when Hello is not just Hello

Click for HollerbackLondonMy first blog about gender based street harassment was back in 2007. I’ve written about it often since, and joined in various campaigns to raise awareness of the problem. I also experience gender based street harassment on a depressingly regular basis.

So much so that if I do something perfectly ordinary, say for example walk to the shop and back, and haven’t been stared at, followed, had kissy noises made at me, had a #notjustHello (more on this later), been propositioned or asked my marital status – well, I call that a successful walk to the shop. The fact that a walk to the shop that doesn’t feature one of or a combination of these things happens LESS often than a walk that does will perhaps indicate  how often I experience unwanted attention in public places.

So much so that if I walk past a lone man on the street at night, or a group of male youths hanging around, I am practically holding my breath, on edge, trying to look nonchalant, trying to look confident,  and I don’t relax until I am past them; because I am expecting them to say something. If they don’t say anything at all I am surprised, relieved and impressed. This, alas, doesn’t happen often.

So when this video, of a woman receiving more than 100 cat calls in a 10 hour walk – which averages out at 10 per hour – went viral this week, I wasn’t shocked by the content, but I was surprised by some of the reactions I saw, and some of the most common comments I saw made about it.

But this is in New York. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in London.

Yes. It. Does. ALL THE FUCKING TIME. New York isn’t some sort of magical badlands full of crazy street corner mad men whooping and hollering while London is a sparkly unicorn mecca of impeccable gentlemanly manners. This isn’t even limited to big cities. This happens everywhere. All over the world. To almost every woman who ever walked in a public place ever.

Some of those guys were just saying ‘hello’, that’s not really harassment.

Other people have already dealt with this eloquently, so I will be relatively brief here. Sometimes ‘hello’ is not actually ‘just hello’. It depends ENTIRELY on context, tone and intention, and to try to imply otherwise is disingenuous at best. You are working in a shop, A woman walks up to the counter. You say ‘Hello’. congratulations, that’s appropriate. You are in a pub. You have made eye contact with the same woman on multiple occasions. She has smiled at you. You go up and say Hello. This is appropriate –  as long as if it turns out she’s not actually interested you back off.  However, at night, a man saying ‘Hello’ in a suggestive tone to a lone woman? #notjustHello. A group of guys yelling ‘HELLO’ at a lone woman walking past? #notjustHello. If you get pissed off with a woman you’ve said ‘hello’ to because she didn’t respond favourably? #notjustHello. No one owes you a reply just because you said ‘hello’ to them and if you in any way feel entitled to a response then it’s #notjustfuckinghelloisit.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. Before you say ‘Hello’ to a woman you don’t know when there is no obvious context for your ‘hello’, consider this question: “would I say ‘Hello’ to this person if this person was a man?” If the answer is no, then it’s probably #notjustHello. So don’t say it.

Holy shit, this is terrible! It must be so tiring having that happen all the time! I had no idea it was so bad. Does this really happen? Woah!

Forgive me, I need a few minutes to metaphorically kick a few chairs over while I roll my eyes and scream into the void. Really? REALLY? REALLY????

Street Harassment is something women have been talking about and trying to raise awareness of for years. There are countless articles, blogs, features in newspapers. Your female friends have been telling you about their experiences. FOR YEARS. And it took this video for you to realise what it’s like? The relentless, every day, constant, draining ENDLESS parade of men trying to get our attention because somehow they feel entitled to it? This grinding, wearing every day experience that we have been telling you about for years and NOW you get it? Forgive me if that doesn’t exactly make me want to give you a fucking cookie.

I have had too many arguments with men over the years (#notallmen, sure, but then I haven’t met them all) telling me that my subjective experience must somehow be wrong, because it is not the same as their experience. It turns out that to get people to truly understand what I experience nearly every time I leave the house I would have had to get someone to walk around in front of me with a video camera recording it all. Because the words of women was not enough. You needed proof.

Well, now you have it.  You’ve seen the proof. And don’t get me wrong, even though I am clearly frustrated that you didn’t believe us before, I am really glad that some of you are now on our side.  Because we need you. We need male allies here, because this is not a women’s problem. Because it’s only some of you that get it. Those that don’t get it, the quibblers, who think a #notjustHello is perfectly reasonable, who think “nice tits” is a compliment – they might not actually be out there harassing women themselves but they are certainly allowing it to continue by their tacit reinforcement that this behaviour is ok.

