How (Some) Women Are Detracting from Serious Discussion about Street Harassment

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
How (Some) Women Are Detracting from Serious Discussion about Street Harassment

image by: RODNAE Productions

A recent video shed light on the street harassment that women suffer on a daily basis. But much of the ensuing chatter—particularly from women—has served to obscure the problem.

While viral videos are a dime a dozen these days, the recent "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman" may have a bit of staying power due to how straightforwardly it spotlights a phenomenon invisible to most men but in plain sight for most young women: the uninvited solicitations that follow seemingly wherever women roam.

But much of the rhetoric surrounding the video is hyperbolic and even counterproductive to helping women be the equal partners in society that they deserve to be. And much of it has emanated from women themselves.

A subtle form of that counterproductivity is practiced by the makers of the video itself, Shoshana Roberts, the woman featured in the video, and Rob Bliss, who runs a marketing agency dedicated not to social justice but the creation of viral videos. While the two-minute clip captures numerous catcalls ("Hey, baby," "Sexy American Eagle," "Damn!"), along with a couple of unbelievably creepy incidents of bona fide stalking, comments such as "How are you this morning?" and "Have a nice day" are included in the mix of what onscreen titles at the end of the video label "100+ instances of verbal street harassment."

No-one would suggest that a woman's simply saying "Have a nice day"—for whatever reason—to a male passerby is harassment, so to suggest that harassment is in play when the tables are turned is disempowering to women and sexist toward both genders. Considering that the presumed point of the video is to stop women's being treated differently than men through the use of speech acts, to suggest that different standards should be applied when considering the address of females is sadly ironic.

But this is a peccadillo compared with much of the commentary the video has engendered. An example of the worst sort of offender is Kat George's "6 Things You Might Not Think Are Harassment But Definitely Are (Because Apparently We Need to Clear a Few Things Up)", an article whose logic is as tortured as the grammar in its title.

"So many people have no idea what does and does not constitute harassment," writes George, oblivious to the fact that she is about to prove herself a case in point. She starts by declaring that "an undeniable implication behind all of [the following six behaviors] makes them unequivocally harassment":

  1. Telling someone to "smile"
  2. Saying "God bless you"
  3. Giving compliments
  4. Staring
  5. Speaking to someone who clearly does not want to be spoken to
  6. Becoming incredulous when you are ignored

While numbers 4 through 6 are legitimate, numbers 1 through 3 give claims of harassment a bad name, for starters because the word 'harass' connotes not only an attack but a persistent one. See, for example, the OED: "1. trouble or annoy continually or repeatedly 2. make repeated attacks on (an enemy or opponent)."

Ultimately, it turns out that by including "saying 'God bless you'" on the list George is simply being sensationalistic, as she clarifies that she doesn't include saying "God bless you" to a sneezer and offers as an example an experience she had "walk[ing] alone down the street [and] hav[ing] a man follow me for two blocks repeating 'God bless you, beautiful', 'God bless your beautiful body' and 'God made you so beautiful.'” That, indeed, is harassment—and, of course, it goes far beyond someone's simply saying "God bless you."

Although by "giving compliments" George means "[c]omplimenting the physical appearance of a random woman on the street" (i.e., as opposed to someone you know), the extent of her overreach is clear when she asserts, "Being complimented by a stranger for her nice dress or top is just as insulting as it is harassing," in that it "suggests that a woman only exists in public to satisfy the male gaze," that it is "a reminder to a woman that she is being viewed constantly as an object," that "[t]he man 'complimenting' her feels entitled to look at her, judge how she looks, force that judgment onto her, forcing her to internalize his view of herself" (emphasis in original), and that therefore it is "threatening."

George does allow for exceptions, such as an elderly man who lives on her block (but whom otherwise she does not know) who sometimes tells her she looks lovely when he encounters her on the street. She claims she can tell the difference between niceness and harassment by way of her "sixth sense," a special ability she claims "all women (YES, ALL WOMEN)" have.

"We can immediately tell if someone is, in fact, being 'nice,'" she writes, "or if their seemingly innocuous words or actions are laden with latent undertones of objectification and entitlement, and the threatening implications that go along with someone who holds that view—who views you as a less-than-human thing which they want and feel entitled to have—has set their sights on you. We can tell. So it doesn’t matter what actual words they say, if any."

Putting aside problems this assertion presents for the internal coherency of her argument, the subtext of George's sixth-sense nonsense is that a woman is infallible in her judgment of a man, and that she can correctly ascertain his intentions in an instant. But what anyone not completely deluded by self-importance knows is that there is no special ability enabling any of us—male or female—in all cases to correctly intuit the internal world of others. And so George's assertion calls into question the womanhood of any woman who finds herself to have been fooled by or to have otherwise misunderstood a man, since ALL WOMEN supposedly can see right through the male soul.

The logical implication of George's argument is that date-rape victims must have wanted it. After all, if a woman can tell whether a stranger's compliment is sincere, how could she be ignorant of whether an acquaintance intends to rape her? Undoubtedly that's not a message George intends to send. But this kind of thing happens when someone who typically wades in shallow end (a representative sampling: "Reasons to Fuck a Guy on the First Date," "If Paintings Could Text, Here's What They'd Say," "7 Easy Ways to Look Like a Wine Expert," "Table Manners: You Can Tell What a Man Will Be Like in Bed by the Way He Eats," "Important: Here Are 28 Photos of the Kardashians Posing with Ridiculous Cakes") tries to swim in deeper water.

To be fair, George makes a cogent point about the subtext of a stranger's telling a woman to smile as she walks by: that inherent to such a speech act is the belief that "[a] woman’s autonomy exists only in so far as she is pleasing to male proclivities, [… and that] the man is within his rights to dictate to her how she should be conducting herself […]." The only problem is that this isn't harassment. Weird? Creepy? Sexist? Better off discouraged? Absolutely. Harassment? Not quite.

All across the face of this world men are harassing women every day, subtly and overtly. Even when that harassment is merely verbal, it's still harassment, because words matter.

Unfortunately, many of the voices talking about the problem are not weighing their own words. And even when those words are uttered in the midst of articles on Beyoncé's hair and bacon condoms (yes, really), such a serious subject should not be handled so carelessly.  


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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