You know that street harassment video that made the rounds recently? The one where a woman walks around Manhattan and collects 100 instances of harassment in a single day?
I didn’t like that video.
I didn’t like it that the filmmaker edited out all the white guys, but more than that, I didn’t like it because it offered only a male filmmaker’s point of view and did a poor job of explicating the woman’s (or any woman’s) experience.
What you see on the film: a scowling woman walking down the street while men say things like, “Good morning!” and “Have a nice day!” There are other things—the guy who walks right next to her for five entire minutes and all the “damn, girl!” remarks—but when the video went viral the Defensive Dude Corps howled with outrage. “They just said good morning!” “Wtf is wrong with women?”
And I can see how…unimpressive that looks to the outside observer who has never lived with the reality of frequent or daily harassment. The video doesn’t and can’t show what happens in her head.
It goes like this: every time some random guy on the street speaks to you, you go through a lightning-fast calculation of risk in order to decide how to respond. It’s all about guessing how he will respond to your response. If you say “good morning” back, will he take that as an invitation to engage in further discourse? And if so, will he be angry if you then rebuff him after you issued that invitation? On the other hand, if you ignore him, will he shout nasty things at you? Will he follow you? Will he threaten violence?
Every calculation seeks to answer this basic question: which response or non-response is least likely to result in this guy tweaking out and harming me? (If you think this is a hysterical overreaction, you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Random guys on the street, guys in bars, guys in schools, and guys in other places can and have tweaked out and harmed women because they don’t like the response they got to their overtures.)
This is obviously exhausting for the women who get this kind of thing constantly, and that’s why women walk through urban areas with forbidding scowls plastered on their faces and pretend they can’t hear what those men say. It’s a self-preservation tactic.
And now, a true story
Just last week, while I was musing over that video I didn’t like, I walked out of my office building in the late afternoon and headed towards my bus stop.
“Have a great evening!” said a man I didn’t know.
“Thank you!” I responded automatically. I guess my guard was down. I rarely get harassed and this gentleman looked to be over 60 and was using a walker. There’s nothing like a walker to make a guy look harmless.
I walked away feeling like I’d had a pleasant human social interaction with a resident of my work neighborhood.
A few days later, I went out for a walk at lunchtime, as I often do. I sit in a cubicle for much of the day, and by noon I really need some leg stretching and fresh air. I was headed back to the office when I encountered the same man on the same block.
“Why don’t you be friendly, young lady!” he said to me.
I stared at him, aghast. My nice, have-a-great-evening friend was going to harass me now? Really? Maybe I’d misheard.
“Sorry..what?” I asked.
“You need to smile! And be friendly!” he said insistently.
I heaved a sigh of disappointment and, my absence of faith in humanity restored, walked on.
The man continued shouting at my back.
So, to sum up: I responded positively to his pleasantry and in our next interaction he made it clear that he now had the right to critique my behavior/affect, tell me what to do, and make demands of me.
The good news is, I’m not feeling any concern for my safety, even though I will certainly see him again, because he’s still an old man with a walker.
But I’m just a little scowlier now.