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By now you’ve seen the street harassment video directed and produced by Rob Bliss and starring Shoshana B. Roberts for the nonprofit organization Hollaback! that’s all over the Internet. The two-minute video is cut from 10 hours of footage of Roberts walking through New York City. Throughout her walk, she’s harassed by more than 100 men, with comments ranging from “Hello!” and “How you doing?” to “You don’t want to talk to me?” “Smile!” and “Damn!” Perhaps the most chilling moment is when a man aggressively stalks silently beside Roberts for five minutes after she does not respond to his initial comments.
No woman—no matter what she is wearing—deserves to be harassed in this way.
The video makes a very important point about street harassment. But its politics are problematic. By choosing a white woman as a stand-in for all women and portraying mostly men of color as the street harassers, the feminist argument once again posits the stereotype of “white woman as singular victim/people of color as violent criminals.” It essentially crafts a call to arms by appealing to society at large to protect the virginal white woman from aggressive black “thugs,” a racist trope that has been in effect from slavery through Jim Crow to the present. In reality, street harassment is perpetrated by men of all races and social classes. And as a black woman, I am even more vulnerable to street harassment based on the intersection of race and gender—especially from white men who see our blackness as easier prey because we are not part of the privileged whiteness protected by their dominant culture and white police officers who attack, rather than protect us, for the same reason.
I love New York City. I lived there for seven years. And it is true that street harassment is not limited to NYC; it occurs everywhere. Like many New Yorkers, walking was my favorite thing to do there—daydreaming about what I was working on, window shopping, admiring buildings and enjoying the trees. Yet I never felt safe on the street because of the men who would follow me or aggressively speak to me, the cursing and insults that would follow when I ignored them. At first, I hid behind my iPod and my sunglasses. But when my iPod broke, there was no more armor. Men catcalled and I heard it. Men followed and I grew tense. Men stalked beside me and invaded my space. On three separate occasions, men followed me home from the subway to my apartment building. Twice, men managed to force themselves inside my building behind me. I, like many women who experience street harassment, began to develop an anxiety about leaving my house and walking down the street. I was afraid of what these men might do to me whether or not I spoke to them; I was afraid of what further violence they were capable of. I began to avoid the simple things I wanted to do. I left my apartment only to go to and from work, walking with groups of friends rather than by myself. I lived with a roommate, rather than by myself; it was an added layer of safety. My life became limited. Eventually, it became too much and I left the city.
But the effects of street harassment go far beyond anxiety and isolationism. Mary Spears, a mother of three, was murdered on Oct. 5, 2014, for refusing the advances of a man harassing her on the street. On Oct. 1, another woman had her throat slashed after, again, refusing a man’s advances on the street; police say this was the second recent attack in that Queens, N.Y., neighborhood due to street harassment. And we all remember Elliot Rodger, who, after being refused by women he asked out, went on a murderous shooting spree at his Santa Barbara, Calif., university on May 23, 2014.
In the comments on the video posted to YouTube, Roberts is again harassed online for being harassed on the street. Says commenter DownhillRider: “This is not f--king harassment. Dumb ass h--.” Adds user ellis8096: “Bitch complaining about f--king nothing.” User mweagle79 gets deep into the victim blaming, saying, “A large part was not harassment from the other guys, it was being rude from your side.” And explains user George Gronge: “Why are all girls annoying b****** that like to complain about every single thing. Learn to be less emotional and learn to not care like men. Trust me, your life will get better!”
Excuse me, why don’t you tell that to the women who have been killed because of street harassment?
It would be great if the growing anti-street harassment movement would recognize the work done over the past few months by many feminists of color, such as blogger Feminista Jones, founder of the #YouOKSis hashtag, and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry speaking out not just about street harassment, but about the serious nature of online harassment—which includes a constant Twitter stream of death and rape threats. There have also been women speaking out about reports of harassment in the video game and fetish communities as well. The issue is intersectional. The issue cuts across culture, race, class and country. The only way change will be effected is to acknowledge this and move forward from there. And change is desperately needed. Because women have a right to be safe in the spaces in which we live—on the street, on the Internet, in the workplace, in our homes, in the bedroom. And, across the board, the women who have been speaking up about harassment have been further harassed in a vicious, cycling loop. There is nothing new about a woman being punished for speaking about abuse or injustice from men in a patriarchal society. There is nothing new about men defending this abuse.
There is nothing new to say about this but to say, again and again, until we are heard, that harassment of women in all forms, by men, needs to end.
If the instantly notorious street-harassment video was intended to make men more sympathetic to the horrors women deal with on a daily basis, it didn’t succeed.
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