If you were on the internet at all last week, then you almost certainly saw or read about the viral “catcalling video” that amassed an astounding 32 million views online and sparked a firestorm of discussion. But while it definitely raised awareness about the unwanted attention women endure when on the street, it sparked little sympathy, much less outrage.
The video was a hidden-camera recording of an attractive young woman walking the streets of New York for ten hours to document what the video’s sponsors described as “sustained catcalls and harassment” from men she passed. The video, edited down to a couple of minutes of highlights, claimed that the woman was on the receiving end of 100 instances of verbal harassment in those ten hours.
It was sponsored by Hollaback, “a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world.” Hollaback is vague about how exactly it will achieve the eradication of catcalling, apart from encouraging women to document their stories online, which might embarrass some guys. But the organization also hints at a more controversial solution when it describes street harassment as “one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against.” [emphasis added]
This suggests that they expect to curb the misbehavior by criminalizing it, which would be not only an infringement on free speech but also absurdly impractical. How would such legislation be enforced? Are cops going to write up or arrest losers merely for being desperate for female attention? And where is the line of verbal harassment drawn? Some of the men in the video simply wished her a nice day. Should that be a criminal offense?
For that reason and others, the video drew swift criticism from everyone from National Review to Slate. It was accused of racism for not featuring enough white men. It was accused of classism for not featuring enough affluent men. It was accused of ignoring the fact that such behavior is comparatively rare outside of bad neighborhoods in major urban areas. Perhaps most damning, it was accused of making a mountain out of a molehill.
It quickly spawned parodies. In one, a white man walks the streets of New York a là the original and is “accosted” by comments like “Hey, wanna network with me?” and “Want a Starbucks gift card? Yeah, you like that.” In another, a New York Jets fan walks the streets of Manhattan and gets berated for his Jets gear: “You should be ashamed.” Similar takeoffs feature, among others, a female character in the Skyrim video game, a drag queen in Los Angeles, a guy wearing a horse head mask, and my personal favorite, a hipster in Austin.
The fact that the original video has proven so ripe for ridicule and criticism says two important things: one, that America hasn’t entirely lost its sense of humor; and two, that the original video failed to prove its point. One hundred instances of verbal abuse and the worst they could present was guys mostly wishing the woman a nice day and calling her beautiful?
This is not to say that the video reveals no legitimate harassment. At one point for example, a man kept pace alongside the young woman for a full five minutes, which was at best creepy and at worst potentially threatening. And though some critics argued that most of the men in the video were simply being friendly, this is disingenuous; there’s no doubt that those men were hoping to strike up a conversation with a pretty girl who wouldn’t ordinarily give them the time of day. Had she given any of them an inch, they would have taken a mile.
No matter how legitimate a problem such harassment may be, though, it pales into insignificance in a world in which women get the worst of real horrors such as domestic violence, sexual assault, honor killings, sex trafficking and slavery, and forced abortions (in China and India). The video unfortunately made complaints about street harassment seem petty and insignificant by comparison.
Well-meaning though it might be, Hollaback’s vision of a world without street harassment is a utopian fantasy. This isn’t the same as ridding the workplace of sexual harassment; the streets cannot be policed in the same way. No amount of social condemnation or legislation will end all men acting unchivalrously. The rude, like the poor, will always be with us.
The best way to curb street harassment is by reviving the moribund ideal of chivalry and raising young men to treat women more honorably and courteously. Sadly, the feminists who now claim that men aren’t chivalrous enough on the streets are responsible for demonizing chivalry so thoroughly among both women and men that it’s comatose. They have very nearly snuffed out the one masculine ideal that is necessary to make the world a safer and more respectful place for women.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/11/14)