"Yes, some things are blatantly offensive," my friend Jay typed over Gchat, referring to the recent street harassment video that went viral this past week. "But sometimes, the dudes just say hi," he continued. "Unless I'm missing a nuance."
"You are," I said quickly. And then I stared at my computer, at a loss for how to explain to a male non-New Yorker exactly why 'Hi!' doesn't mean 'Hi!' in certain situations to a female New Yorker.
I had run into a similar challenge a few days earlier when a Facebook friend of mine -- again, male and not living in NYC -- shared the same video and questioned why "courtesy comments" like 'Have a nice evening!' were included as offensive.
They both went on to express concern that deeming such "benign" comments as harassment would have a chilling effect on people being friendly in public and unfairly stigmatize men genuinely "approaching" women they are interested in. In fact, Jay met his now-fiancée after striking up a conversation with her while she was lost in an airport. Was this considered harassment? Was it disrespectful to approach her?
"That's totally different!" I declared, while struggling to articulate exactly how.
These conversations helped me realize that many smart, earnest men -- and women -- lack the framework for situating street harassment in a larger social landscape and appreciating the implications of comments that seem benign, but only to those unfamiliar with the culture and rhythms of life in a city. Because in this case, context matters. Context is everything.
Welcome to New York City, home to 8 million people, all of whom seem to be walking somewhere or taking public transit at exactly the same time you are. Generally speaking, people don't drive here. Driving is either an absolute necessity ("I have to get from Brooklyn to the Bronx in 40 minutes!") or a luxury ("I pay $900 a month for private parking I can drive out to the Hamptons every weekend.").
This is a pedestrian city. Every sidewalk has dozens if not hundreds of people marching up and down it, because they have to. In the suburbs, you choose to be on a public sidewalk for leisure; we here have to be for life. To get to work, to get to school, to get to the subway, to get to the grocery store, to get home... If you are walking on the street in the city, you are busy.
Our bodies are our vehicles in the city, and as such we respect the commutes and routes of other New Yorkers, because we all have shit to do. If we said hello to everyone we passed, we'd be hoarse by noon. You can't be "friendly" to all 75 people on all 10 blocks between your apartment and the subway. You don't talk to a stranger on the street unless you're a) a lost tourist, b) a crazy person, or c) trying to sell someone crappy comedy tickets. New Yorkers don't talk to strangers on the street, just like suburbanites don't talk to other people in cars.
So then imagine, for a moment, driving down the street in your car on your way to work. There's traffic. You're late. You're drinking coffee. You're listening to the radio. And all of a sudden, a stranger in another car passing you or parked on the side of the street yells through your window, "Have a nice evening!"
That'd be weird, right? That's not a typical way someone expresses friendliness in the suburbs, so it must mean something else. There are dozens of other cars around, but the drive-by greeter didn't say anything to the car in front of you or the car behind you... Just you.
Now imagine that happens multiple times a day.
Now imagine the only drivers who call out to you are male.
Now imagine this only happens to you if you're a woman.
Now imagine this only happens to a woman without a male passenger in her car.
Now imagine that in addition to these "courtesy comments," the only other men who shout from their car to yours say things like "Hey, sexy." and "Oooh, show me a smile to go with those pretty titties."
You might start to think, and rightly so, that the men who are singling out your car, even to say "God bless you!" and not "Nice ass!" are not simply being courteous, because that's not what's courteous in New York -- it's atypical and conspicuous.
The men who call out to you know you're not out driving around for no reason -- you have somewhere to be and sometimes they do too, and you're not going to stop and chat. So they're not genuinely "interested" in you. They're not trying to "approach" you and strike up conversation. And they're not simply being "friendly," because they don't say it to all the other cars that are passing, and they don't say it when you're in the car with your boyfriend. Because they respect your commute when it's also another man's commute.
"Have a nice evening" is not the beginning of a conversation. It is not neighbors saying hi while they're both out walking their dogs. It is not someone buying you a drink. It's not someone striking up a conversation in a café. It is not someone tapping your shoulder at an airport and saying, "You look lost."
"Have a nice evening" on the streets of New York is not an interaction -- it's a one-sided message from a man to a woman. And the message, loud and clear to the woman on the receiving end is: "I'm sexualizing you."
This is street harassment...in New York. In the suburb of Pittsburgh where I grew up, if I pass a person walking on the street, a "courtesy comment" is customary. It's just not that way here. The context informs the comment, and context matters.