Let’s talk about street harassment in the North

A video went viral this week of a woman facing dozens of catcalls as she walks through New York's streets. Whitehorse writer Eva Holland says it's a problem in our small northern cities too.

The kind of catcalls caught on camera in New York City don't just happen in the South

You may have seen the video that went viral this week. In it, a young woman walks the streets of New York, silently, facing a camera hidden in a backpack on a man walking ahead of her. She walked for ten hours, and the video compiles more than 100 catcalls and approaches from men that she received during that time. (Apparently, there were many more, made inaudible by passing sirens or other street noise.) They call her beautiful, they ask for her number, they tell her to smile. Sometimes they berate her for not answering them. A few times, they follow her down the street, demanding that she acknowledge them.

This is street harassment, and it’s not confined to New York City. It’s a problem in our small northern cities, too.

I live in downtown Whitehorse, and I walk almost everywhere I go. I love that I don’t have to fire up my car at -40 C every time I need a carton of milk, but there’s a downside, too: I get exposed to a lot more harassment than some of my friends who pass through the city’s core in cars or on bikes. It’s bad here – worse than anywhere else I’ve lived in Canada. And during the weeks I’ve spent in Yellowknife for work, I’ve found the N.W.T.’s capital to be as bad or maybe even worse again.

“What’s the problem?” You might ask. “They’re just saying hello. They’re just asking how you’re doing. They’re just being polite.”

The problem is this: too often, it’s not just a friendly hello. A woman can tell the difference between a neighbourly greeting and something more unnerving — to paraphrase the famous words of an American Supreme Court justice defining pornography, we know it when we see it. What we don’t know, each time it happens, is what will happen next. If I don’t answer, will he be upset? Will he call me names, will he grab my arm, will he confront me or follow me — as more than one man does in the video? And if I do answer him, will he expect me to stop and answer more questions? How many will I have to answer before I can get away without consequences?

Just the act of walking down the street can mean weighing a half-dozen or more hypotheticals, trying to figure out the safest path. (And if you think I’m being dramatic, watch that video again.) Each encounter adds up over time, and it’s exhausting. It shouldn’t have to be like this. Women don’t owe anyone a smile, or a response to questions launched by a stranger on the street. Our time and attention are our own — they don’t belong to anybody else.

Of course, street harassment in the North is just one small thread in our complex tangle of social issues: alcohol, drugs, cycles of abuse and violence. (Most often, I get approached when I’m passing by the liquor store, or an off-sales outlet, or the Salvation Army shelter.) But it’s one that’s rarely discussed or acknowledged. It’s real, and it does real harm.

It’s a tricky problem to tackle, but talking about it is a first step. Teaching our young people — boys and girls — about boundaries, about respecting each other’s space, is a good start too. If we can reduce the amount of harassment on northern streets, that would make me smile.

Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Whitehorse. You can find her on Twitter @evaholland.