What’s the big deal? It was mostly just a bunch of guys saying hi and giving a woman compliments, right? In case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know what Im talking about, a Youtube video recently went viral in which a woman was secretly filmed walking around New York City for ten hours to show just how many times men tried to talk to her. During those ten hours, it happened 108 times. In watching this video and seeing how it has resonated with so many women, more than a few men have been left asking what the big deal is. Most of the men in the video are simply trying to get the woman’s attention and are doing it by giving her compliments on how she looks. Sure, sometimes the compliments are as simple and basic as the classic “Damn!”, but it’s clear what it’s in reference to.
Well, some of the men do more than just say hi, or try to get the woman’s attention. At least a few men get angry when the woman doesn’t respond and one creepily and silently walked next to the woman for five minutes after she didn’t respond. I’m hoping most men won’t argue that both those kinds of reactions are not just wrong, but scary and intimidating.
But what about the other stuff? What about the men who just said, “You’re beautiful,” or “How you doing?” or “Have a nice day”? For me, this is a much more complex issue, and I’m of several minds about it. Recently I spent nearly three months in India, a country notorious for having an extremely hostile environment for women and the insanely creepy, awkward and uncomfortable attention so many of the men there pay to foreign women in the belief that what they’ve seen in porn is, in fact, how Western women really are.
After traveling with some women there and hearing countless tales from others of men staring endlessly at them as they walk down the street and the unrelenting attempts some men made to engage women in conversation (this is to say nothing of the unwanted physical contact and worse), I was left wanting to distance myself from that behavior altogether. Not for a second and under any circumstances did I want someone looking at my behavior and have any reason to compare it to how so many men in India behave.
So one day, about a month after leaving India, I found myself sitting in a park in Europe with two women from North America. There were attractive women everywhere and they were almost all wearing sexy outfits since we were in part of town full of bars and clubs. I confessed to the women I was sitting with my guilt in looking at these women sexually. I didn’t want to do it, not after India. But it was also an impulse I found to be out of my control. Both the women told me I was being ridiculous and that obviously they understood men will look at them and that when they dress sexy it’s usually not just expected that they’ll be looked at, it’s also somewhat desired. And with that, I gave up on the impossible task of trying to never check a woman out again. I do, however, go out of my way not to leer or stare too long. It seems to be the best I can do.
In light of this realization about just how deeply embedded some kinds of behavior are for men, I do find it hard to fault men who are more forward than me and who see a woman they’re attracted to and try to get her attention instead of just look. And since just about the only reasonable way I know of to get the attention of someone I want to talk to is to talk to them, I find it hard to label a man a misogynist simply for trying to talk to a woman he doesn’t know, even if it is to hit on her.
That said, clearly there are some very wrong ways to do it. Rude, crude and vulgar comments are clearly out of bounds. It’s insulting and demeaning to say such things to women and it’s also a slap in the face of the mothers of the men who say these kinds of things because it shows they have clearly failed their sons in some kind of significant way.
But what about the men who just say, “Hi”? I’m going to put a pin in the obvious issue that this method of hitting on women is horribly ineffective and just focus on whether or not it’s OK when done inoffensively. When it comes to just saying something simple, maybe even polite, even if there is a clear ulterior motive behind it, I have a hard time labeling a man a misogynist for doing it. But it’s also not that simple, and I have to go back to India again to explain why.
Obviously I was not sexually harassed while there, but I most certainly was harassed. Salesmen in India, be they store owners, taxi drivers, tour guides, you name it, do not take no for an answer. Hell, I was asked several times a day if I wanted my shoes shined, and I wore flip-flops most of the time. These businessmen will repeatedly yell at you to get your attention. They’ll try to start a polite conversation as a way to start their sales pitch. They’ll follow you for minutes on end repeating the same questions over and over again if you don’t respond, and they’ll view anything you say to them, even a stern “No!”, as encouragement to continue talking to you.
After just an hour of this, most people are left feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted, and angry. I cursed more people out while in India than I have in my entire life, by a lot. Most of the time someone is walking down the street, they just want to be left alone and no one has the right to impose their desire to talk to them on them. So yes, I think even when men use a polite approach, it can go too far. And like with India, it’s not because any one act is wrong or impolite, but because when viewed in total it becomes harassment. Keep in mind, the woman in the video had 108 men make comments to her in just ten hours. That’s nearly one comment every five minutes. I know I’d lose my shit, and most other men would too if that many people where disrespectful of their right to be left alone.
Still, it’s hard to ignore two things: In our society, most men still believe it is up to them to make the first move and men know that what a woman takes offense to or considers creepy is directly related to how attracted she is to the person saying or doing it. Woman can deny this all they want, but if there was a construction crew of Taye Diggs and Ryan Gosling look a likes catcalling on a woman’s way to the store, she’d find a reason to walk back by. These are the only two things I can think of to explain why so many men seem willing to continue doing what is clearly an ineffective way to pick up a woman. They feel they must be aggressive to get a woman’s attention, and they overestimate how good looking they are and, therefore, expect their awkwardly timed and unwanted efforts to be well-received.
But that brings me back to the question I put a pin in earlier. Since catcalling so rarely works (I’m forcing myself to not say never), maybe it’s time men just zip it and let women walk around in peace and feeling safe. Besides, women aren’t as bad as most men think they are about communicating interest. So men, let’s all just chill out, relax and wait for that go-ahead smile and eye contact before becoming the 20th person to bother a woman on her walk to work.
SideBar: There was a great article by Dion Rabouin in the Root about the impossible-to-miss racial makeup of the men shown in the video. While the video goes out of its way to say men of all races were catcalling in a statement at the end, all but one of the men shown is either black or Hispanic. The maker of the video said they didn’t capture good enough audio when white men did it to use in the video, but it seems to me removing the racial undertones in this video and the ability of white men to distance themselves from the problem might have been worth spending an extra hour doing a re-shoot. Regardless, catcalling is a problem and this video proves it beyond any doubt.