Have you seen the YouTube video that shows an attractive young woman being harassed by men in the streets of New York City? It’s attracted more than 33 million views so far. Some say stopping the verbal assault of women in the street is the new frontier for human rights—and they see this video as a critical tool in raising awareness. Could they be right?
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Have you seen the YouTube video that shows an attractive young woman being harassed by men in the streets of New York City? Well, it’s had attracted than 33 million view so far. Some say stopping the verbal assault of women in the street is the new frontier for human rights—and they see this video as a critical tool in raising awareness. Could they be right? That’s coming up next on the Factual Feminist. Now, street harassment can be very annoying and it’s possible this video will do some good as a reminder to men that women often don’t appreciate it. But the feminist anti-harassment group that put out this video –Hollaback—it does not merely want to improve public manners. It wants to raise consciousness about what life is like for women under patriarchy. According to this group, street harassment is “a power dynamic” that silences women’s voices and reminds them of their subordinate status. Its website calls street harassment “the most pervasive form of gender-based violence.”
Let's check some facts: The viral video ad was created by an agency that specializes in creating viral video ads. It’s a riveting bit of advertising, but it forces the complicated issue of street interactions into the simplistic, Oppression 101 victimology morality tale. It is propaganda, not evidence of a crime against womankind. The video gives the impression that the woman is relentlessly targeted. But we only see highlights from a ten hour shoot. We have no idea what happened during the other 9 hours and 58 minutes. Viewers are lead to believe the harassment took place everywhere in the city. But some writers at the website Mass Appeal took a careful look and were able to determine that most of the footage—80 percent—is from one street in Harlem and Times Square. If the ad makers would manipulate our perceptions about the where the harassment took place, what else might they manipulate? Hey, I am not blaming them. It’s an ad.
But here is a second and more serious problem. The video overrides critical distinctions. Unsolicited attention from strangers ranges from friendly comments, to rude and annoying jeers—to stalking. Why conflate these? Street interactions are complex, and context matters, is it night? or is it day? what’s the neighborhood? Some women might feel flattered or delighted by comments like “good morning, beautiful,” while others would be put off. Amanda Hess argued that comments from a male strangers like “How are you this morning? “are “just another unearned claim for a woman’s attention.” Well, anyone who has ever walked a city street knows that there are many annoying, unearned claims to your attention. If we deserve to be protected from comments, then what about panhandlers, evangelists with pamphlets, and Greenpeace volunteers with clipboards? I love the environment, but I don’t like being shamed for not stopping when they ask “Do you have a moment for the environment?” Personally, I’d probably prefer that a man whistled at me, than have to respond to that.
Urban streets are free spaces—not gated communities with a rigid set of bylaws. And the First Amendment applies as well. According to Hollaback’s mission statement, the group is hoping to find a way to inspire legislators and the police to take action. They’re vague about what precise actions they have in mind. But Northwestern Professor Laura Beth Nielsen is not vague at all. She wants a law prohibiting, “uninvited harassing speech or actions targeted towards individuals in public spaces on the basis of sex,” because it would “weigh in on the side of equality.” Equality? Is she serious? Harassment can happen anywhere, but it is more common in economically deprived neighborhoods.