So by now we have all seen the article and the video that’s gone viral of the woman walking around New York for 10 hours trying to increase awareness and prove a point about street sexual harassment. The video has garnered a firestorm of comments from men and women, community groups, media personalities, celebrities, victims’ advocates and community members as large. The barrage of support and criticism surrounding the video left me questioning at what point does hello become sexual harassment?
While message and intentions behind the video are definitely awesome and well-intended, it certainly points out that there is undeniably a fine line between a cordial greeting or compliment and an inappropriate comment with the sexual under tone that makes a woman or man feel uncomfortable and/ or like they are being harassed.
This blurred line between hello and harassment poses a very challenging question, one for which there is not an easy answer to or a quick fix. One of the challenges is that the definition of sexual harassment may vary from person to person, which makes it even more difficult to define. Nevertheless it is a concern that we must address in order to evoke individual, community, and societal change. As a society we must begin to create a culture of healthy sexuality that does not tolerate or condone sexual violence of any kind.
Another challenge is that sex sells everything! We as a society have become so bombarded with sexual images on a daily basis that a seemingly innocent hello, friendly greeting or compliment in passing is misconstrued as an ill-intended attempt to harass. While it is important to be aware and informed, we have to be extremely careful not to over analyze someone’s hello and immediately toss it into the harassment category because it diminishes the severity of sexual harassment. This creates a problem for those who are truly being harassed sexually. Not only does the allegation get minimized but it also gets handled inappropriately and as a result the victim continues to be re-victimized.
Sexual harassment, no matter the race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion or political affiliation, ability, disability, socioeconomic status, etc. affects us all! It is a community wide concern that has the potential to leave last effects on the individual, family and the community. Sexual harassment has mental, emotional, verbal, sometimes physical, spiritual, economical and legal implications. We still must be very conscientious about how we do and do not define it. And although our perceptions of sexual harassment may be individualize, there are still some defining elements of sexual harassment and that’s where the crucial distinction lies. To define it only as an experience in which an individual” perceive” the unintended greeting as an intentional act or violation of one’s personal being can have serious implications and impact on a person’s life. Herein lies the reason for much needed conversation around this issue.
The conversation should not focus so much on who is being harassed but rather how do we address it as a community so that everyone feels safe. We spend so much time finger pointing and blaming each other; that while we are playing the blame game the problem still continues. We need to come up with effective comprehensive, skills based programs on how to increase awareness and educate. Such programs would include: looking at how we define harassment, how the intersectionality of gender, orientation, politics, culture, race, religion, etc. plays a role in harassment, how do we prevent it, increasing accountability and responsibility, laws around harassment, etc. It would also include looking at how we as a society have become so desensitize to not only harassment but all forms of violence.
The conversation should also consider the question: what could happen if we get to a point where a hello become sexual harassment. What kind of society will we be? We will be a society that is alone and lacking the human companionship that we need to sustain and maintain relationships because will be afraid to say hello. So it is very important that we begin to define and have conversations around what sexual harassment is and is not. We must teach young men and women the proper ways to engage in relationships or to engage in casual conversations without fear of being harassed or accused of harassment.
At the end of the day, we have become a society that sometimes over looks, condones and in some ways promote sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and other forms of violence that we have become so desensitized; which is a double edge sword. On one end, because we are oversexualized we think that it’s ok to be overtly sexual. And the other end, because we are oversexualized we expect there to be a sexual undertone in anything that someone says or does.
Finally, I leave you with this thought, how much accountability do we have in perceiving the hello as harassment? Just because we’re having a bad day, just because we’ve gotten into a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend or just because we’ve had a bad encounter with someone, we cannot make the assumption that the next person who greets us is harassing us. Let’s consider the fact that they may truly just want to acknowledge our presence, compliment us, make us smile or just simply say hello.