When the video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” first showed up on my feed, I couldn’t watch it. I knew what it was going to depict and I wasn’t in the mood to feel uncomfortable. When I finally watched the video, I cringed at every “Damn,” “Smile” and “What’s up” that the men of New York City inflicted on the woman.
The video has divided opinion. Some believe catcalls are compliments, others think they are not a big deal, and still others say that jerks are just a part of life in a big city so get used to it. I disagree on all fronts, but I’ll start with the last point. This is different from noise pollution, traffic or city fatigue. Those things affect everyone. Street harassment is a problem that disproportionately affects girls and women.
It shouldn’t be more unpleasant to venture outside your home if you are a girl or woman.
The onus should not be on us to better handle harassment; we should just not be harassed in the first place.
Are catcalls compliments? The New York Post ran a story by a woman saying she feels flattered by catcalls. But not everyone gets a spring in their step when a stranger yells, “Hey baby!” from his car. The words “smile,” or “hi, beautiful” seem complimentary on their face, but when someone uses them to try to engage you without any indication that you wish to be engaged, that’s street harassment. I know the difference between a polite “good morning” and a sly one—and I think most women do. When I walk by a man who tells me to smile, I just feel like Kanye West here:
Is street harassment a big deal? First, if a woman enjoys the attention and doesn’t feel harmed, then no, she hasn’t been harassed. That doesn’t mean it’s not harassment for the many women who don’t welcome the attention or comments. And how could the catcaller ever know one way or the other? This is the heart of the problem: There's a plain disregard for what a woman may or may not want to hear. This isn’t just a problem in NYC. This is everywhere. So, yes, this is a big deal—particularly if you are a woman.
The onus should not be on us to better handle harassment; we should just not be harassed in the first place. What would life look like if women stopped to answer every “How you doing?” with how we’re really doing? Of course, this isn’t what we do. Every woman develops a strategy for dealing with the unwanted looks, winks and whistles.
I have a daughter and I do not look forward to this lesson. I’d rather would-be harrassers learned the lesson that girls and women should be treated with the respect they’d like imparted on their mothers, sisters and daughters.
I used to think that motherhood exempted me from the male gaze, but I was wrong. Recently, while pushing my daughter in her stroller on our way to the library, a man catcalled me from his car. One minute, I’m having an adorable conversation with my toddler and the next some stranger is invading our personal space.
Moms know it’s more than personal—when you’re with your child, that space feels sacred. My skin crawled and I pushed forward, like women do every day. My daughter is too young to have understood but I wondered: How would I have explained this to her if she were older and asked why that man had yelled? I’m still not sure what I would say.