Shoshana Roberts decided to undertake a little experiment last August, walking silently in a crewneck T-shirt and jeans for 10 hours through the streets of New York City. She was harassed 108 times by her count with men yelling everything from “hey beautiful” to “damn.” One guy walked alongside her, matching her pace, for five minutes.
Her walk was captured on a hidden camera by a videographer from Hollaback, an anti-street harassment advocacy group, and edited down to the two-minute clip posted here.
While some women perceive whistles and catcalls aimed at them as ego-boosting compliments, most feel hassled, at best, and violated, at worst. About one-third of women reported that they experienced some type of non-contact unwanted sexual experience including street harassment, according to a September study conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The long-term impacts include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a reduced sense of safety that can limit earnings, decrease mobility, and interrupt their ability to fully engage with civic life,” states Hollaback on the group’s website.
Harassment isn’t limited to the domain of construction sites or subway platforms; it’s rampant on college campuses. More than two-thirds of college students reported in a survey conducted by Hollaback experiencing sexual come-on’s from strangers on campus.
That tracks with the rising rates of rape on campus. About one in six female MIT undergraduates who responded to an anonymous survey conducted by the school said they had been sexually assaulted while enrolled at the university. Most, however, did not report the crime.
“Our society treats street harassment as something that’s culturally acceptable,” said Laura Van Zandt, executive director of REACH, a Boston nonprofit that provides safety and support to domestic violence victims. “Men may think that they have a right to approach women who walk out looking beautiful or a right to touch her if she’s dressed sexy. It’s a continuum with verbal harassment on one end and rape on the other.”
Some men, no doubt, think they’re truly doing a good deed by complimenting a woman on her appearance — when they’re actually debasing her through objectification. “We need to educate men by getting them to think about how it would feel if it was their girlfriend, sister, or mother getting these comments as they walked down the street,” Van Zandt said.
Psychologist David Adams, co-director of Emerge, which is a domestic violence treatment center based in Cambridge, said culture plays a role in whether men whistle and approach women as they walk; men who experienced it in their neighborhoods growing up are more likely to do it themselves. “It may start off friendly, but there’s the other side of it, acting annoyed if she doesn’t respond to the comments,” Adams said. “A man may put a woman on a pedestal for being beautiful but then knock her down when she doesn’t appreciate that he put her there.”
This comes through repeatedly in the video as Roberts ignores the comments only to face growing hostility.
“It’s sort of a male privilege,” Adams said, “that we don’t have to think constantly about our safety and privacy since we’re not approached as much as women are. I think it’s something men take for granted.”