What viral videos teach us about street harassment

Women are acutely aware of how they are perceived in public spaces. The rates of street harassment vary, but it is present everywhere. Sometimes, it is so normalized women even struggle to refer to certain behaviors as harassment – they are just considered normal, if creepy. 

In recent years, there have been plenty of viral videos about the street harassment women endure. From hidden cameras to parodies, the debate about street harassment has gone mainstream and the internet has many opinions on the subject. 

10 hours walking in nyc as a woman

The most famous one is probably “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman”, which was interestingly created through a partnership between viral video guru Rob Bliss and the advocacy group Hollaback. Launched in 2014, the video follows an actress, Soshana Roberts, with a hidden camera, capturing all the moments men on the streets start unsolicited interactions. As expected, the video exploded and went viral all over social media, starting heated arguments about men’s right to address women in public spaces and how they should go about it. While some people maintained most of the men were simply being “nice”, most women fought back against that misconception and argued that street harassment remains one of the most pervasive forms of male violence, which always lets women (and girls) know who’s the boss and who owns the street.

Among activists, the impact of the video was also not consensual. Some women of color were concerned that the video was edited to mostly show men of color catcalling the (white) woman, and the creators of the video were also accused of not taking into account the potential toll on the actress herself. Roberts received numerous rape and death threats and appearing in the video did not kickstart her acting career, despite being viewed by over thirty-eight million people.

parodies and social experiments

Although the New York video made a huge impact, it was clearly not enough. In later years, many more videos have surfaced, poking fun at other aspects of street harassment. One of the funniest is from Lima, Peru. Although it was probably staged, the video and campaign Sílbale a tu madre shows men who accidentally catcall their own mothers and are then severely reprimanded and treated as little boys. 

Other videos focus on what underlies men’s attitudes when they catcall women, such as “What Men Are Really Saying When Catcalling Women”, or try to switch the roles and have women catcall men, either as parody or as a social experiment. In Egypt, a male actor dressed as a woman was made to experience the barrage of harassment women face on a daily basis, changing his perspective forever.

Still, most videos still lacked the authenticity that made the first one so appealing. In 2018, an authentic video surfaced, showing how a woman responding to street harassment escalated to physical violence. Maria Laguerre, the 22-year-old victim, got the security film and posted the video on Facebook and Twitter, generating a huge wave of solidarity. 

The incident happened a few days before France passed a bill criminalizing street harassment, so the assault was instantly politicized. For many people, it was probably the first time they realized how dangerous street harassment really is and why women are not “flattered” when strangers comment on their appearance or insist on greeting them. 

women fight back

All of these viral videos generated very polarized opinions online. It was quite shocking to see how many men truly considered harassment to be normal and not a big deal, and how some women exhibited internalized misogyny claiming harassment made them feel “beautiful” and “sexy”. There is still a big resistance against making street harassment illegal, following the example of France, Belgium and Portugal. For many people, street harassment continues to be a chain of isolated incidents rather than a structural form of male violence against women and girls.

Campaigns such as Our Streets Now (UK), Paremos el acoso sexual callejero (Peru), Cat Calls: Called Out (Australia), Safe Delhi Campaign (India), the Harass Map (Egypt), among many others,  try to raise awareness of the issue and demonstrate how it is part of a larger continuum of violence, composed by the sexualization of young girls, rape culture and objectification and dehumanization of women. 

The viral videos and the reactions they triggered allow us to see how epidemic street harassment really is, but also that women are willing to fight back and expose harassers. Although a #MeToo movement of victims of street harassment is yet to exist, women all over the world are saying: enough is enough. 

 

Author: Margarida Costa Da Silva Catela Teixeira

Margarida is a feminist activist working with both grassroots feminist groups and established women’s organizations in Portugal and Europe. With a background in Cinema, Philosophy and Human Rights, she is particularly interested in ending sexual exploitation of women and girls in all its forms and seizing upon innovative and gender sensitive ways of communication to do so.

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