A place for new ideas to settle.

30 October 2014

Statistics, women, and dangerous things

Follow-up to: Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear, pt. 1; Adventures in bad statistics, Big Gay edition


So there's a video going around. A woman dresses pretty generically—jeans, a black crew-neck shirt—and walks around New York City... and experiences "over 100" instances of street harassment in 10 hours over a few days.

I have a few problems with this methodology. On the one hand, it's great that people are documenting this sort of everyday experience: one's personal life history doesn't translate well over the Internet, so any little bit helps. On the other hand...

The big problem is with the editing. Out of nine major online media sites who reported this—CNN, USA Today, Business Insider, New York Post, Vox, Slate, Huffington Post, Salon, and Jezebel—none of them caught this on the first go around. Then Slate and Salon realized something was up: it's almost all black and Latino men.


The Jezebel writer had this commentary instead:
A few weeks ago I was at a flea market in Los Angeles. As I was buying something from a vendor, I hear a male voice saying: "Hey beautiful" over and over. The vendor I was buying from said, "I think he's talking to you."

I quickly snapped: "My name isn't fucking beautiful." The man who had yelled at me came closer and said: "I just wanted to let you know that I think you're beautiful." I said: "I don't give a fuck what you think."

A few minutes later that same man approached me to apologize. He said he wasn't trying to holler at or bother me, (lies) but just wanted to give me a compliment. I told him that my self-esteem is not dependent upon the affirmation of strangers and he should stop doing that shit to me and other women. To his credit, he was very polite and said he's trying to grow and be a better person. I truly hope that he meant that because having just one man recognize how degrading it is to do that to women is necessary.

Because this? What we see in this video—a woman unable to simply move through a single day of her life without verbal harassment? This shit has got to stop.
In the context of a video with a conspicuous demographic and socioeconomic bias... considering that the writer is probably decently well-off...

Double yikes.

In the follow-up piece on Slate, Hanna Rosin relayed the following from Robert Bliss, owner of the marketing firm that produced the video in collaboration with anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback:
He wrote, “we got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera” or was ruined by a siren or other noise. The final product, he writes, “is not a perfect representation of everything that happened.” That may be true but if you find yourself editing out all the catcalling white guys, maybe you should try another take.
Moreover, a good chunk of the stuff in the video was also "in passing" or "off camera" (definitely a few where I couldn't tell where it was coming from) so...

Yikes again.

Then, of course, there's the message at the end of the video: If you want to help, please donate to Hollaback! a non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment.

So... how exactly does one end street harassment?


The first step in solving any problem, so the engineers say, is to locate the problem. And for that we need some statistics, not on how many times women get harassed, but who harasses the women.

For an extreme analogy, imagine that someone with a hidden GoPro and a lot of ignorance (as we do seem to have about catcalls) walked in front of a Jewish person for 10 hours... in 1936 Berlin. One might notice quite a bit of harassment from non-Jewish people.

So is the conclusion "Jews are the victims of harassment by Gentiles?" only if you don't do enough research.

Back at Slate, Rosin points us to a Daily Show piece on street harassment, which she says does a better job at covering the full demographic range:
A really good video about catcalling actually already exists. In Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere, Jessica Williams of the Daily Show covers the whole range of street harassment, from construction workers (of all races) to security guards to Wall Street “douche bags” to teenagers hanging on the corner. She and a group of women lay down pins on places in New York to avoid and by the end, the entire map is covered. There are race and class issues latent in her video, too. She is black, and the women she gathers for her discussion group are all races. But you don’t leave with that icky impression of a white woman under assault by the big bad city. Plus, she has the group demonstrate the armor they wear while walking down the street, which turns into a glorious mosaic of bitch face.
Except that the video doesn't exactly cover the whole range of street harassment: the Wall Street douchebags and teenagers on the corner and creepy old men playing chess in the park are all depicted but not actually heard. That's not to say it's not possible but the end result is the same: we only witness the act of harassment when it's coming from a fat security guard (low-income job) or black or Latino construction workers (low-income, minority)... and yet the problem is "all men."

If one could somehow become difference-blind to everything except gender, and re-watch the video carefully, one could count the numbers of male passers-by who said nothing to the woman. Then considering that these are 2 minutes out of 600, extrapolating to the average density of a Manhattan sidewalk... the proportion of catcallers is probably very low. Pithily: #NotAllMen are catcallers. Maybe 1% of men, to reference another NYC-based social justice movement, and that's being scary-generous.

