Earlier this year I traveled to New Orleans for a long weekend get away. I’d never been and looked forward to seeing the sites and hearing the sounds. Of course I had to visit Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter and people watch. One late afternoon, bordering on evening (definitely within the Happy Hour window), I walked about a mile stretch of the street. Going in the first direction, I vaguely noticed a group of people with drinks on a second floor balcony enjoying the atmosphere, the company, the moment. I didn’t think much about it.
On the way back, at the same place, I noticed someone throwing a string of beads from the balcony to a passerby. I stopped to watch and soon realized that what was happening was that as women passed there were yells, catcalls, some sort of communication and if the woman looked up and responded, then she’d receive a string of beads tossed to her as a reward. As I stood and watched, about 1/3 of the women passersby seemed either oblivious to the situation or to just ignore it, about 1/3 actually crossed to the other side of the street to pass without the harassment, and about 1/3 seemed to realized what was happening and, although most of them just continued on with only faint recognition, a few actually responded in a way that gave them the prized string of beads.
I’ve thought off and on about the situation and what my feelings were. I thought many things, trying to rationalize what I saw. These thoughts included all sorts of predictable things like, “well, it was only a week after Mardi Gras and beads were more popular than ticker tape in New York or politicians in Washington DC. People in New Orleans need very little to provoke a gift of beads any time of the year, let alone at that time”; or, well the event took place during Happy Hour on a Friday—whaddya expect?!”, and of course there are the expected thoughts of “afterall, it was Bourbon Street in New Orleans—come on!!”
I guess the enduring point I take away is that 1/3 of the women were uncomfortable enough with the situation that they crossed to the other side of the street to avoid the situation. It seems to be a perfect fit for the standard definition of sexual harassment—a situation in which someone is forced to experience unwanted or unexpected personally directed attention. It doesn’t matter where it is, if it is unwanted, it needs to be respected.
– a male ally