Commentary Violence

Street Harassment Signals a Bigger, Global Problem: What That Catcalling Video Missed

Tanya Steele

The same culture that allows men to catcall, without restriction, on the street, allows men to stalk and invade the personal space of women and threaten us without penalty.

A recent video of actress Shoshana Roberts walking through the streets of New York City experiencing street harassment has taken the Internet by storm. I have long admired women who document street harassment, including Tatyana Fazlailizdeh, one of many women who has tackled street harassment through art activism. But I wasn’t particularly moved by Roberts’ video. To me, it failed to capture how street harassment is just one part of a continuous cycle of violence against women that has become acceptable in our society, and not just an experience of one isolated woman.

Just so we’re clear, white men harass women on the streets too (despite what you might think after watching Roberts’ video, which primarily features Black and Latino catcallers). As a frequent traveler overseas, trust me when I say this is a global problem. Because, you see, violence against women is a global problem. Street harassment is merely a symptom of the larger problem of violence against women, and many of those acts go unseen. An experience I had in Florence, Italy, made this abundantly clear.

I love Florence—the food, the art, the generosity of spirit and zest for life that many Italians have is unmatched. The quality of life, the care for family, and the preservation of art I observed while there felt utopian. That said, Italy has another aspect to it.

The first time I went, I had never in my life experienced such vocal and consistent admiration from men. I would walk the streets of Florence and hear catcalls from every direction. “Bella! Bella!” “Wow!” Men, even police officers walking by or from their cars would shout out “Bella.” The attention was alarming. On one hand, it felt ingratiating as the men did not violate my physical space. On the other hand, it felt intrusive because it was pervasive. And as I became more familiar with the overall culture of Italy, I began to understand how the catcalls were a harbinger for larger acts of violence in the culture.

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At that time, I lived in an apartment that was right next to the Accademia Gallery. I had an American neighbor in the building, and while I was there some time before I interacted with her, when we did, our friendship was immediate.

After hanging with her for a bit, I soon learned that she was being stalked by a man, an immigrant from Croatia she had been dating. When he became verbally abusive to her, she broke it off. She began to distance herself, not taking his calls, and taking different routes to school so he couldn’t easily find her.

On a routine visit to a shop next to my apartment, I conversed with an older Italian gentleman who was the watchdog of the block. He informed me that someone fitting the description my neighbor had given me would sit and watch our building from across the street. As a former counselor to battered women, I knew where this could go. Women have died under similar circumstances, and it appeared his behavior had been escalating for some time.

I encouraged my American neighbor to go with me to the police. Now, this is where my desire to live in Florence began to fade. We went to the police department to report this stalker. My neighbor told her story, and we waited. There was no protocol, no plan; there was nothing within the police manifesto that dealt with stalking. We were told to walk to the other side of the city to a precinct where they would take our report. We did. We waited for a long time before we were seen. When we were seen, a police officer took our report. As my neighbor trembled and recounted her story, the officer began flirting with me. After he wrote down her story, he then wrote his number on a piece of paper and asked me to call him. He spent more time trying to get my attention than trying to protect my neighbor. We were told that something would be done. What that was, we had no idea.

It was becoming clear that the same culture that allowed men to catcall, without restriction, on the street, allowed men to stalk and invade the personal space of women and threaten us without penalty.

We returned home that night and could not enter the building because it seemed someone had tampered with the lock on the door. We had to call the fire department to let us in. That night, my neighbor decided to sleep in the living room of my apartment. Our love of Florence and feeling of safety was diminishing. The next morning, I opened the shutters to look at my beautiful view of the Accademia. Across the street, beneath my window, was the stalker staring up at me. He saw that I saw him, tossed his cigarette, and fled. We reported this to the police. Again, we were not told what, if anything, would happen. We were not told what steps would be taken to protect my neighbor.

I began to research domestic violence hotlines and shelters in Florence and found that domestic violence was rampant, with very few outlets for women.

According to a 2012 United Nations report, domestic abuse against women is the “most pervasive form of violence” in Italy. And as a 2013 New York Times article explained, more than 30 percent of Italian women between the ages of 16 and 70 reportedly have experienced domestic abuse, and “more than 90 percent of the Italian women who were raped or abused did not report it to the police.” The culture, from what I can tell, is male-dominated and patriarchal, and the Italian government is only now beginning to address the rampant violence in the country.

That night, my neighbor decided she would fly back to the States the following morning. I had a male friend, who understood the culture of violence in Italy and who was invested in our safety, stay in the apartment with us. My neighbor left. I stayed one or two more days until I could secure an apartment in Paris, where I have a loving and supportive community. My male friend stayed with me every night until I departed.

I cannot describe the fear that had overtaken our lives. We, as Americans, felt secure that there would be a remedy or action taken to protect us from the stalker. But nothing happened. Not a thing. With this, I knew as a woman it would not be safe for me to live in Florence, the place I loved.

If men are able to harass and catcall you in broad daylight, it hints at a larger issue. What I thought were simple expressions of adoration, I soon understood as a pathology in the culture, and not just in Italian culture, but in the United States as well. The catcall signals that men believe a woman’s body is there to satisfy their needs. This is demonstrated in different aspects of men’s interactions with women. The evidence is seen in violence against women in media, pay inequity, how women are asked to “present” themselves or “perform” in culture. Our role, even when simply walking down the street, going about our daily activities, is to satisfy the male gaze, accommodate male desire, and accept our station as body parts rather than a full human being.

This is why I am a feminist. Equality of the sexes also means women have the right to feel safe when walking down a street, anywhere in the world, without being objectified by men. It is equally important that women feel safe in our homes, offices, schools, and in every aspect of our lives. All of the violence we face is on a continuum. As women, we must get that, I mean really get that, so that our struggle to end violence against women is universal and strong.

Imagine if the director of the Shoshana Roberts video simply put a camera on a street corner in Harlem and captured the experience of Black women in Harlem, to see what street harassment is like for them. Or placed the same camera in different parts of the city, giving us a more representative cross-section of women who experience street harassment, and men who harass. That would have been powerful.

That was a major issue for me with this video. In our activism, we must link experiences and connect how the violence we experience is ubiquitous and not isolated.

My concern about domestic violence in Italy is now important to my activism. We are our sister’s keeper.

For weeks after the incident in Florence, my former neighbor and I exchanged emails, checking in to make sure the other was safe.

The culture of violence against women, around the globe, must change. That’s why feminists do the work we do. We are sounding the alarm for women who don’t get to walk through life with a camera focused on them.

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