I saw multiple friends share stories about a video of a woman walking around New York City being recorded by hidden camera. In the video capturing her 10-hour walk around the city, she is catcalled more than 100 times, sometimes with what seem like relatively benign comments, other times with reprimands for not responding the way her “suitors” deem appropriate. At one point, one guy walks next to her silently for five minutes after he calls out to her.
The video was shot to raise awareness on behalf of the non-profit Hollaback, which is aimed at ending street harassment. At the end of the video there is a message explaining that the catcalls came from men of all backgrounds. According to the Hollaback site, street harassment is one of the most prevalent forms of sexual violence and "Internationally, studies show that between 70-99 percent of women experience street harassment at some point during their lives."
I wondered about how this behavior is learned (if it is) and how as a mom I can help my son, just under 2-years-old, unlearn it before it even becomes part of his experience. So, I figured the best way to address would be head on, in a conversation that will go something like this:
Let’s get something straight, I won’t condone catcalling in any form, to anybody, ever. Got that? I don’t care if it is a friend you know well and it is a joke, I don’t care if everyone else around is doing it, you won’t be a part of that.
Did you watch the video young man? Of course not, sorry, you were playing with your cars out in the playroom and I don’t let you watch videos on mom’s laptop anyway. I will summarize it for you. A woman walked around New York City for ten hours with two microphones in her hands, and a friend with a camera in his backpack walking ahead of her. The comments, the leering, the insults, were frustrating to watch.
I remember when I lived in New York City and how frustrated I was with catcalls. Men would make inappropriate comments about my body, as well as whistles, clicks, and I would get cursed at when I didn’t respond favorably, or didn’t respond at all. At times I definitely felt unsafe, as this woman might have when men walked with her talking at the side of her head. Mostly, I just felt insecure.
Four years of living in the city and I threw out a lot more unsavory responses in defense of myself and my pride. You know, words that will land you in time out if you use them. I know now that ignoring would have been the better bet, even though, as the video shows, it wouldn’t have stopped the catcalls.
I won’t raise you to be one of those guys. And I am hoping that the mothers, or fathers, or grandparents, or whoever had a hand in raising the men captured on film didn’t raise them like that either.
But alas, the video shows some pretty bad evidence that people think it is OK to objectify women, and to be verbal about it as well.
I will do everything in my power to make sure I don’t allow you to be one of them. And I hope that in years to come I will surround you with positive influences, of course including your father, that also won’t allow this behavior.
I don’t want to preach, but it seems that for this lesson, the earlier the better. I don’t want to send you to preschool with the thought in your head that girls are there to be looked at, or just to play the wife in a game of house. I want to make sure you know that girls will grow up to be construction foreman, lawyers, PhDs, and filmmakers like the woman featured in the video.
And my hope of hope, before you even are able to form a sentence, is that you will never form a sentence that makes someone feel ashamed or embarrassed.
Got it? I love you.
I understand that as a mom, I will have to have this conversation multiple times to get the message through that this behavior is not acceptable. But as someone who has been harassed, like most women, and someone who is helping to raise a son, I want to make sure he understands, early and often, the clear line between what is OK and what is offensive.
Fathers are also imperative in encouraging boys to address women with respect, and my husband, who is already a great role model, will have this conversation with our son too.
Hollaback is among other organizations popping up around the country to end street harassment. Cards Against Harassment, started by a woman in Minneapolis is another project to end street harassment. Women are encouraged by women to hand out cards directly to their harassers with statements that point out the wrongdoing of the street harasser. While I can't say that I would have ever had the guts to do this while living in NYC, the Cards Against Harassment project, like Hollaback, raises awareness and points out the inappropriateness of this activity.
While I don't think this alone will end street harassment, raising awareness seems like an important starting point to identify the problem and begin to create a new normal, a new standard of acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior among men. If a critical mass can be reached, through cards, videos, and direct conversations with our kids, we will have a better chance of putting an end to the practice.