Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wolf Whistles, Cat Calls And The Gauntlet of Compliments

By now you may have watched this video:

Hollaback, an organization that wants to stamp out street harassment and intimidation (a.k.a. catcalls), produced a video in which it videotaped a young woman walking around Manhattan for 10 hours this past August. A hidden video camera was placed in the backpack of a man walking in front of her, catching every catcall, whistle, and even one persistent character who walked alongside the woman for five minutes.
The results are startling. According to Hollaback, there were over 100 instances of verbal harassment in that 10-hour walk, not including winks and whistles. In the video, the woman remains silent. She is dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

The responses to the video range from one extreme to the other.  If you feel masochistic today, spend some time (which might feel like an eternity) reading the comments at the YouTube site (or probably the comments attached to any article about the video).  

I looked in, rather quickly, about four million views ago, and found the debate raging, with all the usual fronts covered:  Those who were shocked to find that this happens (including the new "of course I hate all feminists but" gang!), those who argued that the woman was rude in not responding to the compliments, those who wanted the video to be about hunger and war peace, those who stated that they were women and loved getting wolf whistles and compliments and of course large numbers of women who pointed out that this happens a lot and it gets pretty wearisome after a while.

I didn't come across the rape threats that supposedly were deleted from the YouTube site.  But then YouTube comments about anything having to do with women usually have something of that sort so they may not have registered in my hardened mind.

Two responses arguing back at the video stuck to my mind.  The first one was a comment in the long thread at the YouTube where someone asked how he was going to find pu**y if not by complimenting strangers  who are walking to work or to school or to the dentist or to the grocery store.  That one was funny.  I immediately imagined that the pu**y harvesting time is now and the way to harvest it is by approaching total strangers happening to be walking somewhere.

The second one is a tweet by a conservative:

That's a funny one because a) it assumes (rather than proves) that no woman walking alone in Victorian NYC would have been harassed (hah!  middle-and-upper class women were not supposed to go out alone ever, poorer women might have told about worse than harassment),  b) it offers women the choices of submission or harassment and, c) it hints at something rather nasty behind that veil of "enforced chivalry."

Then to the boring-but-necessary extra analysis: 

First, street harassment does vary by city and between countries and probably by the streets in individual cities.  It depends largely on local culture.  So what we see in the video may not apply to other places on this earth.  In some she might not have been addressed at all, in others she might have suffered much worse. 

Those cultural variations suggest that we can change street harassment.

Second, those cultural variations also mean that only some men engage in these practices.  That's worth pointing out.  What is going on in the sub-cultures which condone or support harassing behavior and how can it be changed.

Third, what about the idea that all the woman received, ultimately, were compliments (well, what with a little bit of gentle stalking).  What's so bad about getting compliments?  Why couldn't the b**ch thank for them or at least smile?

Sorry, that last sentence was influenced by a few of the comments I read.  More seriously, the statements in the video are a lot milder than some of the stuff I have experienced in my past.  Much milder.  But here's the dilemma one faces when receiving such compliments:

What to do next?  The person has not asked you if you want to talk or whatever, but has simply decreed that this exchange will now take place. 

And the only choice you have is how to respond.  If you smile or say thank you or even nod your head, will that person accelerate the attempt at a connection?  What then?  If you ignore the attempt, will you get by safely or will something worse follow?