By now you’ve surely heard about the Hollaback video that went viral of a woman walking around New York for ten hours, being repeatedly catcalled, her harassers caught on hidden video.
If you didn’t, you can watch it here:
I just watched it, and I was surprised. It was a lot more complicated than I thought.
There were a couple of guys in the video who were downright creepy and physically intrusive, including one who silently, menacingly, walked alongside the film’s subject for a disturbingly long period of time, and another who aggressively pestered her. And there were others who commented on her looks (“Hi, beautiful!”) or her body parts. One presumed to tell her to smile.
The bulk of the attention the film captured, though, was very different. Mostly, it was what people in small towns might think of as “greetings,” greetings utterly in conformity with social norms. “Hi!” “Have a great day!”
The film left me thinking. First off, it was made in New York, not in a small town. In New York – in any big city – it is not in conformity with social norms to greet people you don’t know. There are lots of reasons for this, none of which has anything to do with city-dwellers’ friendliness or lack thereof. (In my experience, New Yorkers are unfailingly friendly. It’s the damn ‘mericans who move here in their twenties and thirties who give us a bad name.) But in New York, greetings from strangers almost invariably precede either a request or an assault. The catcallers in the video demonstrate an indifference to or disregard for local norms.
As I said, most don’t say anything so awful, but the cumulative effect on this woman – and on me, as a viewer – is unmistakable. It’s brutal. By the end of the video, the gauntlet women run daily in a big city has come into focus, made concrete for me, and I’m mortified, embarrassed, ashamed.
Some men have professed confusion about the “rules” governing interactions with women we find attractive, and at times, I’ve been confused (though to my knowledge, I’ve only ever made one woman uncomfortable with my attentions – one too many, to be sure – and I apologized to her profusely). But this video helped me see clearly – at least in New York – where the lines lie, what the rules are. I’m not a pickup artist. I never approach women. Ever. But if I did, these are the rules I would follow:
1. It’s never ok to initiate conversation with anyone – male or female – without first attempting to obtain non-verbal permission to approach via eye contact and/or facial expressions.
2. If that permission has not been granted, the only approach that is socially permissible, that is not disrespectful or intrusive, is a request for information (directions, for example) or help. It’s a good sign you’re violating this rule if you’re speaking to someone with whom you haven’t received the non-verbal ok to approach and your first two words aren’t “Excuse me?”
3. If non-verbal permission to approach has been granted, it’s ok to greet someone. To say “hi.” Not to say “Hi, beautiful,” or “Hi, Mami.” Just “Hi.”
4. If the “Hi” is reciprocated, then and only then is it remotely acceptable to say anything else. And that anything else probably shouldn’t include a comment having anything to do with a person’s body until a flirty conversation is well underway.
What do you think? Did I get it right?
I was discussing the video last week with an old friend, a woman whose boyfriend is resolutely confused by women’s objecting to catcalls. My friend told me of the evolution of her thinking on this subject. When she was younger, less secure in herself, in her body, she felt violated by even the most innocent, “Hi.” Today, she says, she appreciates appreciations that she experiences as being respectful – “Hi, beautiful,” for example. They feed her ego, they “put a bounce in my step,” she says.
But she’s not universal. There are many who are more like her younger self. For this reason, it seems to me the most respectful, decent thing I can do, as a man in the presence of an attractive woman is, at most, to admire her visually, respectfully, not leeringly, and to smile. If a conversation starts organically, so be it.
That’s what I do.