Yes, Your “Harmless Greetings” are a Form of Street Harassment

“10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman”, a video released by the anti-street harassment organization hollaback!, went instantly viral after being posted to YouTube on Tuesday. (watch it here)

As the video started to flood social media newsfeeds, a wealth of (necessary) criticism began to pour in: writers and social justice advocates pointed out that the complete lack of white men depicted in the video (which the video’s director later admitted was done intentionally), inciting concerns that the video was doing more to justify racism than shed light on street harassment. It was also noted (by hollaback!, as well as others) that the harassment experienced by women of color and LGBTQ individuals (especially transwomen) is different than the harassment experienced by white women (like the actress in the video), arguing for closer attention to these experiences of harassment, which often escalate to physical violence and murder.

I am glad all of these criticisms exist, and encourage everyone to read them and keep an eye out for further conversations surrounding the intersections of race/class/gender and street harassment. This is the kind of criticism we need for movements to push forward, unlike the critiques on the opposite end of the spectrum, which, unsurprisingly, have come from men (and some women) completely denying that street harassment is a problem, or that it even exists.

Such gross denial of the reality of street harassment has come from the usual, expected sources like Rush Limbaugh, as well as unexpected ones, like men and even women from my own social circles. Aside from the so-overplayed-it’s-now-a-cliche “not all men” choir, the most common response on this end has been to criticize the woman for being “rude” to men who “were just trying to be nice”.

“You can’t even say ‘good morning’ anymore!”
“I just won’t say ‘hello’ to a woman ever again. That’s the only way not to be considered a harasser, it seems.”
“Women complain when we don’t talk to them, then complain when we do! They were just trying to compliment her. Men can’t win!”
“All I saw were a bunch of harmless greetings. Women need to get over themselves.”

These are all things I have seen or heard in response to this video, and all of them miss the point at the center of distinguishing street harassment from normal conversation. Street harassment isn’t defined by what is said, but the fact that the words are uninvited and delivered in a way that is not meant to initiate conversation, but to call out and draw unsolicited attention to the individual they are directed towards.

Put as simply as possible, here is what happens: You are a man who sees a woman walking down the street. The two of you don’t know each other. You also do not know whether or not the woman wants to be bothered or spoken to, but you speak anyway. In doing so, you are acting on the belief that it doesn’t matter what she wants, and that your desire to say something completely trumps her desire to be left alone.

You may not be yelling “hey, sexy” or “nice ass”, but your uninvited “hello” cuts through the same space to reinforce the dismal reality that a woman cannot walk down the street without being watched and gazed upon by men. Your seemingly “harmless” greeting is painful because it speaks to the fear that women cannot go anywhere without our bodies, motions, and presence becoming the subject of someone else’s gaze.

That is why the “they were just trying to be nice” defense is not only misguided but so, so dangerous. Calling out to random women on the sidewalk enacts and reinforces oppressive power dynamics that tell men they have the right to impose themselves on women’s spaces. It is NOT the same as “approaching” a woman you are interested in. It is NOT the same as giving a woman a “compliment”. It is NOT the same as “simply saying hello”. It is a violation of her personal space, an imposition justified by violent notions that normalize the objectification of women. And, yes – it is harassment.

If men really want to “be nice”, they need to learn to recognize when their voices are unwelcome, and leave women alone.

For an alternative to the “10 Hours” project, check out Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere, by Jessica Williams of the Daily Show.