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A Few Words on Street Harassment and the Outdoor Exerciser

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I write about street harassment because, as a woman being active outdoors, it tends to put you right in the thick of it. Also, it’s a cause that deeply affects women who are trying to build healthier relationships with their bodies, because many of us put on weight as a direct attempt to shield ourselves from sexual abuse and harassment, or we simply eat emotionally as a way of assuaging our pain. In other words, it’s important to us and we need a safe space to discuss it.

People who have short commutes, who don’t have to spend much time outside, or who tend to be homebodies won’t experience it much, but for those of us who are outside frequently and often? Sometimes in tight or “skimpy” clothing? We often get the brunt of it.

Earlier this week, the video seen ’round the world came out, showcasing what it’s like to be a woman walking the street and minding your business.

And quickly, the excuses poured out.

“Well, they’re in New York City! It’s filthy there and so are the people! What did you expect?”

“Well, no one’s surprised, but they’re all black and latin men! They’re animals! Savages!”

And, a running tally of my favorite:

In other words, there are various excuses for why the people watching the video don’t have to look inward as to whether or not they contribute to an environment that makes women feel unsafe.

Those of us who are outdoor exercisers – or those of us who tried to be outdoor exercisers but were freaked out of our minds by the amount of attention we received, or those of us who refuse to do so strictly because we anticipate how being outside for so long would mean we’d be bound to eventually be harassed – know that it doesn’t matter where you are, who you’re running around, or what you’re wearing (sweatpants and a hoodie, anyone? I can’t be the only person who dresses like Rocky sometimes when I’m outside running!) – all that matters is that you’re a woman, you’re outdoors around men, and you’re within earshot.

I’m not going to lie – I, too, took personal umbrage with the racial makeup of the men doing the harassing, but not for the reasons you might think. The streets that she walked were in Prospect Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn, SoHo, Times Square, Harlem – all diverse areas to some degree, thanks to gentrification (or placement of subway entrances.) Why wasn’t that diversity reflected in the video?

From a Slate article:

The video is a collaboration between Hollaback, an anti-street harassment organization, and the marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative. At the end they claim the woman experienced 100-plus incidents of harassment “involving people of all backgrounds.” Since that obviously doesn’t show up in the video, Bliss addressed it in a post. He wrote, “We got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera,” or was ruined by a siren or other noise. The final product, he writes, “is not a perfect representation of everything that happened.” That may be true but if you find yourself editing out all the catcalling white guys, maybe you should try another take. [source]

Complaints about the lack of racial parity in the video aren’t about “defending black men,” regardless of how much some of us might believe they do or don’t need it. The complaints about the racial dynamics of the video are, more than anything, about a desire for sharper focus: in a video that should’ve been impugning patriarchy and the way it contributes to public spaces, we instead saw something that served as a passive aggressive commentary that reflected much of the racial tension in the city, already. We’re already struggling with gentrification moving people into environments they’re unfamiliar with, afraid to talk to neighbors that often don’t look like them because they appear to be undesirable. “Hi” and “hello” quickly become a nuisance when it isn’t from someone you are comfortable receiving it from, stranger or not. And, while racism plays a role in terms of “who” identifies “what” as harassment, it is still important to realize that these dynamics are present even when race isn’t an issue.

As I said on twitter and I’ll say again, black and brown men are no more inclined to be harassers than any other race or culture, because patriarchy knows no race, no culture. It swallows us all whole, and forces us to navigate communal spaces under its watchful eye. My high hopes for the potential of the video were dashed once I realized the problem. And, considering the amount of subtitles in the video, the production team’s excuse of “audio problems” doesn’t work for me. If these are the most egregious of offenses, the only thing I could think of that’d make them so… is the fact that they come from black and brown men.

Street harassment provokes fear in women, especially survivors of sexual trauma or simply survivors of having had your boundaries violated, because the trauma itself not only makes you question what you did to cause the attack but makes you feel like there’s something you can do to prevent the next one. You feel like you’re safer inside, you’re safer fully clothed (never mind that the lady in the video was fully clothed), you’re safer wearing a giant sheet, you’re safer if you don’t look at anyone, you’re safer if you don’t talk to anyone, all of that. Going outside to go for a walk/run/jog/wog – the cheapest form of exercise there is! – feels antithetical to what you believe is the best way to stay safe.

Street harassment is also at the heart of why so many of us subconsciously sabotage ourselves and our efforts to live healthier – being more in line with how society thinks our bodies should look ultimately means more harassment, right? And, at the start of more progress, all it can take for some of us is to get that one comment from a seemingly unsavory person who means us no earthly good, and it will send you right into that harmful spiral again.

The experience of surviving trauma makes you more keenly aware of situations where your boundaries are likely to be violated. That “fight or flight” response is triggered much faster in a survivor than it is in one who isn’t, and for me, it’s what makes makes me regard a”Hi” or a “hello” with a skeptical eye. We’ve all been there before – if you respond to a “hi” with a polite hi in response, there’s a follow-up of conversation that you weren’t interested in to begin with beyond niceties. If you try to say “goodbye,” it’s now an invitation to follow you. As women, we’re discouraged from being confrontational, and after being followed for conversation, we’re rarely interested in being polite. It starts to feel like coercion for the non-confrontational or timid of us.

