Over 32 million people have viewed a video posted on YouTube last week that shows the catcalls and comments that one woman received when she walked around New York City while being videotaped from a camera hidden in a colleague’s backpack. In the period of ten hours, the woman – who was dressed in jeans and a crewneck and who didn’t speak or make eye contact with passersby – nonetheless received over 100 comments, most along the lines of: “hey Beautiful!” “Hey baby!” and other allusions to her appearance and sexuality. The “compliments” often turned to anger when she didn’t respond or failed to acknowledge the men making the catcalls.
The video has sparked a debate about street harassment, which has been described as bullying, violence, or harmless flirting, depending on who you ask. To me, street harassment is a form of sexual harassment – one that unlike sexual harassment on the job or at school, is not covered by any civil rights laws.
Whether or not street harassment should be illegal is an interesting issue and one that Hollaback!, the organization that put out the video, is championing. But whether or not street harassment laws change as a result of Hollaback!’s efforts, one important take-away from this debate is that many women experience sexual objectification on a daily basis, and surely bring those experiences with them into the work world. As a sexual harassment lawyer, I see every day how women’s personal experience with sexual objectification and sexual violence can have ramifications for how they encounter and respond to workplace sexual harassment.
For example, under current law sexual harassment is only illegal when the woman can prove that it is “unwelcome.” Moreover, even where it’s clearly unwelcome, employers are only liable when an employee puts the employer on notice (i.e., complains) about the harassment.
The problem with these requirements is that many women learn and internalize early that the safest way to deal with harassment is to keep your head down and say nothing; that engaging with the harasser or drawing attention to him is dangerous for her. The woman in the video – who was clearly just trying to go about her business – dealt with the comments by saying nothing and ignoring them. In the workplace setting however, responding that way could be fatal to a woman’s ability to successfully bring a sex harassment claim. That’s not right. Employment laws and the judges who interpret them must recognize the reality of women’s lives when deciding whether conduct is unwelcome and whether a victim must file a formal complaint in order to hold employers accountable for a sexually hostile environment.
Street harassment is sexual harassment. And whether at work or walking home from work, women shouldn’t have to put their safety or their employment in jeopardy for our laws to address it.