- Video of woman being catcalled on streets of NYC gets huge reaction
- Activist: "We're taught not to see women as human beings on the street"
- Men trying to meet women wonder: "What am I supposed to do?"
- Proper response is to treat women -- and everybody -- with respect
Remember the obnoxious guy in the early-'80s Mr. Microphone commercial? While cruising in a convertible with his friends, he uses the old Ronco toy to come on to a pedestrian.
"Hey, good lookin', we'll be back to pick you up later!" he yells.
Smooth move, Ex-Lax. This is not the way you approach a woman on the street.
That point was brought home this week with a video posted by Rob Bliss on behalf of the anti-street-harassment group Hollaback! Bliss, inspired by the experiences of his girlfriend, tracked a volunteer, Shoshana B. Roberts, as she walked through New York over the course of 10 hours.
Over the course of the video, men offer Roberts greetings such as "Damn!", "Hey baby," "What's up, beautiful?" and "Sexy." A few men follow her for blocks. Others seem offended that she doesn't respond.
The reaction on the Internet has ranged from perplexity to outright anger.
"Unless one of these guys physical assaults you then they have every right especially if you don't tell them to leave you alone. It doesn't f****** matter if it's scary or if it offends people," wrote one commenter on the video's YouTube page.
"I call bullsh*t. New wave feminazi persecution complex professional victim bullsh*t," added another.
On a Reddit thread about the video, one person asked, "If a guy can't open a conversation with 'How are you doing today?' then what is he supposed to open it with?"
Being a nuisance
There can be a fine line between flirtation and harassment, and it's been used for comic effect in movies and television shows.
"Has anyone ever told you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?" asked Robert Downey Jr. in the 1987 movie "The Pick-Up Artist."
Sure, there are men and women who sometimes do want a quick fling with a passer-by. For them, maybe come-ons and catcalls work.
Still, only in a romantic comedy -- albeit one written and directed by the shrewd and flinty James Toback -- would Downey's character make women swoon. As Chris Rock has noted, "Every time a man's being nice to you, all he's doing is offering d**k."
Which is why would-be lotharios should tread lightly.
"You almost never approach it," said Troy Patterson, Slate's urbane Gentleman Scholar columnist. "Almost always, the guy is going to be making a nuisance of himself. I can't see a reason to ever greet a strange woman with anything more intrusive than a quiet, warm smile."
Women have been saying this for years, of course.
"Street harassment has a negative effect on us all. No single man wants the actions of a few to be attributed to his entire gender, but studies show that male harassers impact victims' perception and reaction to men in general," wrote Katie Baker in a 2010 essay.
Baker observed that one catcaller was caught off-guard when a woman called him on his behavior. The man, abashed, said that he understood: He had sisters, and he wouldn't want them treated the same way.
'Talk to her, not at her'
Baker offers a simple solution: respect.
"There's a huge difference between harassing a woman and trying to start a conversation," she wrote. "Here are some tips: talk to her, not at her. Treat her with respect: be aware of her personal space, ask her how she's doing or what she's reading instead of commenting on her body parts, look at her face instead of her chest. If she ignores you, drops eye contact, or walks away, back off.
"It wasn't rude of you to approach her, but she's not being rude if she doesn't want to keep talking to you, especially if you initiated conversation while she was running an errand, waiting for the bus, or on her computer at a coffee shop."
Manuel Abril, an activist and filmmaker who serves on the board of StopStreetHarassment.org, points out that the problem is one of dehumanization.
"It's not taking (women's) word at face value," he said. "Men are socialized to think that women don't really say what they mean."
Moreover, he adds, society tends to judge women the way they dress.
"We're taught not to see women as human beings on the street," Abril said. "The way they look totally supersedes their humanity."
A way for 'dudes to blow off steam'?
Not all greetings are out of bounds. There is the matter of context, Patterson says.
Early-morning runners and dog-walkers may offer courteous "good mornings" to one another as if they're part of a big club, while doormen and shopkeepers don't lose points for an appropriate, welcoming attitude.
But commenting on a woman's form as she walks past? Not acceptable. Even the reaction men sometimes see -- a smile -- can be a defense mechanism to get the comments to stop, says Abril.
So why make comments at all?
"Catcalling is, in general, a way to relieve boredom during a dull workday and establish 'hey we are all straight!' amongst guys working together," a "Guysourcing" contributor explained to Jezebel. "It wasn't an attempt to hit on the woman or to be threatening. It was just a way for the dudes to blow off a bit of steam and be like 'We are men!' "
On the Reddit thread, which has drawn more than 6,500 comments, one man observed that lack of respect knows no gender.
"As a fat guy who once walked around NYC for a day sightseeing I got so many comments," he wrote. "'Lose weight, ass***e!' 'Hey fatty want me to buy you a hot dog?' 'Hey kill yourself you fat f***' I would have been happy with just a 'good morning.' "
In the right context, so would most people.
"If your baseline value is showing respect to all people, everything will be OK," Patterson said.