On street harassment, public consent, race and more.
By now, you may have seen the street harassment video that Rob Bliss Creative published this week, showing a young white woman walking around New York City for 10 hours, while the filmmaker walks secretly in front of her with a camera shooting the oodles of harassment she receives on the street. It’s important to note that a lot of folks think that the (wonderful) organization, Hollaback!, created the video—to clarify, Hollaback! was approached by Rob, who had full creative control. Here it is, in case you haven’t seen it yet.
A lot of women, myself included, shuddered and felt nauseous watching at least parts of the video, if not the whole thing. There are plenty of others who don’t see what the big deal is with the simple “hello, beautiful” kind of approaches. And then, there are folks—again, myself included— upset with the racial and ethnic under- and overtones that get sort of glossed over in both mainstream discussions, and mainstream feminist discussions, when we talk about street harassment. There’s a lot to unpack, here.
My understanding and feelings around street harassment stem from a meta place about women’s roles in public, both offline and online. The way the culture is set up now, when a woman appears in public, she has to agree to submit to all kinds of sexual, visual, racial, and other criticism. That’s the agreement: Show up, and the rest of the world has license to say anything they like about any part of your public appearance.
The same isn’t exactly true for men. Sure, there’s an assumption that their behaviors will be critiqued, or if it’s a public discussion, that their ideas will obviously be critiqued. But we don’t automatically assume that men’s bodies, in the general, mythological “public square,” are up for grabs. Maybe within certain contexts, but then, those contexts are specific and boundaried. When women present themselves, primarily, our bodies are submitted to the public arena first.
Does that have to be true? Even if I, as a woman, want to compliment another woman’s appearance in public, I’m subscribing to a number of cultural truths to feel comfortable to do so:
- I believe this woman has consented already to receiving my comment simply by leaving her house.
- I believe I am entitled to voice my opinion about this woman publicly.
- I believe that the woman receiving my compliment is willing and wants to hear what I think of her, because she’s agreed to appear in public.
Those are a whole lotta assumptions there, you know? Our common standards of consent with regard to bodily autonomy are pretty messed up to begin with, and this is just another area that it manifests for me. If I’m sick as hell, and bending over to pick up my dog’s poop while trying not to hack up a lung, I haven’t given a lot of thought to whether I’ve consented to receiving comments on my looks, my lack of smile, my ass, whatever it is. I’m trying to pick up dog poop so I can go back to bed, chucklehead.
When I first moved to my neighborhood in South Brooklyn, I was walking my dog and watched a beefy gym-dude walking up towards me. Many women and feminine-presenting folks have this unfortunate radar installed in our bodies, where we can feel it if someone is about to say something to us. This guy was reeking of that vibe, and on top of that, looked like he walked out of central casting for a Brooklyn Italian guy: white tank, gold chain, track pants, gelled hair, spray tan. As he got closer, I braced myself, hoping it wouldn’t be too bad. He nicked his head at me, and in the full lilt of a Brooklyn accent, said, “That’s a beautiful dog.” I burst out laughing and thanked him.
That bracing feeling? For me, it contributes to the stress of microaggressions. Why do women brace when they feel it coming, or when they get a simple hello? Because we don’t ever know how this is going to go. If I smile back, the guy may also just keep going. Or he may (more often than not) see that as an invitation to converse further, when I was just trying to signal acknowledgement. We don’t have clear signals. And maybe I haven’t consented that day, you know? Maybe I just want to get to my effing office. I think it’s the assumption of consent, really, that kicks me the most.
Anyways, the escalation fear factor is real. Every woman I know has been in a situation in public where a street call has turned into something physically invading, or even assaulting. We don’t know which guys are the “good” guys who just want to say they think I look great today. There is no label on your foreheads, guys. So, to keep safe, we have to assume (there’s that word again) that this guy right here could be a bad guy. The potential trauma of being assaulted is too much of a risk to assume he is one of the good ones.
And now, back to this video. Straight up, I’m uncomfortable and disappointed by the racial representation of the men in the video. I know the video’s creators point out that they captured men of all races saying things to their subject on the street. But why, then, are most of the men in the video men of color? These visuals feel unbelievably messed up, and supportive of the racist assumptions that men of color are hypersexual animals, and I am way, way not OK with that. Roxane Gay shared poignant thoughts on Twitter this morning about this:
I’m also seeing discussion in different spaces not just about how races and ethnicities are also treated different on the street, but also how women of different races and ethnicities receive or feel about what constitutes harassment, and what constitutes a friendly neighborhood “hello.” I’m interested to hear and learn more about folks’ nuances with this; I have my own, but don’t want to suck up even more White Lady Experience™ space.
Finally, one other discussion that has been opened up for me is specifically what women who are “fat,” or otherwise perceived to be larger than impossibly thin runway models, receive as far as street harassment goes. Amadi was on top of this on Twitter this morning, too.
I’m glad, ultimately, that this video is exploding into lots of new spaces online. I’m also glad there are folks who are willing to open up these conversation spaces where we can deconstruct and improve our analysis, with the dream that one day it won’t be a “woman of color” analysis, or a fat person, or a person with disabilities’ POV. It’ll just be standard that the complicated multitude of our collective experiences are messy and create tension—and we won’t ignore than tension, we’ll take it head on and listen.
And maybe, just maybe, this video can help us understand that when I leave my house, I’m not consenting to anything besides putting one foot in front of the other, likely jamming and singing along badly to my kitschy music.