Except it's not just #NotAllMen, and not just one percent of men. it seems to be #VerySpecificKindsOfMen: desperate men of a "lower sort." Or nouveau-riche overentitled human turds. Put another way: there are some men (1 out of every 100, say) who think it's a perfectly valid thing to call out at a woman that she should smile more, or that she should get his number, or whatever. But there are also men who don't do this. Who never do this.

Who never do this. Ever.

I think it's vitally important to figure out the difference.


We're told that men are taught that it's fine and manly to call out whatever they want to women passing by. I accept that; but I was never taught that. Yet I was never taught "don't call out at women," it wasn't even a reflex or easy trap to fall into. If anything my parents just taught me "don't talk to strangers."

It also wasn't something I passively picked up. I knew what catcalling was, of course; but even in Tex Avery cartoons—not all that progressive, I mean blackface galore—catcallers and wolf-whistlers seemed like obvious sleazeballs. There's a reason that the prototypical catcaller (not just in my mind but in popular depictions) is a blue-collar working stiff, often a construction worker (WARNING: TVTropes link):
Parodied in Psychonauts; one Paper-Thin Disguise used by the G-Men of the Milkman Conspiracy level is that of a construction worker and he says, "Look at that woman's breasts. They are enormous."
Seriously, the Milkman Conspiracy level of Psychonauts is just wall-to-wall hilarious. Along with, you know, the rest of the game. It's on Steam now, you have no excuse.

Okay, so that's my experience and a bit of my gaming preferences. I know it doesn't generalize well but then again I don't think I'm magically in a Very Special Category of guys who naturally just don't bother catcalling: I have never experienced a member of my social group, anywhere, catcalling anyone. The times I've witnessed catcalling as a third-party, well, it was the "lower sort" of guy doing it.

Even the director of the video agrees that it's a small minority of #AllMen doing the actual catcalling, but of course you don't need a big proportion to ruin a woman's day. (In fact we would expect it to be only a small proportion of men, otherwise it'd be way harder to deny.)

So just why do #JustTheseMen catcall? (I promise I'll stop with the hashtags now.) I think culture is it; but it's not as easy as saying "society teaches men that this is okay." And it's not just one culture. There are multiple avenues to an environment where catcalling is okay; for example:

Culture 1. Manosphere entitlement. This is PUA / Wall Street douchebag culture (though it might have overlap with the next culture below), and the most individualistic. An entitled d-bag (red pill optional) is taking a shotgun approach to picking up women, and legitimately things he deserves their attention. This is the attitude most often attributed to all catcallers by the likes of Jezebel, which coming from mostly upper-middle-class college educated women unfortunately has the side-effect of making more lower-income catcallers look, ah, "uppity." The solution here probably is someone giving them a verbal slap in the face.

Culture 2. "Macho" culture. This is more obvious in other countries (Italy, Spain, Latin America...) but it's not necessarily unique to Romance-language cultures, they're just stereotyped about it. In this sense, "macho" culture is one where a man proves his masculinity to his male peers by catcalling. How much of this is influenced by economics, I'm not exactly sure. But to the extent that this is social, the solution involves positive role models.

Culture 3. Desperation. Much as panhandlers "harass" passers-by with all sorts of phrases, sometimes rather insistently, sometimes catcallers are just that desperate that they've disengaged that part of their brain that would otherwise not say anything to strange women. Very few people in the working-class-and-higher bracket would ask every person passing by for a free meal, right? Or stand out by the off-ramp to see if anyone can give them some free money... Deprived of dignity, at that point, why not? Maybe someone will be charitable. The solution here is—say it with me now—eliminating poverty, you know, the Hard One.

Certainly nobody wants to endure a deluge of unsolicited comments, especially not ones of an overtly creepy-sexual nature. But is it wrong to also think, watching these sorts of videos: Wow, society has really failed that guy, if he thinks yelling at random women is a worthwhile effort?

Again, the point is: it's not "men in general," but neither is it "men at random." It seems rather predictable; predictable implies preventable.

But first it's important to really get a handle on the problem. If the causes of catcalling are as deep as I suspect, "teaching men not to catcall" is as ineffective—and perhaps as inadvertently callous—as teaching homeless people not to panhandle. Better, I think, to change the environment so that they have no reason to catcall, and I don't mean taking women off the street.

(And this is where, if I were more of a hack, I would springboard into a whole ball-pit of pet policy options. I am not a hack. The policy ball-pit is elsewhere.)