Confessions and revelations from a Southern transplant who's accustomed to driving most places.
Watching the viral Hollaback video posted late last month of a woman receiving unsolicited and unwelcome greetings, attention, and crass comments while navigating New York City on foot, I have to admit that I didn’t immediately understand the outrage. I certainly recognized it, as a woman who has gotten the same type of attention walking down the street. But I’d never been offended by it in the same way.
Did that make me a traitor to my gender, I wondered? Were the 36 million people (and counting) who watched the video seeing something I wasn’t?
But then, I realized: Where this happened actually matters.
I live in Washington, D.C., but I’m originally from Atlanta. In the South, men regularly speak to women when we are on the street (read: walking to or from our cars), and we often speak back. A lot of times, that’s where it ends.
As a Southerner, I enjoy passersby greeting me with a smile and a hello. I’m actually more offended when this doesn’t happen; in fact, I’m often the one initiating contact with all kinds of people on the street. (Admittedly, I’m less friendly during the winter, when my manners are typically limited to a wave at the stoplight from the comfort of my heated vehicle.)
These exchanges happen less often now that I've left Atlanta, and I can’t say that doesn’t bother me.
Lest you think this is headed for a conversation about “whose harassment is worse,” I’m not interested in that argument.
Clearly, the woman in this video is not being met with simple “friendly greetings.” As a friend put it to me when we discussed the difference: It’s when a person demands that you give them attention that it feels like harassment.
I’ve never lived in New York City. There is, perhaps, no more crowded pedestrian terrain than the streets of New York. Curbed garbage aside, the city’s sidewalks are a gauntlet of humanity.
In New York, I imagine the only prospect more daunting than getting past all these people on two legs is, well, driving.
Atlantans have long accepted driving most places as a way of life. Rare is the Southern woman who has spent 10 hours walking anywhere, to do anything.
This dichotomy is important. According to the most recent American Community Survey data from the Census, 70 percent of working women in Atlanta drive alone to work. Less than 10 percent take public transit to work, and only 3.4 percent walk to work.
Translation: It’s hard to be street-harassed from your car. Catcalls are just harder to hear at 45 miles per hour, even if your windows are down.
In New York, those numbers are starkly different. The same data shows that less than 18 percent of working women there drive alone to work. More than 60 percent take public transit, and 10 percent walk.
If women in New York are on public transit six times more often than women in Atlanta, and are more than twice as likely to walk to work, it stands to reason they're facing a lot more street harassment.
By the way, more than 40 percent of Washington, D.C. women take public transportation to the office, and only about a third drive alone to work.
Even though I now live in a city with a real public transit system, I can’t say that I take the train or bus often for work, to meet friends or to run errands. I’m pretty sure that if I did, these things might happen to me with more frequency.
Call it a holdover of my Southern roots, but if it’s out of my immediate neighborhood, I’m still tethered to my car for most things out of habit.
Now, I’ve seen and had harassment encounters on the streets of Atlanta, when suspicions of approaching uncouth behavior are quickly confirmed by a string of rapid-fire insults and expletives rained upon women who dare to ignore the offender.
I’m not condoning this, but some Southern women I know would chalk these incidents up to little more than urban mischief. The idea of harassment may hardly occur to them because it hardly occurs for them.
If this was something I had to think about every time I stepped outside of my apartment, I would surely be more bothered by it.
Now, an overly chatty Uber driver? That’s a totally different story.