If You Were Shocked by that Viral Street Harassment Video, You're Probably a Man

Human Rights

There is by now a familiar pattern to campaigns to bring attention to the problems women face in the world: sexism gets documented in a way that is irrefutable, it goes viral, and then sexism continues on unabated.

The latest example: a viral video put out by the anti-street harassment organisation Hollaback! in which Shoshana Roberts walks down a New York street in a T-shirt and jeans, stone-faced, as men walk alongside her, look her up and down and comment on her body, her lack of a smile and generally demand that she pay attention to them. It’s awful, uncomfortable, and entirely unsurprising – at least to 50% of the population.

The purpose of a video like this one isn’t to remind women how awful it can be – believe me, we know – but to create something to show to and share with men to be able to say, "See, this happens!"

But how many secretly taped encounters, screenshots of rape threats or elevator videos is it going to take before men just take our word for it? I’m sick of women constantly having to “prove” that discrimination and harassment exist – and I know I’m not the only one.

Besides, most times even direct proof isn’t enough for some men. When the video of Ray Rice dragging his then-fiance out of an elevator surfaced, people questioned what Janay Rice must have done to instigate the “fight”. Video of her unconscious body – and, later, Rice punching her in the face – wasn’t proof enough that what he did to her was wrong.

When adult film actor Christy Mack posted pictures of herself to Twitter after a vicious attack by her ex-boyfriend, mixed martial arts fighter Jon Koppenhaver, fans online suggested that Mack provoked the attack and urged people not to pass judgement. Her battered face wasn’t enough to prove that what he did to her was wrong.

And with the release of Hollaback’s video, some men are already arguingthat what Roberts experienced wasn’t really harassment - just run-of-the-mill, friendly come-ons. (Others reportedly issued rape threats, once again proving Lewis’s Law.) Even this widely-shared videotaped day of harassment isn’t actually enough to generate the consensus that this behaviour is wrong.

In reality, anything that women say or show will never be enough – there will always be someone nattering on about “innocent until proven guilty” as though life is a courtroom. And until men just believe women from the get-go – until our stories are believed as automatically as men’s are – we’ll be stuck in the same place.

In a certain way, these kinds of videos are all awareness and little action: even as these videos, tapes and pictures go viral for “proving” the mythical existence of sexism, it’s not likely that they’ll inspire different behaviour from the perpetrators. The obstacles women face aren’t exactly unknown – they’re just disbelieved – and sharing proof won’t change some men’s apparent faith that street harassment isn’t as bad as women say.

I’m glad that groups like Hollaback! exist to raise awareness about street harassment – the response from men indicates it’s still annoyingly necessary. And, though the video was filmed all over Manhattan and harassers run the gamut racially and along class lines, I take seriously the criticisms that the video disproportionately features, and thereby suggests the problem is limited to, men of colour – goodness knows there are white men as creepy and panic-inducing as anyone else in the video and shouldn’t have been let off the hook by the producer. Those criticisms show that there’s more work for us all to do.

But we need more than raised awareness – we need action and accountability by men and for men.

Sexism is not just something that occasionally rears its ugly head: it exists every day in every space. And men, I’m betting – proof or no proof – know the truth at their core: the world is a vastly different and much less friendly place if you’re a woman.

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