Buzzfeed’s Street Harassment Video Is Cathartic but Incorrect

I’m not even going to pretend that I didn’t watch Buzzfeed’s What Men Are Really Saying When Catcalling Women video (above). Like, a good 20 times. Earlier in the day I’d written on my Tumblr about being catcalled six times in an hour while I was trying to run errands, and it was super-cathartic to laugh at the pathetic idiots who catcall me every time I do so much as leave my apartment.

Except, well, that’s not exactly true. The Buzzfeed video makes a variety of arguments as to why men catcall women: They don’t know how to empathize with women, they do it to feel manly, they want to look cool; but more than anything, the video makes catcallers out to be lonely, sexually frustrated losers who can’t get a date and compensate by being sexually forward to strangers. There are two problems with characterizing catcallers this way. First, the next logical step in this line of thinking is, “Well, if women would just give them attention, they’d stop,” which again puts the onus on women to placate men for our own sense of well-being.

Second, making these guys out to be social pariahs is a lie. They’re normal guys who have families and friends and, yes, sisters. They don’t have any more trouble getting dates than anyone else. So why do it? Well, I think that another viral visual on street harassment (part of the comic at the link is above) that made the rounds last week did a better job of breaking down street harassment. Robot Hugs explains:

“This kind of harassment is based on the problematic idea that public spaces are actually men’s spaces – and that women passing through them are subject to the desires, needs, and opinions of the surrounding men. …The basis for harassment of women in public spaces is around the ownership of space by men, and consequently the control of the women in those spaces… An unaccompanied woman is an uncontrolled woman, and is as such, a target.”

In this way, street harassment is based on the same insidious notion that keeps women out of boardrooms, that normalizes sexual harassment at work, that means that 15 percent of women in the US will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, that lets men legislate women’s bodies on spurious moral grounds: That men have more of a right to public or shared spaces and the bodies that occupy them than women do. It’s not a desperate last-ditch effort to interact with women on a romantic level or on the level of desire, it’s a way to control women by asserting the power of judgment on us.

And if that sounds crazy to you, well, you’re probably part of the problem, and you might do well to attempt to listen to and empathize with the thousands of women who are telling you that street harassment is unwanted, unnecessary, and scares us. The fact that we’ve been saying it for so long and the other side of the conversation has yet to give an inch or cease to give bullshit excuses for behavior that is bottom-line rude demonstrates well enough that you aren’t doing it because you genuinely think we appreciate it.

Catcalling and street harassment doesn’t even look like Buzzfeed has made it out to be: It’s not this loud, it’s not this performative, it’s not this bombastic, it’s not even this mock-complimentary. Men who catcall are frequently quiet and still, and they wait until we’re very close to them or they bring themselves bodily close to us. This is one of the reasons other men don’t see it happening — catcallers make sure it’s visible and audible to the women they’re targeting. When it is loud, it’s not always complimentary — harassment goes both to cast us as objects of desire and objects of revulsion. I had experiences as a teenager having to walk through Wrigleyville to get to concerts and drunken Cubs fans would alternately tell me how much they hated the way I looked (I was a punk rock kid with a very big fauxhawk) or tell me how much they wanted to fuck me (again, I was a teenager, and they were at least of drinking age, so ew). And it’s rarely this elaborate — I have more often had a guy come up to me and say “Nice tits” or “nice ass” than start humping the back of his car.

Problems on top of problems — comedian Ali Barthwell was the woman who got me really thinking hard about this video, and she made a point that I had noticed but didn’t know how to articulate: The men in this video are using AAVE or a “black voice,” which perpetuates the association of blackness and aggression. I have to admit that I was relieved to only see one black man in the video but really off-put by the way the actors chose to deliver their catcalls. Let’s get this straight: Street harassers are men of all races, and they don’t switch out of their normal speech patterns to do it.

Let’s start talking about street harassment as it is: Normal. It’s a normal behavior done by normal guys who think it’s perfectly normal to try to control the way women exist in public spaces. It’s not productive to see it as an abnormal behavior because it isn’t — it is common, it is frequent, it is normal. It’s more productive to start with the assumption that our brothers, sons, boyfriends, husbands, and friends are the normal guys who think catcalling and harassment is OK and to de-normalize that behavior than to continue to pretend that it’s not right under our noses.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler. You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.