small child, conversed with an elderly woman at a stoplight. I noticed myself, the other day, smiling at people on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills when our eyes met.

But none of those people greeted me with, “Hey baby!” or “Damn!” or “Smile! or “Just saw a thousand dollars” after they spied my ass. No stranger walked beside me for five long minutes while I showed absolutely no interest in his unwanted companionship.

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The anti-street harassment group Hollaback is concerned—rightfully, we’d say—that a seemingly friendly catcall can just as easily escalate into either, 1) unwanted physical touching, or 2) a quick reverse of field, in which the “friendly” catcaller is suddenly the guy calling you a stuck-up bitch. Daum doesn’t seem concerned about that, writing,

As she walked, Roberts was surrounded by hundreds of people, many of whom would surely have intervened if she’d needed help. As odd as the creepy companion walker was, does it fit Hollaback founder Emily May’s description of  ‘a terrifying, terrifying experience’?

Yes it does. Even surrounded by hundreds of people, no one wants to feel accosted by strangers of unknown motives. No one wants to be followed without invitation. No one wants to have to suddenly stop and call/scream for help, no matter how many would-be helpers are nearby. But Daum sees it differently:

In fact, most residents don’t want to live in a vacuum. They have boundaries, but they still want to share a nod or knowing glance with a stranger on the bus or subway. They want to weave their individual, day-to-day experiences into the larger tapestry. And nothing about Roberts’ disconnected, almost zombie-like comportment in the video reflects that spirit. But I suspect that in real life Roberts handles men who talk to her on the street the same way most women eventually learn to: by saying ‘thank you’ or saying something the Times won’t print, or waving a hand in a way that could be taken as either friendly or dismissive.

Zombie-like comportment? That’s not what I saw. Roberts instead looked extremely uncomfortable at times. Even though she didn’t speak to those verbally accosting her, you could see her wince.

Daum then jumps to her explanation for Roberts’ distancing from the lovely world of catcalling around her: Blame it on social media. That, according to the columnist, is

where ignoring unwanted communications is standard protocol, where many, if not most, conversations take place via text or email. Dating and sexual conquest belong largely to the realm of online dating sites and Tinder feeds. Moreover, most people when they do find themselves in public spaces, spend more time looking at their phones than looking at what’s around them. Little by little, we’re losing our instinct for joining the larger tapestry.

Few would dispute that people spend too much time on their cellphones in public, too little time in engagement with the world around them. But that has nothing to do with how women feel about men’s harassment. And of course that harassment continues online, often more hatefully because of the anonymity. Ms. Daum, did you read about the new Instagram account, @ByeFelipe, created by (former Ms. intern) Alexandra Tweten? Ali posts online conversations from dating sites with men who can’t take “I’m not interested” for an answer—let alone no response at all—and fire off hostile, misogynistic comments in return. “Fuck it, then jump off a bridge, LOL” is one of the more brilliant comeback lines from an unsuccessful male looking for a date.

The blame-it-on-the-Internet what’s-so-bad-about-human-interaction Daum-style excuses for catcalling have been taken on by Elon James White of This Week in Blackness. He came up with the hashtag #DudesGreetingDudes to imagine what men might say to each other if they acted like typical catcallers. Hilarity ensues in such tweets by White as “You see a dude in a nice suit, just roll up on him like ‘Damn. You wearing that suit. Hmm Hmm!’ Or this one by Joseph Barone: “Ayy bro, sick tank! You’re looking mad swole today. How much do you bench? What, ‘go away’? Why you gotta be that way?”

Daum’s conclusion was that the “ultimate lesson” of the catcalling video is this:

It’s not just that men can be boorish or that race and class issues can be thorny but that walking down the street can be more complicated than hanging out online. Not to mention a lot more interesting.

“Interesting” is not the word that comes to mind when a women is being harassed, and empathetic men like White are with us on this. As he told Buzzfeed,

The fact that men don’t do this to other men is proof positive that this is a gendered attack, whether the men who do it consider it to be one or not. And we have to speak up about it.

I also have a suggestion for Meghan Daum (who I believe is married, and thus doesn’t experience online dating while feminist, as Tweten has). Why don’t you repeat the Hollaback experiment in Los Angeles, walking through different neighborhoods and past various construction sites while a hidden camera records you? But this time, engage with your harassers! When a guy follows you for five minutes, chat with him! See if he’ll talk about the midterm elections even after you refuse to give him your phone number! And when someone compliments a part of your anatomy, be sure to say, “Thanks, you made my day.”

Please get back to us on this!

Screenshot via Hollaback’s catcalling video.

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Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms.

About

Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage.