YouTube ‘social experiments’ just tell marginalised people their voices don’t matter

Being catcalled sucks. Why do we need men to say that for us?

We’ve all seen them. From the dude who wore heels all day to prove that women weren’t just lying about them being painful to the straight men holding hands to find out what this ‘homophobia’ fuss is all about – YouTube ‘social experiments’ seem to be the inspirational sharing fodder du jour.

The latest to be endlessly shared is this video from Cosmopolitan. The premise is pretty straightforward: women are secretly filmed walking down the street, subjected to the predictable round of horrible street harassment, and their boyfriends are made to watch it. It’s uncomfortable viewing, but probably not for the reasons Cosmo intended.

To start with, there’s this eerie feeling that part of the boyfriends’ reaction is proprietal. One of them even hits the ‘well meaning but ultimately terribly wrong’ jackpot by saying “you’re somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister… if somebody did that to their mother they wouldn’t appreciate it”. Well meaning or not, that’s a really convenient way to deny women their personhood.

Yes, I’m somebody’s daughter and girlfriend and sister and fourth cousin twice removed. But also, more importantly, I’m a human being with autonomy. My value does not lie in my relationships to men. The way people behave towards me should not be affected by these relationships. I should be treated with respect not because I’m attached to male figures but because I am a human woman.

I guess one bonus for this narrative is that it allows some men to get away with not caring about women unless it directly affects them. Don’t worry about street harassment, guys, unless it’s happening to your girlfriend literally in front of your eyes! It directly affects you now, rather than something that only plagues a huge proportion of an already discriminated against sector of society, so it’s cool for you to actually care now.

There’s also this sense that the girlfriends are going “I told you so!” to their boyfriends, that the whole experiment is set up to prove a point. It’s definitely a point that needs stressing (street harassment is very real and often terrifying): but why should it be proved by men? A quick Twitter search, cursory glance at Everyday Sexism or just a conversation with any woman ever will show you that we’ve been talking about this shit for years. It’s not some kind of radical underground campaign that needs promoting by men; we don’t need you to tell us that it’s happening, don’t need your condemnation to know that it’s shitty and disrespectful.

Do we need non Muslim women to wear a burqa for a day to believe that Islamophobia is real? Do straight men have to kiss on the street to empirically prove, once and for all, that being gay in public still inspires violence and bigotry? Do we all have to experience something first hand to understand the impact it might have, feel basic human empathy or even believe it’s happening at all?

It’s misguided, irresponsible and frankly pretty offensive that the voices of non-marginalised people are being given precedence like this. Yeah, it was probably horrible for men to watch their girlfriends being harassed. It was probably super uncomfortable for them. What could be worse than that? Nothing, maybe, except BEING THE ONE BEING CATCALLED ON A DAILY BASIS.

So: you’re a member of a non-oppressed group, and you want to help a cause you believe in. What do you do? Well, rather than making a faux-inspirational video intended to make yourself feel useful and get a bunch of hits while you’re at it, maybe spend some time standing back from the conversation instead of inserting yourself into the middle of it. Amplify and support our voices instead of needlessly echoing them. And the bottom line? Don’t talk over us quite so loudly and maybe, just maybe, spend some time listening.


Main image from iStock © Diane Diederich