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Yes, unsolicited compliments are street harassment

Everyone's talking about street harassment.

That's because Hollaback, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring women's safety on the streets, released a video this week that went viral, set the internet ablaze with debates about day-to-day sexism, and led to death and rape threats against the woman featured in it.

The public service announcement is simple: in it, actor Shoshana B. Roberts takes a 10-hour walk around New York City, recording the entire experience with a hidden camera. Viewers get to experience every interaction right along with her, in a jarring montage of the 100-plus comments she receives from men she encounters. They range from "god bless you; have a good day," to "beautiful," to catcalls, whistles, and angry demands that she smile or express appreciation for the remarks. One man follows her for a full five minutes while she ignores him.

The video's purpose was to draw attention to the daily, sexism-fueled experiences women are forced to navigate, and it worked. It racked up a million views in less than a day and launched a conversation about street harassment (or, depending on who you ask, drew mainstream attention to a conversation that was well underway).

Here's what you need to know to get up to speed on the many conversations the video has inspired.

What is street harassment?

Hollaback, the organization that created the video, defines it like this on its website:

Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Further, it reinforces the ubiquitous sexual objectification of these groups in everyday life. Street harassment can be sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sizeist and/or classist.  It is an expression of the interlocking and overlapping oppressions we face and it functions as a means to silence our voices and ‘keep us in our place.'

Street harassment can take a variety of forms, including verbal commentary, leering, making obscene gestures, following, and unwanted touching. It's widely understood to include any demands for engagement that make victims feel obligated to respond or that cause them to fear repercussions if they don't respond.

In an informal online survey conducted in 2008, the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment queried 811 women and found that 99 percent of them had experienced street harassment. They reported experiencing various types of it in the following proportions:

The results of a 2008 survey by Stop Street Harassment (Stop Street Harassment)

The results of a 2008 survey by Stop Street Harassment (Stop Street Harassment)

In 2014,  in partnership with the surveying firm GfK, Stop Street Harassment conducted from a national survey of 2000 women and found that that 65 percent of all had experienced street harassment. Among these, 23 percent  had been sexually touched, 20 percent had been followed, and 9 percent had been forced to do something sexual.

Street harassment has been widely addressed in recent years by feminists who are primarily women of color. There's social worker and blogger Feminista Jones' ongoing #YouOKSis campaign to encourage men and women to intervene to stop it, a video challenging the view that catcalling is harmless by The Daily Show's Jessica Williams, the Window Sex Project campaign against verbal assaults on women in Harlem,  Sydney Mosley's "Can I Get a Smile" one-woman show, and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's "Stop Telling Women to Smile" street art project.

What were the positive reactions to the video?

For many viewers, the Hollaback video accomplished its goal, both validating and raising awareness about what they said were their everyday street harassment experiences.

Erika Nicole Kendall, (who, in 2013, wrote on her blog, A Black Girls' Guide to Weight Loss, that "street harassment promotes a paralyzing fear in me"), told Vox the video delivered a message that's urgently needed, and that her work as a personal trainer means street harassment is never far from her mind.

"I cover this stuff because sexual harassment and the fear of being outside in workout clothes colors a lot of women's lack of desire to work out in their neighborhoods. Being followed, having people interfere with your path, being outside in ‘tight clothes' — it all affects women's sense of safety. It's really hard to tell a woman, as a trainer, to ignore it and go out there anyway, " Kendall said.

Some men said it opened their eyes to the reality of street harassment, while others were inspired by the video to convince their peers to take the issue seriously.

What were the negative reactions to the video?

In the comments on YouTube and nearly anywhere else the video appeared, there was evidence of anger, defensiveness, and a generous dose of sexism. "Shut the fuck up and stop bitchin' all the damn time.  Hope nobody dates your funky ass! " is just one highlight.

In particular, many men, like Saturday Night Live's Michael Che, were scornful and sarcastic about the idea that what they saw as acceptable greetings were characterized by Hollaback as street harassment.

i just saw the catcalling video & i am disgusted.

A photo posted by @chethinks on

And least one male viewer took the position that any expectation that women be treated with respect on the streets of New York was itself unreasonable.