If you have long enough conversations with women who are active outdoors – likely to be outside for longer than 45 minutes or so – you’ll hear countless stories. From the suburbs to the inner city, from college campuses to street corners, from Wall Street to 125th street, all it has ever taken is the right man to spot any woman on the move, and it happens. Men shout from cars, and it’s not the “Keep it up, sis!” that you might appreciate, but its cousins “You getting that body tight for me?” and “You’re not running fast enough! How else are you going to get a man?” And, against our better judgment, many of us wear headphones because, damn, the only way we can block out the noise is to block out everything, even against our better judgment.

I have all the statements, and I have none of the answers. A woman’s ability to overcome her own negative and damaging thoughts and still get out there is all about where she is in her own journey. I know, that for me, it took learning self-defense to make me comfortable with the idea of me protecting myself. I can avoid reacting to the nasty words said to me, but having someone follow me? I’m much more ready than I’ve ever been.

I want to hear from you, though, because while I’d like to write more about outside safety, I only have my experiences to go off of, and I want to learn more – what are your thoughts on the video? What did you think about all of this? What have you experienced outside?

For more BGG2WL on Sexual Harassment:

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Sarah October 31, 2014 - 11:39 PM

I am not “blind to colour” but i honestly didn’t pay special attention to the racial background of the cat-callers just the comments.
“Complaints about the lack of racial parity in the video” … I may be naive but why would such complaints even come up – why isn’t the video taken at face value and you know just maybe…on that particular day or whatever more black men cat-called? I’m not from america though so perhaps I don’t get the gravity of how much media (mis)representations can affect someone

Erika Nicole Kendall November 1, 2014 - 10:30 AM

“why isn’t the video taken at face value”

Because, as I said in the post, she walked through areas I’m familiar with as being diverse – and, because when I walk those same streets, the backgrounds of the men who approach me are diverse. Why wouldn’t that be reflected on the video?

I’m unwilling to blame this on you not being American, because racism isn’t solely an American institution. Alas, racism as it is displayed in America results in “bad things” naturally being given a black face and “good things” being given a white face without even thinking twice… and I have a problem with that. Catcalling isn’t a race-based experience. It’s about patriarchy, something that leaves a trail of destruction across the world. For some reason, that wasn’t expressed in this video and it’s absolutely appropriate to point that out.

“and you know just maybe…on that particular day or whatever more black men cat-called?”

The production team actually said this wasn’t what happened – they claimed that there were audio issues with the non-black/brown catcallers. But, like I said in the post, considering the number of subtitles used in the video, I’m not willing to accept that as an excuse.

sarah November 1, 2014 - 10:21 PM

thankyou for replying 🙂 I say I’m not american as being a relevant thing (I’m australian where racism is definitely present) because reading your blog has really opened my eyes to some issues –

where I am from racism isn’t discussed as openly and with all the nuances that it really has (eg. passive stereotyping like this) – I think America has gotten to a point where racism and all its forms are more intelligently discussed than in other places (yet it obviously is still a huge issue) – In australia its still very hard for australians to objectively discuss racist/harmful behaviour and its effects as long as no one is being openly vilified (just google ‘Team Australia’) …. In your posts you pick up on stuff like this which would not normally be something that I would ever pick up on (I watched that video earlier and had none of these conclusions from it and the general commentary surrounding the video over here also didn’t pick up on race as an issue (again why I said that I have a non-american perspective – we probably have similar issues here in Australia but for whatever reason the views you expressed are not something that is heard)

In any case thankyou for your website – I love reading it and learning more!

Erika Nicole Kendall November 2, 2014 - 11:36 PM

Aw, well I appreciate the kind words! I do what I can.

I think it’s really hard to really understand the pervasiveness of racism, but if we are mindful of how our actions affect others in the present day, then – even without a deep understanding of history – we can make a small change in how we affect others.

Looking at that video, they made an active choice to edit out non-black/brown catcallers. It didn’t even cross their mind as to whether or not there would be fallout that could undermine their goal of showing street harassment. It not only gave people a reason to talk about something *other* than the culture of harassment, but it also gave people a reason to side-eye their organization from here on. Had they been more mindful of that, they wouldn’t be experiencing such nasty fallout.

Annette November 2, 2014 - 4:27 PM

Not that I am putting you to work but, how about doing video blogs. Really getting out there and showing us what you are seeing. I would have liked to see a diversity of women being represented since it is an anti-street harassment organization.

Just smile and say hi? Why? What for? when you aren’t interested in how they come across. Who wants to pick up some random man on a corner screaming out to any woman that passes. Why should I even encourage him. Not interested! Once you do they think they need to follow and stalk you. I don’t why any man would defend that type of behavior, would he recommend it to his daughter, his sister, ridiculous.

Erika Nicole Kendall November 2, 2014 - 11:30 PM

You ARE putting me to work! LOL!

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