This video, “10 Hours Walking as a Woman in New York City,” was posted two days ago. Women who have walked in New York City probably knew before watching it what the film would actually document: unrelenting street harassment. To date, it has almost 17.5 million views.
The responses to the project, a collaboration between Hollaback and marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative, have run the gamut, from adoring to disgusting and back again. There’s the “yes, share this with everyone, this is so real” contingent, the sad bros who ask “why you mad? that’s a compliment,” the well-intentioned backlash corner pointing out “why are all the harassers in this video men of color?” There is even, as in the sign of any truly viral video, a parody.
Also weighing in: novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who is appears is becoming as prolific a tweeter as she is an author:
Isn't harassment of women walking alone in urban areas–(as men do freely & without incident)–a matter of neighborhoods? In NYC, certainly.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 30, 2014
Would be very surprised if women walking alone were harassed in affluent midtown NYC (Fifth Ave., Park Ave.), Washington Square Park etc.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 30, 2014
The internet responded swiftly:
@JoyceCarolOates I have been harassed in those areas. Frequently even.
— Porochista Khakpour (@PKhakpour) October 30, 2014
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) October 30, 2014
And so on. Oates sounded, to say the least, like she had no idea what she was talking about. To investigate this, I called Emily May, Hollaback co-founder and executive director.
Street harassment “is absolutely a pervasive problem,” said May. She was not present at the shoot, but “the video, as I understand it, was mostly shot in Midtown. They were also downtown in Washington Square Park, Long Island City, the Brooklyn bridge. The vast majority was shot in Midtown. The reason for that is that we have been mapping street harassment since 2010, and what we found after these four years mapping is that’s where most of the street harassment seems to be happening.”
So not only is Oates a little off-base; she is, data-wise, one hundred percent wrong. “We know that, as with all forms of gender-based violence, street harassment happens across evenly lines of race and class,” said May. “We also know that, because of that, if one out of every 50 guys is going to harass you on the street, you’ll find them faster in Midtown than a [less populated area].
“There’s no great data” on rates of harassment in urban areas versus suburban or rural neighborhoods. “My instinct is that, per person, walking down the street, a lot of these areas, you don’t have a lot of street harassment because you don’t have a lot of streets. My sister lives in a really rural town in North Carolina, and the idea there of public space is one park and a Walmart parking lot. And she’s been harassed in that Walmart parking lot. But you certainly have to be in public spaces to be street harassed, and other people need to be there with you. My guess is that it’s even across areas of the country. It just happens that there are more people in public spaces in cities, and more in midtown than in less populated areas in New York City.”
As for Oates, “I also just want to throw out there that it is a really, there’s an implicit bias in her remarks because it is a really longheld myth that street harassment is mostly perpetuated by men of color… and that’s simply not true. As part of that, people assume that this is mostly happening in low-income neighborhoods. But we know, and the data knows, that it’s not.”
But the video, as a Slate story pointed out, only features one white harasser, and his offense (“Nice”) is relatively small: “The video also unintentionally makes another point: that harassers are mostly black and Latino, and hanging out on the streets in midday in clothes that suggest they are not on their lunch break.” Bliss, who directed the video, responded on Reddit. “We got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera,” or otherwise unusable. In an interview with Gothamist conducted via email, Bliss addressed the issue at greater length:
“Also I can even walk you through it, but there were 6 or 7 white guys in this video that catcalled, that’s 33% to 40% percent. It’s tricky picking everyone out because all their faces are blurred, which has only lead to more confusion. Additionally, their scenes were short, where those two guys who were non-white, they alone ate up half the video. So the run times yes, heavily portray blacks/Latinos, but the actual number count is much closer. And that’s the problem with a 18 person sample size, inaccurate results, which is why this video shouldn’t be treated like a survey.”
I asked May — who, it should be noted, did not have creative control over the video — if, given the opportunity to jump in a DeLorean and do the video over again, she would have Hollaback pay closer attention to race and representation in these scenes. “Absolutely,” she said. “We’d want to see a better representation of the people doing the harassing… We absolutely, I think, would have rather had a better representation.” She said she “had no idea that so much of this footage was missing until I heard it in the press… and my guess is that, to the extent that there was missing footage and sound, that it wasn’t just white people who were missing.”
“This is one woman’s experience,” she said. “And quite frankly, this is a white woman’s experience. And as a white woman, I’m here to say, we don’t get it as bad as people of color do, and we don’t get it as bad as trans people do. It’s much, much worse for them and tends much more often to escalate into extreme violence… So really, to do this again, what I would love to see, too, is not just one woman’s story, because I don’t think you can tell the story of street harassment with one woman. I’d really want to see, and what we actually are hoping to create out of this, is a series, looking at many different women and the way that many different women experience harassment, whether they be 12 year old women, so, girls, women of color, women with disabilities, trans women. All of these women face harassment and all of it looks different. For us to have a completely understanding of this, we need to see the breadth of all this.”