Did the woman in the video really get death and rape threats?

Yes. The Wall Street Journal reported that Hollaback's office and Roberts have received a total of about ten death threats, which they've reported to the police.

As Vox's Kelsey McKinney wrote, the reaction, sadly, wasn't surprising:

This video wasn't made for women facing harassment. It was made for men who remain blissfully unaware of how women are treated when they walk down the street. But instead of listening, instead of taking the time to realize how women might feel when men yell at them, these commenters - backed by their anonymity and privilege - have threatened to rape Roberts for daring to talk about it.

Let's lay this out in plain terms. Women are forced to feel uncomfortable and scared for walking down the damn street. Then, when one woman takes the time to show just how uncomfortable those interactions are, people threaten to physically assault her. If the video reminded us that women are constantly made to feel unsafe when they leave the house, the response is a reminder that women are constantly made to feel unsafe when they simply turn on their computer.

What's the debate about harassment versus compliments?

As mentioned above, some men have pushed back on the idea that complimentary comments or "friendly" greetings are included under the umbrella of street harassment.

Women have responded by highlighting what they say is the obvious sexual motivation behind these seemingly innocuous greetings. One way of making this point is by contrasting the so-called innocent remarks to the greetings men typically offer to each other.

"Most of these guys who are so adamant to proclaim street harassment as simple ‘politeness' would consider it a ‘violation of their manhood' to speak this way to another man. What's worse, they'd have a proverbial meltdown if another man said hello to them in the same way and tone they say ‘hello' to us," Kendall said.

Meanwhile,  some men have mocked their peers for complaining about their perceived oppression in this area:

How did race complicate the video's reception?

The fact that it took a video starring a woman who many viewers described as "white" or "white-presenting" (we don't know for sure how she identifies) to elicit such a massive response touched a nerve. There is an ongoing complaint about the way concerns and perspectives of women of color are excluded from mainstream feminist discourse.

Jamilah Lemieux, senior digital editor and longtime critic of the culture of street harassment, said it was discouraging that the video received so much more attention than previous campaigns like #YouOKSis, the Window Sex Project, and many others that focused on the experiences of — and were created by — non-white women.

"Not even engaging in any of the scholarly work that's been done around street harassment primarily in black communities, online alone there have been about seven to eight years of very public discourse around street harassment, " she said. "All of these things have made just a blip on the internet radar, so for it to take this video to take the conversation to the major networks is just frustrating."

She wasn't alone in this sentiment:

"I'm at the point where I don't expect people to listen to the experiences of black and Latina women," Lemieux said. "If we have an issue that's shared with white and white-presenting women, and they're able to get attention around it, that's our best chance of galvanizing support and having significant influence. It's heartbreaking."

Lemieux also raised concerns about Hollaback's choice to mainly show black and Latino men in the video. "I fear that it's the fear of black maleness or black male behavior that that will drive this conversation in a certain direction, and that black men will see this video and feel unfairly attacked."

Street harassment, she explained, can happen anywhere. "If you were to take these same women to white areas in rural America, or communities that are economically depressed, you would get a lot of the same behavior," she said.

Slate's Hanna Rosin brought up a similar issue, writing that the problem with the video is that "they edited out the white guys." She also pointed out that the marketing agency that collaborated on the video has been criticized for "race blindness" before.

Hollaback appears to have anticipated this critique, including this statement on its website

Like all forms of gender-based violence, street harassers fall evenly across lines of race and class.  It is a longstanding myth that street harassment is a "cultural" thing, perpetrated mostly by men of color.  We believe that street harassment is a "cultural" thing in the sense that it emerges from a culture of sexism - and unfortunately - that is everyone's culture.   It's important to keep in mind that is this video only captures verbal harassment, and Rob and Shoshana can attest to the harassment overall falling evenly along race and class lines. While filming, Shoshana noted, ‘I'm harassed when I smile and I'm harassed when I don't. I'm harassed by white men, black men, latino men. Not a day goes by when I don't experience this.

However, this perspective isn't included in the public service announcement that more than a million people have now seen.

Rob Bliss, who wore a backpack with a hidden camera to film the video, told Newsweek that criticism about its racial implications is "distracting from the real issue."