The danger of exaggerating street harassment

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
November 07, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

I watched the New York catcalling video with my jaw and chubby little fists involuntarily clenched.

Instead of writing anything I phoned a friend. He’s at my place in Melbourne while I’m residing in Albuquerque. Likely attributable to his unapologetic ownership of a copy The Game, he would be the one to counsel me through my ordeal. That one person whose relentless campaign against all things politically correct would prove my balm.

I didn’t write anything for the exact same reason that the video got as much attention as it did: because such furore has become predictable. Laughably so. So predictable, in fact, that a social commentator barely has time to hit “publish” before the boring cycle of histrionics repeats itself and a find/replace is conducted to freshen up a post.

Be it in the form of a retailer’s too-sexy-too-soon children’s clothing range, or their failure to use an appropriately sanitised euphemism, or the stock standard music festival/fashion week story about “sacred” cultural artefacts being reappropriated by honkies, such stories are delivered to us Chinese water torture style, because they represent easy outrage and opportune moments for soap-boxing.

During my phone call, I outlined my central grievance about the video. (Research methods aside. Editing aside). That I bet people – women – watching in a bazillion cities far distanced from New York would be nodding, fists pumping, as though their tribulations were finally – finally! – being spoken out loud. At last somebody was daring to spotlight the wretchedness of life as a lady on the mean streets of, say, Adelaide.

At its best, that video narrated the lives of women as accurately as Sex and the City and Girls (read: not very).

The New Zealand Herald‘s Auckland experiment helps make this point. A woman – not just any woman, of course, but a model, the very best kind of bastard-bait available apparently – walks around the city of one-million-ish and doesn’t get harassed.

In case we needed reminding, the original video was a very New York production.

New York is a city of 8.5 million people. Plenty of room there for nut jobs, dickheads and miscreants as well as lonely, disenchanted and dejected folks who, in varying degrees of enthusiasm, just want to connect.

How entertaining it is that we’re all so enraptured by Humans of New York, unless, of course, those humans in all their wretched humanity get too close to us. Attempt to speak to us.

New York aside, the video was also very American.

I took two photos yesterday: one was of a “Burgers for Breakfast” sign outside of Burger King and the other was “Jesus Loves You” memorialised in footpath cement outside a Target. Add to this mix some YouTube footage of Oprah Winfrey screaming “you get a car!” and an American truth lies somewhere in between.

Americans are not Australians, are not New Zealanders.

Americans often have a gregariousness that’s sometimes warm and welcoming and sometimes completely overwhelming depending on the day, depending on the person. Depending, even, on the state. Sometimes this gregariousness manifests in strangers speaking to us.

Albuquerque is no Manhattan, with its population sitting at only half a million or so. And yet my experience here is actually quite similar to the dozen or so times I’ve been to New York. Admittedly, prorated.

In recent months here, I’ve become aware, for example, that “hey girl” apparently isn’t a phrase restricted to Ryan Gosling memes.

Just yesterday I was seated at a bus stop texting a friend and a stranger joined me and said, “Honey, no need to message me, I’m here now.”

Not to mention the peculiarity of being a 34-year-old and getting called “miss” a dozen times a day.

But the devil is in the detail.

There is a significant distinction between real street harassment – between real feelings of intimidation and or threat – and street irritations like chuggers, jumbo prams and, as in many of these so-called “harassment” cases, unsolicited attempts at a stop and chat.

Part of the viral appeal of the video is that every woman has an actual story of being actually harassed on the street. None of us, however, have stories of 10 hours of it.

In the context of any atrocity, there is the danger of exaggeration, of hyperbole. A danger of padding – of extrapolating – to such an extent that those real times when a man offers you the “opportunity” to perform fellatio on him suddenly seem less extraordinary. A danger of diluting the despicable jeers gay and lesbian friends have experienced from mongrels in cars into just another episode of life on the streets.

And just as there exists a truth about America somewhere amidst the burgers, Jesus and Oprah, equally, somewhere between the New York and Auckland videos is a truth about city life for women. Exaggeration and gung-ho rhetoric, however, does little to fight injustice and more so works to make such behaviour seem typical, seem standard, seem uneventful.

© Lauren Rosewarne