When Catcalling Video Goes Viral, a Violent Internet Backlash Ensues

After appearing in an anti–street harassment video, this woman received rape threats from online commenters.

(Photo: YouTube)

Oct 29, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

On Tuesday, the Internet exploded when the anti–street harassment organization Hollaback! posted a video of a woman named Shoshana B. Roberts walking through New York City and being catcalled by men 108 times over 10 hours.

Comments on the streets ranged from overtly sexual (one man shouted, “Damn!” as Roberts walked by) to comparatively polite (several strangers asked, “How are you this morning?”). Others were downright creepy, like the guy who walked right next to Roberts for four minutes without saying a thing.

Because it wouldn’t be the Internet if there weren’t men ready and willing to threaten violence against any woman who dares criticize sexist behavior, the video, which has gotten nearly 8 million YouTube views since it was published yesterday, has elicited a wide array of responses online including rape threats from some commenters.

While many people were surprised at the intensity of Robers' experiences, others criticized the video as overly simplistic and racist. Many men took to social media cliaming they were shocked by the extent and the intensity of the street harassment.

People also argued that Roberts was just out to make the guys giving her “attention” look bad.

John Herrman at The Awl pointed out that the video is “a neat portrayal of what it is like to be a woman talking about gender on the mainstream Internet.” After #Gamergate-related death threats led one journalist to cancel a talk at a Utah university and forced another woman out of her home, it’s clear that women speaking up publicly against sexism often receive vitriol and aggression in response.

But is everything Roberts experienced during the course of this day actually an act of harassment? In the aggregate, it seems exhausting and chronic, but Ayesha Siddiqi of The New Inquiry tweeted that a lot of what was happening looked like regular old casual conversation.

In some cases, Siddiqi suggested that racist attitudes toward black and Latino men could explain why saying “hello” is seen as an act of harassment.

On its website, Hollaback! addresses whether the harassment depicted is “cultural.” “This video only captures verbal harassment, and Rob and Shoshana can attest to the harassment overall falling evenly along race and class lines,” it writes. “While filming, Shoshana noted, ‘I’m harassed when I smile, and I’m harassed when I don’t. I’m harassed by white men, black men, Latino men. Not a day goes by when I don’t experience this.’ ”

Regardless of who made comments when Roberts happened to be walking down the street in NYC, harassment happens to most women. Really. For certain.

It happens on Wall Street, the Upper West Side, the South Bronx, and even, as this woman in The Daily Show segment on street harassment said, “one of those sight-seeing cruises.”