Politics & Policy

Why Cat-Calling Really Is a Problem

A video of cat calls has reignited the debate over how big of a problem it is.

A new video about street harassment has gone viral and it proves that . . . how do I put this? It proves that I was right.

The video, released by the nonprofit anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback, features a moderately attractive woman, Shoshana Roberts, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, walking in silence through Manhattan for ten hours. The trek was recorded on a hidden video camera, carried by Roberts’s boyfriend, who walked in front of her. The camera picked up over 100 instances of street harassment in one day, according to the group, ranging in severity from men shouting “good morning,” and “how you doing today?” to men following her for several minutes, walking uncomfortably close.

As I have said in the past – a point that is somehow met with denials anyway – what a woman wears has little to do with street harassment. Not only does Roberts’s outfit not show much skin, but she is also wearing minimal makeup, sneakers, and dark colors — little of note that would attract attention, sexual or not. Yet this still doesn’t discourage some of the more hateful men lurking in Internet culture from blaming the harassment on her appearance. Cosmopolitan posted a roundup of some of the uglier YouTube comments under the video. One charming commenter wrote about Roberts, “Find a job and get over yourself. She wears a tight jean revealing her magnificent a** to the world and doesn’t make any effort to hide it. The description tries to pretend she is wearing some modest and anonymous combination . . .  Well, the black doesn’t changes reality [sic] and she also has no problem sticking her booty out there.” In fact, many comments under the YouTube video make a reference to Roberts’s jeans, implying that if she wore baggier pants, the men would have left her alone, apparently not realizing that might as well be Iranian morality police logic. When men use the “what does she expect when she wears jeans that tight” argument, it only supports the liberal line of reasoning often used when describing “rape culture” —  that men are animalistic brutes who cannot control their impulses.

Predictably, the Internet spewed a lot of hate at Roberts. Vox reported that she quickly began receiving rape threats through Twitter. (Hollaback has done a very good job at deleting the comments as soon as they’re posted, but, while I won’t post them on our family-friendly site, I encourage you to click the Vox link to view some of them.)

However, most of the criticisms of this video are basically,“Since when is saying ‘good morning’ harassment?” Most of the comments heard on the video are indeed of the “how are you?”/“good morning” variety, and in my own experience most street harassment is men aggressively asking me how I’m doing. To think that women are actually getting offended by innocent phrases such as “good morning” is ludicrous. The “harassment” comes from the intent. A woman doesn’t believe that a man genuinely wants to know how how her day is going when he shouts it at her as she walks by him on the street. In fact, the comments featured in the video were instances specifically chosen by Roberts as times where she felt “intimidated or uncomfortable,” according to the New York Post, and anyone with a modicum of common sense who watches the video can see that these men weren’t interested in wishing a random person a pleasant day. Besides, this is New York City — since when are people cordial to strangers with no ulterior motive?

One man follows Roberts for five minutes, walking silently beside her. She is visibly frightened and seems to hold her breath until the man leaves. In my previous piece on cat-calling, I related similar instances of being followed or worse and was called a liar countless times by bloggers and commenters. Many people said that so many cases of harassment couldn’t possibly have happened to me in only 24 years of life. For example:

I’m sure the same people, if they watched the video, would be quick to dismiss the man following Roberts as an anomaly too, something so exceedingly rare that it doesn’t merit discussion. But then, it happens again. The second man is more aggressive, asking her to talk to him. It even seems that a friend joins him to delight in Roberts’s discomfort.

And now to address the elephant in the room. It’s impossible not to notice that most of the men who shouted at Roberts seem, generally, to be of relatively low socioeconomic status. That’s judging by their speech, choice of clothing, and the fact that they don’t seem to be rushing off to work and have nothing better to do than shout at random women on the street. Most men who have harassed me on the street have been similar in appearance to Roberts’s harassers. It is very rare, if ever, that a man in a suit on his way to work has shouted obscenities at me.

Street harassment may be a side effect of poor urban culture, one that’s perhaps not surprising if you’re familiar with aggressive rap lyrics and videos that depict women as nothing more than sexual objects. Whatever the cause of cat-calling may be, it should stop, but it’s not clear how donating to a charity like Hollaback will help the problem. (What would the money even go toward?) A societal change is needed, one that can start with a guy not clapping his buddy on the back for telling some girl how much he enjoys her assets. Maybe, someday, we ladies can walk to work in peace. 

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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