Thirty years ago, when I was enrolled in a Women’s Studies course, we devised a little experiment/study. We (all women) sat on a low wall adjacent to a busy sidewalk on campus and cat-called men as they walked by. Further down the block, one of our classmates stopped the victims and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about the experience. The results were inconclusive, not surprisingly, given that it was such an anomalous event. Most of them expressed shock or surprise more than anything else. Street harassment has long been a topic of study and outrage for feminists, but if my memory is at all to be trusted, it’s never gained this level of attention.
The video below went viral this past week. It generated a great deal of commentary, from NPR, to blogs, tweets, and points in between. I read some valid criticisms of the piece itself, but I also saw a lot of confusion, predictably over what, exactly, constitutes harassment.
The focus of the conversation needs to remain squarely where it belongs—on power. None of this behavior has anything whatsoever to do with compliments or sexual interest. It’s status posturing, a blatant and flagrant reminder that there is one standard of respect for men and another for women. Until or unless it becomes common practice for both sexes to greet one another randomly on the street, even a simple hello is a transgression of boundaries, a symbolic penetration of personal space. Street harassment is an unwelcome holdover from a time when any man of any social position was still considered superior to a woman. Men who cat-call are reminding women of their status, and reinforcing male ownership of public space.
What’s missing is an effective solution beyond calling out the inequity, but that’s better than naught else, and Hollaback is doing a decent job of raising awareness. It takes time to change culture, and the more empowered women feel, the more this will be reflected in body language, responses, and social pressure until it becomes apparent to even the most clueless offender that it’s just not alright to treat us in such a dehumanizing manner any longer.