03/11/2014 11:03 GMT | Updated 02/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Street Harassment: London vs. Paris

This week, the world appeared to be shocked when a video created by anti-street harassment organisation Hollaback surfaced. It showed a female actor walking through the streets of New York for 10 hours, and the various comments and reactions she received.

To the women of the world it was no surprise. We needed no reminder of what we are subjected to on a daily basis.

However, it was women who shared it. Women made it go viral. Because what Hollaback created was a piece of recorded evidence for women everywhere, to show their male friends and peers, to prove to them that instead of asking what the woman did to deserve that, e.g. Anita Sarkeesian, Janay Rice, and every female rape victim ever, to accept, maybe, that some men's attitudes towards women need to change.

And let's not even mention the rape and death threats that the actor, Shosana B. Roberts, received after the video went viral.

The video has been widely criticised for its portrayal of exclusively black and Latino men harassing Shoshana, and how it plays into the existing argument that women or transwomen of colour are excluded from mainstream feminist discourse, by portraying a white (or "white-presenting") woman being harassed.


As a woman who appears to many people to be white, but who is mixed race, I have to agree with the criticism of Hollaback, or rather Rob Bliss, the film's creator, of racially-charged editing. To edit out white men's catcalls could be an oversight, but should have been raised before the video's publication (considering it was made back in August).

To respond to further criticism of the video: yes, unsolicited compliments do qualify as street harassment. Jenée Desmond-Harris, affirmed that:

Street harassment can take a variety of forms, including verbal commentary, leering, making obscene gestures, following, and unwanted touching. It's widely understood to include any demands for engagement that make victims feel obligated to respond or that cause them to fear repercussions if they don't respond.

I feel pressured to acknowledge a 'bonne nuit' from the waiter in the café at the end of my street, not knowing what response I would receive if I refused.

Since I moved to Paris, numerous female friends and I have had conversations on an almost daily basis about how the street harassment we have experienced here compares to that of London, both in its nature and in its amount.

Growing up in South London, attending university, going about my daily life, I have always been struck by how common street harassment is - by men of all races I am keen to point out. They have been aggressive and above all, offensive. I remember a memorable exchange with a man on the street as I walked in school uniform aged 16, being asked if I was 'alright darlin'' with a wink and a leer, to which I replied in shock, 'I'm 16!' Only to be told, 'At least you're legal!'

Safe to say from that point on I didn't reply to men on the street.

Street harassment I will maintain is more prolific in London. However in Paris, men act like it is their God-given right to stare at you and compliment you on your legs.

Here, men approach you with the utmost confidence, they attempt to enter into conversation with you, walk you home, harass you about your marital status, ask you for help with their English. Anything to achieve their dubious goal. They are persistent, following you, constantly asking more and more questions; in short, they do not get the hint.

But, I had not had one man swear at me, call me a name, or take my polite refusals or complete stony silence with anything other than a shrug in Paris, until a couple of weeks ago.

Standing at a very busy pedestrian crossing waiting for the green man, with large, blue, incredibly visible headphones on blasting out The Smiths on my walk into university, I was pushed by a man standing next to me. I stumbled but luckily did not fall into the oncoming traffic. I was left speechless, summoning any words, let alone French ones, escaped me. He aggressively shouted at me, 'Vous ne m'avez pas écouté quand j'ai parlé à vous. Tout ce que je voulais, c'était bonjour'. Translation: 'You didn't listen to me when I spoke to you. All I wanted to say was good morning'. I just walked away from him.

In London, I, within the last week, was called a 'stupid bitch' for not replying, or even acquiescing to a smile, a twirl, or numerous requests to 'turn around luv' by men in a van on my rather hurried way to Herne Hill station.

The number of occurrences may vary, as may the means men go about it, but the overall effect is the same. I am left intimidated, pressured and insulted, more times than not the opposite of what the perpetrators are trying to achieve.

Street harassment has not even begun to change from when I was walking with friends aged 13, to now jogging on my Parisian street aged 21. It remains a worry for historically sub-ordinate groups, women and LGBTQ people, that whenever they step into a public space they are vulnerable for harassment, abuse or attacks. Hollaback's video, with almost 30 million views on YouTube, despite its faults, has opened up the existing dialogue about street harassment to a wider audience, and for that I am thankful.