On Friday night, in the space of 7 minutes, I experienced 4 incidents of street harassment. I received 2 #notjustHellos, I was followed silently for several minutes by a man who kept standing slightly too close to me, wherever I moved to. And then three young men walked past and one shouted “You look niiiice.” I didn’t respond, because there were 3 of them, and because no one had come to help me with the previous 3 incidents. I felt extremely vulnerable. But my lack of response angered them.  “Hey. Hey. You. What, no thank you? Nothing? Fine bitch, you look bad. Fat slut. Fuck you bitch”.

For a women experiencing street harassment there’s no safe way to respond. Ignoring them isn’t safe. Retaliating isn’t safe. Saying anything positive or even neutral at all in reply invites further exchange and implies their behaviour is in some way acceptable or ok. Telling them to ‘fuck off’ is just plain dangerous – given the reaction to doing nothing. Some initiatives do exist to try to combat the situation, for example Cards Against Harassment  or catcaller forms, but these  also run the risk of retaliation. I did once, ONCE, have a guy who, when I firmly said “sorry, but I don’t want to talk to you”, just walked away and said nothing else. It was so unusual that it was worthy of note.  So what are we meant to do? We can’t ‘keep ourselves safe’ short of never leaving the house.

We can’t solve this problem by putting pressure on women to modify our behaviour or act in a certain way to prevent it or mitigate it because this isn’t a ‘women’s problem.’ It doesn’t stop by changing the way we dress or walk or act.  This is an issue with MEN, and how some men, #NotAllMen but still #FarTooManyMen, feel entitled to women’s attention, feel entitled to pass comment on women’s bodies in public, feel powerful when they treat women like objects and seem to believe that women should be somehow thankful for all this unwanted attention.

The only thing that will cause a big enough shift in society for those that don’t get  it is for those that DO get it to stand up against it. Listen to women when they tell you about their experiences. Believe them. Don’t let your mates engage in this sort of behaviour. Don’t stand by and let women be subject to this behaviour. Don’t let your silence be taken as approval.

I know this can be scary – after all intervening in a situation where a guy is clearly causing a woman to feel harassed could get you punched in the face. But think on this. Women who have stood up to their OWN harassers get punched in the face. The woman who recorded the New York street harassment video received rape threats for highlighting the problem of street harassment. There is no safe way for a woman to stand up to her own harassers. 

I know lots of wonderful men that would never even consider harassing a woman, and who would put themselves at risk to help a woman being harassed the way I was on Friday night; but there’s not enough guys like that. There’s too many shouters and too many quibblers. If you’re not a shouter, and you’re not a quibbler, then stand up for us, and with us, against gender based street harassment.

RDPP

6 comments

  1. “I have had too many arguments with men over the years … telling me that my subjective experience must somehow be wrong, because it is not the same as their experience.”

    And of course the reason for this is also down to sexist behaviour, because a woman walking in the company of a man is unlikely to be subjected to street harassment because she is seen as being “his.” Sexism and the kyriarchy protecting itself.

  2. Thanks for a great article, and a British perspective (#notjustnewyork *8′). Several thoughts occur to me.

    I generally try to make the world a nicer place. When I pass someone on the street, I try to acknowledge their presence if they acknowledge mine. I usually smile a hello at them if they met my eye, and often say “morning/afternoon/evening” (the “Good” prefix is implied *8′). I generally get the same in return, and it really makes it worthwhile when occasionally I get someone who seems really pleased that someone (anyone) has acknowledged their presence. I don’t recall anyone ever indicating that this was inappropriate, so hopefully this has never been interpreted as #notjustHello.

    Once, on holiday in Vancouver I was ambling down a busy shopping street when a young woman pushed past me, bringing her shoulder very close to my face giving me a really close up look at her tattoo. It was incredibly detailed and very impressive, so I instinctively said “Nice tattoo” and smiled. She looked me in the eye, said “Fuck Off” and stomped off. Initially I was offended, I was just trying to show appreciation for her art, but later I realised that this woman was probably tired of people hitting on her and feeling entitled to comment on her alternative life choices and felt sorry for being part of the problem and not part of the solution.

    Some time ago I made a commitment not to stand for sexism at my workplace. Our team became an all male team and the sexism started to become apparent, but when our team recruited another woman, the apparent sexism went away again. From this I concluded that many men are only sexist when they don’t think they it is safe to be, so I decided that it was my responsibility to make sure that no all male group I was a part of would be a safe place to be sexist either.

    Finally, I wonder if there is a place for a “10 Hours of Walking in … as a Woman” series, to highlight that it isn’t just New York. London would be an obvious one, but Paris, Rome, Cairo, Hong Kong, Sydney, almost any City in the world could benefit from the spotlight being shone upon it.

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