By now, you've probably seen the video of a woman receiving scores of catcalls (108, to be exact) as she walks through New York City.
The video was the brainchild of Rob Bliss, who runs his own viral video marketing agency. Bliss partnered with Hollaback, an advocacy group dedicated to ending street harassment.
Shoshana Roberts, a 24-year-old actress, saw a casting call on Craigslist and allowed Bliss to record her walking through various neighborhoods in New York City over the course of 10 hours. Roberts remains straight-faced in the video as male strangers greet her, comment on her personal appearance and, in some cases, follow her for several minutes.
It's uncomfortable to watch and, as Roberts tells it, it was uncomfortable — even traumatizing at times — to film.
On YouTube, the video has been viewed more than a million times. A look at the 28,000-plus comments there, and on various social networking sites, offers a glimpse into the robust — and often troubling — debate around street harassment.
Among the more common threads are whether some of the more innocuous comments (variations of "Hello," "Good morning" or "Hi beautiful") constitute harassment. There's also been conversation around the race and ethnicity of the men in the video, with some questioning why there were almost no white men shown harassing Roberts.
The video notes that "100+ instances of verbal street harassment took place within 10 hours, involving people of all backgrounds. This doesn't include the countless winks, whistles, etc." — a sentiment echoed on Hollaback's blog. Hollaback issued a statement Thursday about reaction to the video, saying in part "we regret the unintended racial bias in the editing of the video that over represents men of color."
Reached by phone, Roberts, Bliss and Hollaback's co-founder/executive director Emily May talked about making the video and the reaction it's received across the Internet. The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited slightly for clarity.
Rob Bliss: As a guy who makes viral videos for a living, I was looking at this issue and I realized that no one had ever truly captured what street harassment looks like. No one had ever really given the world an ability to, just in broad daylight — without bias or judgment or messaging or anything like that — just be able to watch street harassment take place in the real world. And that was something that I felt needed to be out there. People needed to be able to see it happen in the real world, so that perhaps we can raise awareness about this issue and show people that, you know, there's something wrong with this.
Emily May: We wanted to really show that, yes, if one of these comments happened once every year then street harassment might not be as traumatizing, but look, this stuff is happening day in and day out. You can't even make it down the street to go to school or go to work without a barrage of comments about you and your body made as you walk down the street.
Bliss: I wore a GoPro camera on a chest mount, which I wore backwards on my back. I cut a little hole in my T-shirt for the camera lens to see through. And I dressed up to distract from that. I wore a bright yellow backpack under the camera to distract the eyes. I acted like I was going to the gym because I had ear buds in, sunglasses on, gym shorts, so I looked completely uninvolved from Shoshana.
Roberts: We walked in a lot of neighborhoods. We'd hop on the subway, head to another neighborhood. Midtown, Soho, Harlem, Brooklyn Bridge, South Ferry area. We went just a tad into Queens. The two-minute video couldn't show all that we did. There was a lot of ground we covered.
The video notes that Roberts was wearing "jeans and a crewneck t-shirt."
Roberts: [Bliss] just wanted to make sure that it was something that helps debunk the myth that what you're wearing matters. It doesn't matter what you wear — it happens regardless. I've been on my way to a religious function in what you would call modest dress, no skin showing, no extremely fitted clothing, and I had just as many catcalls as was shown in that video.
May: That was super intentional. So often when you see any kind of depiction of sexual violence, people come out of the woodwork and they say "Well she deserved it — look what she was wearing, look what she was doing, look what time of day it was." And so we really wanted to control for all those factors and say, look, it doesn't matter what she's wearing, it doesn't matter what time of day it is, street harassment still happens.
Roberts: I felt like crying and I have occurrences in my past of sexual assault, so I wasn't even aware necessarily of all the times people were saying things to me. I was just going over in my head and reliving, unfortunately, these memories while I was walking. I wanted to break down in tears.
Bliss: I was not in any way involved with what happened. Street harassment happens all the time with people all around who don't even notice that it's going on. It's something that, a lot of times, you will miss or not pay attention to, whether it's the street noise, sirens, whatever it is, drowning out the sound. It's very much so, often times, a one-on-one thing that you can very easily miss. Even myself, knowing that this is what we were going out for, I missed — I would say — 80 percent of it, at least.
Roberts: I'm pretty sure I cried that night. I put on music. I took deep breaths. I hugged my boyfriend. I called my mom — I think that was right after the video. I called my mom just so I could hear that she loves me and that I was putting myself forward as a face for this cause because it's something I really believe in and I needed to hear that she was proud of me, which she is.
Bliss: I was pretty surprised. It was just messed up on so many levels. Especially the stalking. I didn't even think that that was going to happen or know that that was something that would happen repeatedly. That was something that I was not prepared for at all.
May: Nobody asks to be told all that stuff about what they look like. And I think that street harassment really ruins it for the nice guys. I think that all of us really want to live in a world where we can say "good morning" and "you look great today" to our neighbors without fear that those comments are going to escalate into something more severe. But as long as street harassment is as persistent and pervasive as it is, you know, most women — they hear stuff like that and they're braced for it to get worse.
Roberts: Granted, the words themselves — if you wrote those words down, you wouldn't necessarily think of them as harassment. But it's the intention and the intonation of their voice. It changes everything. I'm normally walking around with pretty open body language, but I have to censor myself. I don't feel like I have the right to be safe at this point. I'm constantly reminding myself not to be so friendly to people because I'm scared of more occurrences of sexual assault.
Bliss: So many men just don't understand this issue and a lot of men have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of women in these situations. For them, they see one instance of it happening. They have their own personal experience of one time and they say "hey baby" and that's it. But what they never see is all the other guys that are doing the exact same thing and none of them get to experience what that collective weight feels like to have that happen day in, day out — being judged and talked about by complete strangers about your hair, how you look, how you're dressed and just being objectified like that day in, day out.
Following the video's release, Roberts has received a number of online threats.
Bliss: I'm getting some blowback, but not nearly as bad as Shoshana. Right now she's getting a lot of threats and things like that and it's just so sad. It's like the video is now being echoed in real life.
May: It's hitting a nerve. Certainly, people are coming out of the woodwork and saying some really offensive and misogynist things. We've had a number of rape threats and violent threats against Shoshana and we're pulling those down as quickly as possible, but they exist. That's scary and I think what they're trying to do is scare her and scare us into not speaking out about this. And both of us are saying no, we need to talk about this because if we don't talk about this, if we don't get this story out, then none of this is going to change.
Roberts: The majority [of feedback] is positive. And that's what matters to me — that the "thank yous" are the loudest. There are so many people who say "thank you, this happens to me and you are letting the world know." I can only share my story, but this story is the same for so many people.
May: We've gotten a number of people just saying "thank God that you did this." I think people who experience street harassment say, "Yep, this is what my life looks like." And this video for them is not a shocker — this is just what their day-to-day looks like. But they're grateful that it exists because it reminds them that they're not alone and they're not the only one who is going through this. And then I think, for people who don't necessarily experience street harassment, it's really eye-opening. You can't watch this and not have empathy for what Shoshana's going through.