Harassment and freedom of speech

hollabackThis is my response to an article, “Uppity, White Liberal Upset About Being Catcalled By Minorities In NYC”  which begins:

“An organization called Hollaback, which is aimed at stopping street harassment, posted a video of a girl walking around the streets of NYC being “catcalled” by mostly minorities.

Men can be heard saying such terrible things such as “how are you this morning,” and “have a nice evening,” while the uppity, white liberal woman looks at them with hatred and disdain for even deigning to speak to her. After all, the men are clearly out of her social class, and she’s white, so the fact that these men even have the nerve to look at her should be considered harassment…. right?”

Read the article online here. Watch the video they condemn here:

My response, edited and adapted from a thread on Facebook:

Recently, I was complimented on the street in a nice way and I nearly fell over in shock. It was done respectfully, in a non-intrusive way and nothing was demanded of me and the person carried on with their day. This had never happened before and it hasn’t happened since.

Every other day, however, in an area I am now living in, someone says something to me, AT me, more like, that I would say is an aggressive assertion of power. It’s got very little to do with being nice or complimenting what I look like or how I am dressed, but more to do, I feel, with asserting their presence and/or disrupting the flow of things. In contrast with someone asserting their presence by, say, asking for spare change, this kind of attention seems to be based on gender and perceived power positioning of those involved. The callee/person being followed is pushed into the position of recipient and is “weaker”. It’s kinda scary that if you do respond, you’re often opening yourself up to more aggression, verbal or physical.

Interestingly, this is not behaviour I experience in other parts of London and I have lived in various parts, some richer, some very deprived, over the last  12 years. I am not calling for policing or legislation of this kind of behaviour but I do think it should not be encouraged or condoned. Catcalling and verbal harassment and being followed down the street grinds me down and causes me anxiety. Given what I know now, I would not choose to live in this area, nor have this level of anxiety on a daily basis but it is not going to be easy to uproot myself and move house again nor is that a solution to the bigger issue at hand. This kind of recurring encounter makes me fear for my safety at times, some of it is racist, and it’s never what I would regard as respectful or polite or complimentary. (Sure, what’s acceptable behaviour is culturally specific sometimes – I grew up in Malaysia and it’s, on the whole, a place where it’s normal to make eye contact and stare at people, for example.) Now, I don’t ignore the opinion of women who do enjoy public male attention as affirmation of their attractiveness but I do propose that we should consider the power dynamics that we seem party to.

It’s interesting to me, not being black or white, that I relate this aggressive behaviour to my new neighbourhood which is NOT more deprived than other places I have lived in, but one that feels (I know that this is subjective) like people have given up on themselves, their community, their surroundings. It’s feels like an area where where actions, anti-social or otherwise, are inconsequential. For me, this is a shame. What’s the solution? I don’t know. How do we ever bring about social change? For me, a direct way towards change is to acknowledge there is something going on here that we may not be 100% comfortable with. Having peer to peer conversations about whether or not this kind of behaviour is something we encourage or accept. This video and the point it’s drawing our attention to is not my idea of a liberal, racist, or neurotic video. It did cross my mind to say oh, perhaps she should have worn something baggier. But then, we’re in the terrible territory of saying that a woman has to take responsibility to avoid harassment. We could go through all the permutations – different age of the woman, heteronormative or not, different clothes, ethnicity etc. – but I’m interested in why it is that some people are driven to express their position by asserting themselves – often aggressively – into the space of strangers.

One such reaction and expression towards the woman in the video comes in the form of rape threats.

Dominance and power displays based on sexual intimidation and gender; it feels as if there’s a whole lot of frustration and disempowerment going on here for all involved.

PS – I am perfectly aware that not every woman experiences this, and not every woman who lives in my postcode either. Sometimes I wonder, is it me? Do I need to change my demeanour as I prepare to walk down the street, do I need to be more assertive, or more of a victim, to avoid comment? Do I need to look more cheerful, less open, walk faster or slower? Do I train myself to ignore the troubles I see around me? Isn’t it such a relief when I’m not in an area where this happens, where I’m JUST walking down the street.

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