Is saying hello sexual harassment?

SHAFAQNA –  A video documenting a woman’s experience walking through the streets of New York City for a day went viral. The reason? In the space of 10 hours, she was harassed more than 100 times.

A lot of the comments the woman, Shoshana Roberts, receives in the video come in the form of “hello” or ”good morning.” On their own, these greetings could be seen as benign. This ambiguity provoked a debate about what counts as harassment.

What I find troubling in these conversations is society’s frequent inability to trust women’s knowledge and definitions of harassment. It is well documented that when women speak about their experiences of sexual harassment, objectification  or abuse by men, they are often not believed. Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas is great example of this. They are told that they are exaggerating, confused, or are being dishonest and manipulative.

For a lot of women, the video was a visual example of what they go through constantly. According to one study, 65 percent of women have been harassed on the street. But the video also served as proof to those who question the credibility of women who have spoken out about their ordeals with street harassment.

The video is not perfect — it creates an unfair profile of what a harasser looks like, for which it has been widely criticized. It does not show the complexities of street harassment, nor is it representative of the harassment faced by different types of women. Had she been black, or transsexual, we may have seen something much worse. Even so, it demonstrates just how constant and exhausting street harassment is.

When women start public conversations about this problem, they often find themselves not just describing their experiences, but also insisting on their veracity. Given that they are speaking about their own lives, this can be particularly frustrating.

Can we not trust women to know the difference between a compliment and a degrading comment on their appearance? Or tell the difference between a friendly hello from a neighbor, and a greeting that’s meant as an advance?

When women insist that a “hello” comes across as laden with insidious sexual intent, or sounds potentially aggressive, wouldn’t empathy and a willingness to understand be the best response? To suggest that women should take these advances as a compliment, or an innocent greeting, is not only dismissive, it’s insulting.

When women leave these debates online, close their computers, and walk outside, many of them are met with the very treatment that the video shows. Women have to live this reality on a daily basis. Many endure the constant stream of leers, crude comments about their bodies, gropes, and sexual gestures. Women endure men yelling at them from across the street, as well as insults from men when their catcalls are dismissed.

Are women who speak out about such harassment anti-social people who reject all contact with strangers? No — they are simply women whose experiences with  sexism have forced them to navigate their interactions with strange men carefully.

What looks like a harmless line to a catcaller can often feel like something more sinister to a woman. This is especially the case given that many women perceive a perpetual threat of violence if they don’t respond to these acknowledgments the right way.

These fears are not unfounded. Mary Spears was murdered for rejecting a man’s advances in Detroit. A woman in New York City had her throat slashed last month after refusing to talk to a man. I’ve met women who have been physically assaulted by men for not giving their phone numbers.

These are not isolated events. Every time a man comes on to a woman, how or if she responds is not just a matter of politeness, it can be a matter of safety. This is not an exaggeration. This is not confusion. This is a truth being told by a woman who lives with the frustrations and dangers of sexism. And that should be enough for you to stop, listen, and believe me.

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